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What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga

Learn How Ashtanga Yoga is Different From Other Forms of Hatha Yoga

Created in the 1950s by Pattabhi Jois, the Ashtanga style has since become a popular form of Hatha yoga in the west. It is a challenging practice, but it’s also fully accessible to beginning yoga students.

If you don’t know much about it, Ashtanga yoga may seem daunting and intimidating. However, if you know what to expect before going to the class, you’ll likely find yourself falling in love with this elegant and inspiring practice of yoga.

The Practice of Ashtanga Yoga

A central part of the Ashtanga Yoga practice is the vinyasa system that combines breath with movement. Other key parts of the Ashtanga practice are gazing points (dristi) and bandhas or “seals”: the mula bandha (anal lock) and the uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock) are used to seal energy and make the practice strong and light.

Together these elements produce heat, and sweat is a visible and sometimes surprising part of an Ashtanga practice. The heat purifies the body, the nervous system and finally also the mind from six poisons: desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth.

The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga has a reputation as a dynamic and physical form of yoga. However, the physical postures are just one of the “eight limbs” of Ashtanga Yoga. These are described in the Yoga Sutras written by the Indian sage Patanjali approximately 2000 years ago. There are four external limbs:

  • Yama, abstinences
  • Niyama, observances
  • Asana, postures
  • Pranayama, breath control

The practice of the external limbs leads to development of the internal limbs:

  • Pratyahara, withdrawal of senses
  • Dharana, concentration
  • Dhyana, meditation
  • Samadhi, self-realization

Ashtanga Yoga has six series of postures and the postures are always learned and practiced in the same order. The Primary Series (Yoga Chikitsa or yoga therapy) purifies the physical body, and the Intermediate Series (Nadi Shodhana) cleanses the nervous system. The Advanced Series A, B, C and D (Sthira Bhaga) are progressively more and more challenging and develop an advanced level of strength and flexibility.

A Set Series of Poses

Most types of yoga vary in the sequence practiced with each class. In a led class, it is up to the teacher to devise a series of forward bends, backbends, and twists to be practiced by all students together.

In Ashtanga yoga, a student practices a set series of poses each time she goes to class. This gives students the chance to perfect each pose within the series before their teachers deems them ready to move on to more challenging poses and sequences.

The first series, called the Primary Series, takes about an hour and a half to complete. It is often the case, though, that a student will have to practice parts of the series while leaving out some of the more challenging poses until she is ready.

Practicing Ashtanga Yoga Mysore Style

The traditional method of studying Ashtanga Yoga is self-practice or “Mysore style”. When studying Ashtanga Yoga in the KPJAYI in Mysore, students practice at their own pace and within their own limits. Postures are taught one by one, and new postures are added to the practice only when a student can do the previous ones and remember the sequence. “Led classes” are taught in Mysore generally only on Fridays and Sundays.

The Mysore Style Classroom

Most Ashtanga classes are self-led, meaning that there is no teacher standing at the front of the class to guide you through each pose. A student is free to come to class when he chooses, and students will be at different points in the series even though they’re practicing in the same room. A student who has just come to class may be unrolling his mat next to someone preparing for shavansana (the final pose).

Some Ashtanga classes are led, but these are few and far between. The Mysore style (so named because Mysore, India was the home of Pattabhi Jois) means that a student’s practice is very personal, but it also requires a bit more independence than a led class.

A teacher is there to help you remember some of the poses you may have forgotten. She will also adjust your poses, and check to make sure that everyone is practicing safely. However, for the most part, a teacher is there to quietly encourage you to take ownership of your own practice.

It may take a few practices before you remember the sequences by heart, but when you do, you can truly make the series your own.

Specific Plan for Progression

As a student progresses in her practice, the teacher may feel that she is ready for a more challenging series, adding a few poses at a time. It may take months, years, even a decade or so before you move forward even two series.

Even if you don’t move into a more advanced series for years, it’s easy to keep track of your practice’s progression because you’re repeating the same poses. So you’ll be able to easily tell if you can transition into a pose more easily, hold a backbend with less strain, or relax into a warrior pose with more comfort than you were doing two classes before.

How do I Know if Ashtanga Yoga is Right for me?

Since the practice is quite high-energy, as well as being physically demanding, it will appeal to those looking for a physical challenge. Those that enjoy tangible progress will probably also enjoy Ashtanga, since completing the same sequence every time can make even small improvements in your practice more notable.

Ashtanga may also appeal to those who are self-motivated. This is especially true when you begin to practice the series at home. Some people enjoy the freedom of taking their time with the poses, without having to move ahead with the pace of a class.

Most Ashtanga studios have beginner classes to gently introduce you into the world of yoga, before getting into the Ashtanga series.

Whether you’re a seasoned yogi looking for a style to shake-up your practice, or a yoga beginner, try Ashtanga to see if it resonates with you.