Ashtanga Yoga

Woman during Ashtanga yoga practice

Ashtanga Yoga

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Definition

Ashtanga yoga is a very popular style of yoga developed by K. Pattabhi Jois in 1948. The name means “eight-limbed yoga”, referring not to the limbs of our body, but the main tenets of a yoga practice as illustrated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra: “yama”, or moral codes; “niyama”, self-purification and study; “asana”, or posture; “pranayama”, or breath control; “pratyahara”, or sense control; “dharana”, or concentration; “dhyana”, or meditation; and “samadhi”, or contemplation.

Jois, however, seems to have put a particular focus on the “asana” aspect of the practice. He believed it was impossible to get the full benefit of the other seven limbs if the body itself was weak. This has made Ashtanga yoga known for its exercise aspect.

The eight libs of yoga are
The eight limbs of yoga are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi.

K. Pattabhi Jois started the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute out of his home in Lakshmipuram, Mysore in 1948. He is said to have based his style upon a mixture of ancient texts such as The Yoga Korunta, as well as his own practice and the tutelage of his mentor Krishnamacharya, who is considered to be the founder of modern yoga. He made his first trip to the United States in 1974 and since then, his particular style of yoga has grown to immense levels of popularity, especially espoused by celebrities such as Sting and Madonna.

It also led to a very popular offshoot style of yoga called Power Yoga, which focuses on a more intense, but less rigidly structured version of the vinyasas used in Ashtanga yoga. Jois has spoken out against Power Yoga, saying it goes against the primary principles of his practice.

Portrait of K. Pattabhi Jois
Indian Yoga Teacher
(1915 – 2009)
The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with “power yoga” or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga shastras (scriptures). It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of libiration in the mud of ignorant bodybuilding.

Practice

Ashtanga yoga has a particular focus on the asanas, and Jois believed that one could not get the full benefit of yoga’s other limbs if one did not have a disciplined asana practice. He encouraged his students to take up a daily practice of asanas and once the body is strong enough, one could be able to start their mastery of the other yoga limbs.

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Principles of Yoga Asanas

Vinyasas

Ashtanga yoga asanas are rooted in a few principles that ensures one gets the most out of their practice. The first is the vinyasas, which is what many people associate with this kind of yoga. They are a series of connected movements, tied with certain breathing patterns that in Ashtanga yoga are strictly adhered to.

There are three groups of six main sequences of this type of yoga. It is highly encouraged that one masters the previous sequence before moving onto the next. The first is the yoga chikitsa, or primary series, which is said to encourage alignment and cleansing of the body as well as building the strength and flexibility to move onto the next series.

The next is the nadi shodhana, or intermediate series. This is said to open up our body’s energy flow and improve the health of the nervous system. The first two series begin with sun salutations and go through standing, seated, inverted poses, and then back bends. The intermediate level is similar to the first, but introduces more advanced variations of the poses, as well as a few new ones.

Finally, there is the extremely difficult advanced series or sthira bhaga, which itself is made up of four sequences. Very few have made it to this level. Most are content with just the intermediate level.

The next important principle is pranayama or breathing yoga. It is a controlled form of inhalation and exhalation in the correct ratios. In Ashtanga yoga, the ratio between the two is equal, but the length of each is trained to be longer over time and can help one reach the level of flexibility needed for the more advanced positions.

Most importantly though, this breathing needs to be connected to the movement of the postures. There seems to be no clear consensus on how many breaths are expected for each position, or if it is necessary to use ujjayi breath, which is a method of deep breathing where you use your diaphragm and close off the glottis slightly so it makes a whooshing noise.

Woman breathes, inhales and exhales as part of yoga
Pranayama - breathing yoga - is a very important principle. Breathing needs to be connected to the movement of the postures.

Dristhi

Dristhi is another important element of this type of yoga. It refers to the specific place of focus for the eyes while doing the vinyasas. There are nine general eye placements: between the brow, navel, down one’s nose, towards the hands, the thumb, right side, left side, up, or towards the feet.

Dristhi is particularly important in the development of the “dharana” (concentration) and the “dhyana” (meditation) limbs of the yoga practice. The combination of pranayama, dristhi, and posture make up tristhana, which is essential for perfecting one’s yoga practice.

Bandhas

The final main element is the bandhas, which means “restraint or “binding”. These are basically muscular “locks” that are said to help keep our breath and pranic energy within our bodies.

The main bandhas used in Ashtanga yoga are: jalandhara bandha, or the chin lock, where you lower your chin to your collarbone; uddiyana bandha, or abdominal lock, where you exhale completely and contract the abdominal muscles; mula bandha, or anal lock, where you contract your sphincter muscles and try to push it together with you abdominal muscles.

These bandhas are usually combined with the asanas, but can be practised anytime. They are said to be absolutely essential to proper yogic breathing.

Mysore Style Yoga

Any discussion of Ashtanga yoga cannot be complete without a mention of the Mysore school of yoga teaching as advocated by Jois. In this style, the teacher shows the general sequence to the student one-on-one and they can then practice at their own pace, often in a room with other students. Adjustment and direction is given as needed. The student will often work on a very select group of postures until they’ve reached near perfection before moving onto the next.

Benefits and Risks

Physical and Mental Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga is not meant to be seen as a workout. To only focus on the physical aspects of the practice is ignoring the ultimate purpose. Yet, one cannot ignore that a large focus of this practice is physical, and if practised daily as encouraged by the Jois, there will be some clear benefits like any regular exercise regimen.

It has been shown in studies that yoga asanas are a beneficial form of exercise, however, it may not prove better than others in increasing physical fitness. Numerous blogs and testimonials speak for the transformative power of this yoga. Given the difficulty of the asanas, it can help build core and upper-body strength, tone the muscles, increase flexibility, and functions as aerobic exercise.

Some suggest that when combined with a healthy diet, it can lead to weight loss similar to other forms of physical exercise. The bandhas, specifically mula and uddiyana have been shown to increase one’s libido, improve digestion, strengthen the abdominal muscles, and massage the internal organs of the abdominal cavity.

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Due to the complexity of some of the sequencing and the concentration required, it has been suggested that a regular practice can help keep one’s mind sharp. Naturally, such movements can help encourage an increase in coordination and balance, as well. In one study, a group assigned to regular ashtanga yoga reported an increase in their short term memory and concentration.

Ashtanga Yoga as a Supplementary Therapeutic Practice

Yoga is generally being used as a supplementary therapeutic practice that can treat a variety of emotional and mental disorders. It has proven particularly effective in the treatment of depression and anxiety.

Studies have suggested that ashtanga yoga can specifically improve one’s general reported quality of life, mood, and sleep patterns.

Meditative Effect of Ashtanga Yoga

Since one is doing the same types of movements daily, many have said that it can have a very meditative effect. Many types of meditation have been known to induce a state of calm in most people.

Given the very negative effects of stress and cortisol on the body, any practice that lowers our stress is therefore considered positive to our health.

Be Careful When Beginning Ashtanga Yoga

Given the intensity of some of the positions, one should be careful when beginning any yoga practise. Injury in yoga, not just ashtanga yoga, is very common, especially in the knees, and it is recommended that one starts with a class to assist with proper alignment.

Though, even with a teacher, one can still risk injury. There have been reports of yoga teachers forcing their students into the proper asanas a bit too vigorously, causing injury.

20 Sources +

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