What is Ashtanga Yoga? A Comprehensive Guide to This Popular Practice

Ashtanga Yoga is an energetic and flowing style of yoga that has become very popular. The intense physical practice involves synchronizing breath with a series of continuous poses. The challenging and vigorous workout helps detoxify the body while building flexibility, stamina, and strength.

Madonna is a dedicated Ashtanga Yoga practitioner. She included the song “Shanti/Ashtangi” in her album, Ray of Light, featuring the Ashtanga Yoga mantra chanted at the start of practice.

The Basics of Ashtanga Yoga

If you are new to yoga, you have probably wondered, “What is Ashtanga Yoga?” Ashtanga has six levels of practice sequences, each one increasing in difficulty. The six levels start with the Primary Series and the Secondary Series. These are followed by the Advanced Series A, B, C, and D.

The Advanced series are challenging and take time to reach, meaning it’s not easy to find studios teaching them. Each series of demanding and fast-paced poses is always performed in the same order. Interestingly, only 1% of Ashtanga is based on theory. The rest is practice.

Primary Series – It is also known as “Yoga Chikitsa” yoga therapy) and includes 75 poses, taking between 90 to 120 minutes to complete. It starts with a warm-up sequence of Sun Salutations A and B poses, progressing into standing, seated, inverted, and back-bending poses. The class ends with the Corpse Pose as the final relaxation.

Secondary Series – Also known as “Nadi Shodhana” channel clearing) the poses are believed to cleanse and strengthen the body’s channels that carry the “prana” (life force energy). The sequences are similar to the Primary Series, including new poses. Ashtanga Yoga students will only learn the Secondary Series once they have built a strong foundation in the Primary Series.

Advanced Series – Known as “Sthira Bhaga” (divine stability), the intense practice focuses on intricate arm balances and backbends intended for devoted students who have managed to excel in the previous two stages.

Exploring Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

Guru T. Krishnamacharya developed the Ashtanga yoga style early in the 20th century to help his young students build strength and stamina. In 1924, the Maharaja of Mysore in India hired Krishnamacharya to teach Ashtanga yoga to the royal family.

One of the guru’s students, K. Pattabhi Jois, continued developing the Ashtanga yoga method. “Yoga Mala” is his dissertation on Ashtanga, published in 1958,  and remains the primary handbook for Ashtanga students.

Jois’s grandson, R. Sharath Jois, is the senior authority in the practice and heads the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore.

Ashtanga yoga has three main components known as “tristhana” (three places of attention) used to unify the body, mind, and spirit:

  • Vinyasa (movement linked with breath) is the basis of the practice linking movement with inhalation or exhalation.
  • Bandha (muscular lock) helps achieve and maintain alignment in the postures and intensifies prana energy to eliminate impurities.
  • Drishti (gaze or focal point) helps the practitioner focus on one point to develop their concentration as they balance their inner and outer consciousness.

You will find some elements of “tristhana” in other styles of yoga, like Vinyasa Yoga and Power Yoga. However, the sequences of the poses may change.

Traditionally, “Mysore” Ashtanga students learn at a pace that suits them while guided by a teacher as taught by Jois. However, students can take teacher-guided classes and then progress to the “Mysore” method.

Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga Practice

The strenuous workout of Ashtanga yoga carries several physical and mental benefits:

Strength and Flexibility

The challenging postures of Ashtanga yoga target all the body’s muscle groups. Many poses necessitate holding the body weight under difficult positions, helping to build muscles and improve overall strength.

It also helps to increase flexibility thanks to the muscle stretches that improve the range of motion. The different motions, like twists, folds, and backbends, support flexibility in the spine, hamstrings, and hips. Regular practice helps reduce physical injuries, making Ashtanga great for athletes.

Cardiovascular Health and Boosted Immune System

Ashtanga yoga’s continuous movement and deep breathing are great for cardiovascular health because they increase heart rate, improve circulation, lower blood pressure, and lower the risk of heart attacks.

Regular practice encourages relaxation, which helps reduce chronic stress and supports immune function. Furthermore, Ashtanga’s stretching and physical movement help stimulate the lymphatic system, allowing the body to flush out toxins that harm the immune system.

Reduces Stress

Ashtanga encourages practitioners to focus on their breath and stay present, which can help reduce anxiety and stress by calming the nervous system. Regular Ashtanga yoga practice can help reduce cortisol (stress hormone), improving mental health and well-being. Reduced stress also leads to more restful sleep.

Mental Clarity and Focus

Combining breath control, physical movement, meditation, and mindfulness helps increase oxygen flow to the brain, something that helps reduce stress and enhance mental clarity and focus.

Ashtanga requires concentration and focus to perform its challenging poses. Ujjayi breaths (breathing through the nose, making a sound as you exhale) help to calm the mind and create focus.

Improved Breathing

Synchronizing breath and movement in Ashtanga yoga requires deep and focused breathing. The increased oxygen intake helps enlarge the lung capacity, which can help improve energy levels and overall health.

Mindfulness and Self-Awareness

Ashtanga yoga emphasizes intentional practice and the present moment by encouraging the connection between body, breath, and mind to practice its challenging poses. It also incorporates meditation and mindfulness. These all lead to self-awareness and a more mindful approach to their actions and emotions.

Positive Mindset

Ashtanga yoga is challenging, requiring focus, perseverance, and determination, helping practitioners develop mental resilience and a more positive outlook. It encourages self-reflection and introspection, assisting individuals in understanding and identifying negative thought patterns and replacing them with positive ones.

Understanding the Ashtanga Yoga Tradition

The intensive physical processes of the Ashtanga yoga tradition are based on pushing through mental blocks and emotional baggage, helping to cultivate mental clarity, mindful breathing, physical strength, flexibility, and endurance quickly.

In Sanskrit, “vi” means ‘specially’ and “nyasa” means “to place,” “special order,” or “attention.” Therefore, it has multiple meanings.

According to Ram Jain, Krishnamacharya’s teachings mean that special attention is paid to the whole process, not just the pose itself. He writes more about “What is Ashtanga yoga:” “To understand better what Vinyasa means, you must consider what is not Vinyasa. The traditional practice of asana, like in Hatha yoga, involves discrete postures. While holding, breathing remains calm, and the practitioner attempts to achieve calmness and comfort while in the pose. The heart rate stays at a resting level. The focus of attention during the transition is not considered necessary.”

He continues. “In Vinyasa Yoga, the transition between poses is critical. Attention remains on the body and the movement throughout; using the breath in time with the movement guides attention and focus throughout the flow of movement.”

Incorporating Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga into Your Routine

Now that you have learned what is Ashtanga yoga, you may want to know more about incorporating it into your routine.

You may feel you are not fit or flexible enough for it. The best way to start Ashtanga Vinyasa is under the guidance of a teacher who will ensure you know one pose before moving on to the next one. You don’t need to know the sequences of be flexible.

Ashtanga Vinyasa teachers suggest incorporating it into your routine at least five to six days a week to get the most benefits. A few days’ rest a week benefits the body, and women should rest three days over menstruation.

You will feel a little sore initially, but as your body strengthens, you will feel invigorated. Ideally, it would be best if you practiced Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga at the same time daily. Many teachers believe early morning is ideal because the mind is more peaceful, focused, and alert.

Essential Asanas in Ashtanga Yoga

These five poses form part of the full 90-minute Ashtanga primary series sequences:

1. Forward Ben

  • In the sanding position, push your feet parallel and hip-width apart.
  • Bend forward from the hips, placing your hands on the floor next to each foot.
  • Focus on the tip of your nose with your eyes.

Tip: Use yoga blocks or your shins if you aren’t flexible enough, and work your way down to the floor as you become more flexible.

 2. Extended Triangle

  • Standing, place your feet about 4 feet apart, with your right foot turned out and your left foot turned slightly inward.
  • Extend your arms on each side in a T shape.
  • Bend to the right at your hips, reaching for the right toe, focusing on the fingertips of your raised hand.

Tip: You can place your hand on your outer thigh, calf, or yoga block if you find it challenging to reach your toe.

3. Extended Side Angle

  • Standing, place your feet about 4 feet apart, with your right foot turned out and your left foot turned slightly inward.
  • Bend your right knee to a 90-degree angle.
  • Bend to the right and place your right hand outside your right foot. You can also place it on your right thigh.
  • Next, swing your left arm straight over your head, aligning it with your body.
  • Focus your eyes on the fingertips of your raised hand.

Tip: You can use a yoga block under your resting hand for support.

4. Wide-Legged Forward Fold

  • Standing, shift your feet parallel about four feet apart.
  • Bend forward at your hips.
  • Reach your hands behind your back, locking your fingers together.
  • Keeping your back straight, continue bending forward until your head points toward the floor.
  • Let your hands come over your head.
  • Focus your eyes on the tip of your nose.

Tip:  You can place your head on stacked yoga blocks to ease the stretch.

5. Intense Side Stretch

  • While standing, shift your right foot about 3 feet before your left leg about a hip-width apart.
  • Bend from your hips over your front leg.
  • Keep your back straight as you reach the floor, placing a hand on either side of your right foot.
  • Focus your eyes on the toes of your front foot.

Tip: Use a yoga block for each hand if you cannot reach the floor yet.

Find more asanas of the Ashtanga Primary Series on Yogapedia.

Ashtanga Yoga: Finding Balance and Mindfulness

Ashtanga yoga cultivates mindfulness through the conscious connection to one’s breath. Each Ashtanga yoga breath creates a sound that becomes the object of mindfulness by gently bringing the mind back when it wanders.

Even though Ashtanga yoga is physically demanding, you need mindfulness to focus on your posture as you move in and out of asanas.

At the same time, you balance the body and mind to avoid any tension and stress during practice. The concentration to ensure you bring together the body, breath, mind, movement, and present serenely and comfortably helps you find balance and mindfulness.

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga: A Dynamic Flow for Strength and Flexibility

What is Ashtanga yoga? The intense physical processes help you negate mental blocks and practice mindful breathing. The frequency and structure of the practice enable you to find a dynamic flow that encourages physical strength and flexibility,  building your endurance.


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