What is Ashtanga Yoga?
The Ashtanga Yoga system is a living lineage that dates back nearly five thousand years in a unbroken line of teachers, sages and gurus that has reached millions of practitioners through the life of Krishna Pattabhi Jois. It is now continued and honored by his son Manju Pattabhi Jois, his daughter Saraswati, his grandson R. Sharath Jois and every Ashtanga teacher and practitioner today. Jois continued the lineage of these teachings in Mysore, India and all around the world.
Ashtanga Yoga’s Vinyasa system is sequences of postures that vary in difficulty and benefit. The flow between each posture is an integral part of the practice. There are three groups of movement sequences: The Primary Series which cleanses and tunes the physical body, The Intermediate Series which purifies the nervous system and the Advanced Series’ which cultivates strength and grace. Each series of postures must be accomplished before proceeding to the next. The sequential process of learning Ashtanga allows the practitioner to develop the concentration, strength, flexibility and stamina needed to progress in a safe, balanced and optimal manner. Postures are linked together through flowing movement (vinyasa). Vinyasa means breath synchronized with movement. In Ashtanga Yoga the movement is always synchronized with the breath. The result is an open heart and a clear mind in a light and strong body.
There are three groups of movement sequences and six series in total: The Primary Series, Yoga Chikitsa, cleanses and tunes especially the physical body. The Intermediate Series, Nadi Shodhana, purifies the nervous system, opening up for more subtle experiences of our energies and mind. The Advanced Series A, B, C and D,Sthira Bhaga, literally meaning strength and grace, which further explores flexibility, vigor and tranquility as an integrated synergy, requiring higher levels of humility and dedication. Each series of postures must be accomplished before proceeding to the next. The practice is cumulative and it is essential to follow the order of postures (asanas) meticulously as each individual asana builds on the previous one and prepares practitioners for the next. The sequential process of learning Ashtanga Yoga allows its practitioners to develop the concentration, strength, flexibility and stamina needed to progress in a safe and balanced manner. Each asana, or group of asanas, has a specific effect that is counter balanced by the previous asana, or group of asanas.
Breathing cannot be overemphasized in the Ashtanga system. When we are born we breathe in and when we die we breathe out – in between these two breathes our life spans. Guruji says: ‘Ashtanga practice is a breathing practice … the rest is just bending’. The breath is the key to the the realm of tranquility and power and with it we can regulate and control our nervous system. The breath is the door between our body and our mind, the portal between meditation and asana practice and often the first step on the way to a more spiritual, soulful and happy lifestyle. Breathing is our most fundamental and vital act and holds a divine essence.
Postures are linked together through flowing movement (vinyasa). Vinyasa means breath synchronized with movement. In Ashtanga Yoga the movement is always synchronized with the breath and there is never a separation between the two actions. When the synchronization of movement and breathing is an integral part of the yoga practice and the three body locks (Moolabandha, Udiyanabandha and jalandarabandha) are applied, an internal, purifying heat is generated in the body. Unwanted toxins are released and disposed of, vital hormones and minerals flow into the bloodstream and the nervous system is purified. The result is a light and strong body.
Ashtanga Yoga utilizes a three-pronged approach called Tristana. Tristana consists of correct breathing (Ujjayi)*, yoga postures/asanas (including correct use of the bandhas)**, and the precise gazing (dristi)***. This is both a method and a state and practitioners develope control of the senses, a deep awareness of themsleves and their inner sensations, emotions and workings of the mind. By maintaining this discipline with regularity and devotion, practitioners develop steadiness of body and mind.
Heart of Yoga
Ashtanga literally means eight limbs. All yoga is technically speaking ashtanga yoga as all yoga follows the eight limbs described by Patanjali. But these days the term is commonly used to describe the method taught by Jois. The eight limbs are described by Patanjali as:
Yama (ethical disclipline):
ahimsa (non-violence), satya (thruthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (refraining from sexual indulgence), aparigraha (detachment).
Niyama (observation & purification):
sauca (cleanliness, purity), santosha (contentment), tapah (austerity), svadhyaya (study towards self knowledge), ishwara-pranidhana (surrender to God/higher self).
Pranayama (breath control)
Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
Samadhi (consciousness itself)
The eight branches mutually support each other and are to be learned and taken into daily committed action. An established asana practice prepares dedicated yogis for a balanced practice of the more subtle limbs such as pranayama which are the key to embodying the yamas and niyamas. The heart of yoga is ethical living, honesty and compassion.
How to Learn
Please note that you should learn only from a traditionally trained teacher to ensure a safe and healthy journey for the body and mind into the science of the Ashtanga Method to yoga.
* Ujjayi breath (breath of victory): The core of the practice. Facilitates movement in the physical body, creating ‘room to roam‘ between your bones underneath your skin. quiets the mind from unnecessary entanglements. distributes appropriate energy through-out your body and unifies the physical, mental and energetic bodies to one solid entity of motion, transformation and power. Generates purifying heat in the body.
** Bandha (valves or locks): Moolabandha, Uddiyanabandha and Jalandarabandha helps you integrating your physical and energy bodies. Through the use of the three bandhas in your practice, the body comes together to one entity, creating bounce, flow and grace. It accumulates the generation of purifying heat deep in your body and, yet again, makes for a strong internal focus point for your mind to rest.
*** Dristi (focus): The eyes as a help to focus the mind, instigating a more internal and potentially meditative practice. Helps keeping your mind and senses within the parameters of your physical body.
(This text has been approved by Pattabhi Jois and Sharath).