A common misconception about yoga is that it’s a slow moving activity focused solely on cultivating peace and relaxation. While this may be true of a restorative practice, intense forms of yoga such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa Flow, and Bikram provide a powerful, full body workout. Yoga seeks to unite the body and the mind through the breath. The poses, or asanas, are only one portion of yoga. The actual practice of yoga is comprised of observances, meditation, breath, and other facets. Ashtanga yoga relies on the challenging physical postures and the combination of the breath, locks known as bandhas, and the gaze, referred to as the drishti, to create mindfulness and the ability to fulfill the eight limbs of yoga.
History of Ashtanga Practice
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who passed away in 2009, brought the practice of Ashtanga to the modern world. However, Jois said that the practice came from an ancient text called the Yoga Karunta written between 1600 and 1800 years ago. The word karunta translates to grouping which refers to the six groupings of postures that currently make up the Ashtanga sequences. These series are the Primary Series, Secondary or Intermediate Series, and Advanced Series A, B, C, and D. After perfecting the poses in each series through years of practice, students then move on to the next series. Sharath Rangaswamy, the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, is currently the only person in the world to have advanced to the sixth series. Though other Ashtanga yoga masters, such as Kino MacGregor, Tim Feldmann, Doug Swenson, and Manju Pattabhi Jois, are advanced practitioners and popular yoga teachers.
How is Ashtanga it Practiced?
Each series contains a system of poses always practiced in the same order at a fast pace. Most standard Ashtanga yoga classes offer the Primary Series or Yoga Chikitsa, meaning yoga therapy. The series kicks off with five rounds of Surya Namaskara A, or sun salutation, to build purifying heat and loosen up the muscles. One sun salutation consists of upward tree pose, which is traditional mountain pose with the hands reaching above the head and the palms touching. From standing, students hinge at the hips into a forward fold, rise to a half lift, place the palms on the mat and jump back into low plank, pull the chest forward into upward facing dog, roll over the toes into downward facing dog, jump forward to a half lift, come into the forward fold, inhale up to upward tree pose, and exhale the hands down to mountain pose.
Next, comes Vinyasa Poses
The motion of Surya Namaskara A, continues throughout the practice in what is known as the vinyasa. After the fifth salutation when the student is back in mountain pose, five rounds of Surya Namaskara B commence. From mountain, the students sink into chair pose and continue on through the vinyasa (forward fold, half lift, low plank, upward facing dog, downward facing dog). Once in downward facing dog, the students bring the right leg between the hands and come into Warrior I. They then repeat the sequence and complete Warrior I on the other side, continue through the vinyasa, and end in mountain pose once more.
Upon completing Surya Namaskara A and B, students are now ready for the fundamental standing poses. The poses offer some degree of modification. For example, wide angle forward bend variations include both hands to the ground in front of the body, fingers interlaced and stretched behind the back, or even hands on the hips. This segment of poses is comprised of twists and forward bends.
Primary Series Postures
When students have the basics down, including sun salutations and fundamental postures, the primary series postures are introduced. One by one students learn the 41 postures throughout the Ashtanga yoga practice. These poses range from the common Warrior II to the more complex lotus-based poses and arm balances. Upon completing a pose, the vinyasa continues, leading into the next posture. This makes for a sweaty, challenging class. The class closes with the finishing sequence which consists of 16 poses including inversions and more lotus based postures. Savasana marks the end of the hard work and the students can lie still on their mat and relax.
The Benefits of Ashtanga Practice
Ashtanga yoga is a practice that takes dedication. It doesn’t have the variety or remixed quality of other forms of yoga. Instead it relies on a set series of postures allowing the body to develop muscle memory and work its way up to more difficult poses. The entire Primary Series features 75 poses and the traditional sequence takes about an hour and a half to two hours to complete. Those looking to increase flexibility, tone up, hone concentration, relieve stress, and develop an overall sense of well-being will want to consider Ashtanga yoga. It can be practiced in a class or stuido setting as well as at home with yoga videos. Just be sure to bring a towel.
About the Author: Erica Hill is writing on behalf of Gaiam TV, a healthy lifestyle and media company that offers a wide variety of workout videos online including Ashtanga yoga videos.