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Ashtanga yoga: breaking down this traditional method

Ashtanga (vinyasa) yoga is a traditional yoga method, established by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (also known as Guruji) in the 20th century. Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (KPJAYI) in 1948 in order to offer his teachings to his closest students. After his death in 2009 and after seven decades of teaching, he passed on the lineage of Ashtanga yoga to his daughter Saraswathi and his grandson Sarath Jois.

Ashtanga yoga as an eight-fold path of yoga

“Ashtau” means “eight” in Sanskrit and Ashtanga yoga could translate into a “eight-fold path of yoga” as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali, “yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind” and there are eight limbs of yoga that lead to a complete self-realization, all of them being just as important:

  1.    Yama or Self-restraint (ethical behavior)
  2.    Niyama or right observance (self-discipline)
  3.    Asana or right alignment (asana practice in order to develop concentration)
  4.    Pranayama or regulation of breath (the ability to extend our energy of prana or life-force)
  5.    Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses (learning to objectively observe our senses and attachments)
  6.    Dharana or concentration
  7.    Dhyana or meditation
  8.    Samadhi or free attention

The last three limbs are grouped under the term Samyama, integrating the body, mind, breath, intellect and Self.

The system behind the Ashtanga yoga practice

Ashtanga yoga method is based on synchronizing the (Ujjayi) breath with a progressive series of postures. The intense breath produces internal heat and a purifying sweat that detoxifies the whole body. In Ashtanga Yoga, asanas are grouped into six progressive series, each of them containing the exact sequence of postures. It is important that we follow the sequence consistently, since each asana has a specific purpose and thus serves as a preparation for the following asana. The practice of Ashtanga yoga is therefore based on the repetition of the same asanas over and over again. When we first start practicing Ashtanga yoga, we usually start with half Primary series, slowly adding the postures with the help of our teacher until we complete first series. Only then are we prepared to move on to the next series.

Primary Series, also known as Yoga Chikitsa or Yoga Therapy, purifies the body and stimulates the functioning of the organs. It strengthens our body and establishes strong foundations for our further practice.

Second Series or Nadi Shodhana strongly stimulates the nervous system and the flow of the vital energy (prana) in our body, which can also have a strong impact on our (current) emotional state.

Primary and Second Series are followed by Advanced Series, also called Sthira Bhaga, which are divided into A, B, C and D, sometimes also numbered from 3 to 6. Through these series, we develop a very strong physical and mental strength and stability. These are extremely demanding asanas, conquered only by the most devoted practitioners.

All asanas and Series are taught gradually with the help of an experienced teacher. Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally practiced six days per week, Saturdays or Sundays being the rest days. We also rest on Moon Days (full moon and new moon). The traditional way of practicing Ashtanga yoga is Mysore style where each practitioner does the practice at their own pace, following their own breath.

Although Ashtanga yoga might seem like a very monotonous practice at first glance, the daily implementation of the same asanas strengthens the body and our awareness of it. The repetition of the same movements also allows us to shift our focus from physical asanas to other aspects of Ashtanga Yoga. Slowly, with a certain amount of dedication, discipline, determination and devotion, our practice will transform into a moving meditation.

A very specific element of Ashtanga yoga is a so called vinyasa that connects the breath with the physical posture. We practice vinyasa in between each posture and even each side of the posture. In modern language, this type of vinyasa is also known as Jumping through and Jumping back.

The breath (pranayama) and the postures (asanas) are ultimately followed by dristhi (focal point). The combination of these three elements in the practice is called tristhana: a complete focus of the mind.

Another typical element of Ashtanga yoga are energetical locks or bandhas which help us generate heat and energy in the center of our body (the abdominal part) and lift it to the upper chakras. There are two bandhas that should stay activated throughout our entire practice: Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha. Mula Bandha (Mula means “root” and bandha means “lock”) is located at the tip of the spine and we activate it by gently squeezing our perineum. The second lock, Uddiyana Bandha (Uddiyana means “upward”), is located in the abdominal part of our body. It is activated by engaging or sucking up the lower abdomen.

Ashtanga yoga is therefore a combination of all of the above mentioned elements.

Getting authorization and certification to teach Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga is the only yoga method that doesn’t support modern Teacher Trainings. Only the most dedicated practitioners that return to Mysore year by year to practice with their teacher at KPJAYI might or might not get the blessing from their Guru (previously Pattabhi Jois, now Sarath Jois) to pass on the lineage of this traditional method. Sarathji would decide when and to whom he would give the authorization (and ultimately the certification) to teach Ashtanga Yoga, no matter how long you have been practicing.

There are numerous Authorized (level I or level II) Ashtanga Yoga teachers in the world, but only a selected few (under 40) that received the ultimate blessing from their Guru – the certification to teach even the most advanced asanas (from 3rd Series on).

See the list of authorized and certified Ashtanga yoga teachers here.

Ashtanga yoga isn’t for everyone: true or false?

There is a great misconception about Ashtanga yoga in the modern world, and that is that Ashtanga yoga a very selective practice that can only be done by the strong and the flexible. This method, however, can be practiced by anyone. These words by Pattabhi Jois can only confirm that statement: “Anyone can practice. Young man can practice. Old man can practice. Very old man can practice. Man who is sick, he can practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people; lazy people can’t practice yoga.”

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