All You Need To Know About Ashtanga Yoga


Ashtanga Yoga, also known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, has grown to become one of the most popular styles of Yoga practiced by Yogis around the world. It is a dynamic yoga flow – a style of Yoga codified and popularized by Shri K Pattabhi Jois (1915 – 2009), student of Sri T Krishnamacharya and founder of Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore. Thus the style is also popularly known as Mysore-style Yoga.

Traditionally, Ashtanga Yoga is referred to as Raja Yoga (The Royal Path) or Classical Yoga, a process or practice said to lead you to a state of detachment called vairagya and help you master the thirst of all five senses. In Sanskrit, ‘asht’ means eight and ‘ang’ means limbs. Thus, Ashtanga Yoga or the Eight Limbs of Yoga, or the Eightfold Path, as mentioned in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, is a tested and effective tool to lead a disciplined life, alleviate suffering and achieve self-realization.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga as mentioned in Patanjali Yoga Sutra are:

  1. The Yamas or restraints are rules of moral code that tell us what not to do. The five yamas are:
  • ahimsa (non-violence or non-harming),
  • satya (truthfulness),
  • asteya (non-stealing),
  • brahmacharya (sexual restraint, celibacy, austerity ), and
  • aparigraha (non-possessiveness, no-greed).
  1. The Niyamas or observances are rules of personal practice. The five niyamas are:
  • saucha (purity, cleanliness),
  • santosha (contentment),
  • tapas (practice, train or discipline),
  • svadhyaya (self-study / self inquiry), and
  • Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender, devotion to God).
  1. Asana would mean a yoga posture, but with reference to Patahjali, it refers to mastering the body to sit still in any posture for the purpose of meditation.
  2. Pranayama are yogic breathing techniques meant to control prana or vital life force.
  3. Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses.
  4. Dharana means concentration.
  5. Dhyana is the practice of meditation.
  6. Samadhi is Self-realization or enlightenment.

Shri. K. Pattabhi Jois with grandson Sharath.

Shri K Pattabhi Jois chose to dedicate his life to propagating the style of Vinyasa Yoga that was discovered by his teacher T.Krishnamacharya, and he named it after the eight limbs of yoga mentioned by Patanjali, and called it Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

It was Sri Pattabhi Jois’s belief that the practice of asana with breath awareness (third and fourth limb) leads to purification of the body, which enables of purification of nervous system. As per him, Vinyasa creates a strong foundation to control senses and achieve mind control.

 

How is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga different?

As per Pattabhi Jois, Vinyasa, Tristhana and The Six Poisons are the main aspects that for the basis of Ashtanga Yoga. Vinyasa means moving with breath awareness For each movement, there is one breath. The breathing technique that is practiced in Mysore style is Ujjayi Pranayama or the Victorious Breath. While practicing this pranayam, you slightly contract the throat, creating a sound similar to that of the ocean as you breath in and out through your nose.

The breath or the air element, is long and even which helps strengthen internal fire and helps burns impurities. It helps you move in a controlled manner and even pace. As you progress in your practice, you will be introduced to mula and uddiyana bandha or anal and lower abdominal locks that help seal the energy. Breathing is out of balance without the practice of bandha.

Tristhana means three places of attention, which are, asana (posture) for purification of the body, breathing (pranayama) for purification of the nervous system and gaze (drishti) for purification of the mind. These are very important aspects of Mysore Style Yoga and are always performed in conjunction with each other.

Drishti is the point of focus while you hold the asana. This helps stabilize the mind. There are nine dristhis: the Nose (Nasagre), Between the Eyebrows (Bhrumadhye), Navel (Nabhichakra), Thumb (Angusthamadhye,), Hands (Hastagre), Feet (Padayoragre), Upward (Urdhva), and Right and Left side (Parsva or Sideways). Thus each movement is accompanied by breath and a point of focus.

The Six Poisons are said to surround our spiritual heart. As per Yoga Shastra it is here where the inner light resides and is blocked by the six poisons: kama, krodha, moha, lobha, matsarya, and mada. These are desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth. With daily practice and tapas, the heat generated from the practice will eventually burn away these poisons, allowing your inner light to shine.

One tends to sweat profusely while practicing Vinyasa and it takes years of practice to progress from one series to another. There are six series of asanas that increase in difficulty. It is mandatory for a student to master one series before moving to the next level. The asanas are given by the Guru or teacher in sequential order (linked through Surya Namaskar) and the students are allowed to work at their own pace.

The teacher continues to supervise the student while they do self-practice and there is always a led session once or twice a week, in which the teacher guides you through the flow. Most classes taught in Yoga studios and centers, focus on the Primary Series. Each series consists of four parts: Opening series, a main series, a back-bending sequence and a finishing sequence. The opening series consists of Sun Salutation A and B (discussed in detail below).

The practice is heat and sweat intensive and traditionally advised to be practiced 6 days a week, with Saturdays off. Apart from this, New Moons, Full Moons and an additional 2-3 days off for women during periods are considered as holidays.

However, the growing list of teachers and dedicated practitioners are working with an intention to make the practice accessible to more people, working around their needs but also taking care of working within the discipline while being flexible. The style has thus  gained much popularity in the recent years, with celebrities such as Madonna, Sting, Gwyneth Paltrow and Russell Brand (to name a few) endorsing Mysore Style Yoga not just for fitness and flexibility but also for mind-body strength and balance.

Is Ashtanga Yoga for everyone?

As per Pattabhi Jois, anyone except lazy people, can practice Ashtanga Yoga. But considering not everyone is looking for a rigorous or challenging yoga practice, styles like Anusara Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Jivamukti Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Yin Yoga etc., are preferred options for those looking for therapeutic benefits, gentle flow, and holding postures for long for meditation and spiritual experience.

It is advisable to first learn the technique from a teacher who also determines what is right for you and gives the asanas accordingly. Teachers understand that taking up a 6-days-per-week practice may not be convenient for everyone thus many choose to suggest a 3-days-per-week routine for beginners, which includes at least 1 led class per week.

There are many communities across the globe to support your practice if you are interested in learning and living the tradition to its fullest extent. Apart from this, if you are trying Yoga for the first time or have been practicing Yoga but have never tried Ashtanga Yoga, you can approach an Ashtanga Yoga teacher or center who will guide you and help you establish a routine.

The classes are also usually longer compared to other styles of Yoga as it takes around 90 minutes to complete one series. For those who are serious about this style of Yoga, a plant-based diet and an early morning practice is usually recommended to get the most out of this practice. Since the practice allows you to grow at your own pace, one finds people of age groups taking up Ashtanga Yoga classes.

Sequence A

Sequence B

Ashtanga Yoga Surya Namaskar

Every Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga series begins with Surya Namaskar A and B, and you continue to flow through this Vinyasa using Surya Namaskar as your foundation. Surya Namaskar remains the same, regardless of which series you practice and the count also remains the same, i.e., you begin with 5 rounds of Surya Namaskar A followed by 5 rounds of Surya Namaskar B.

The flow is more dynamic compared to Hatha Yoga Surya Namaskar and the repetitions really help create a strong foundation for you to deepen the connection between your body and breath, speed up metabolism, improve stamina and flexibility, and flow in and out of asanas through the series naturally, with breath awareness.   

Many Yogis use A and B variations of Surya Namaskar as the basic movement in other styles of Yoga such as Core Vinyasa, Power Yoga, and similar styles that involve movement from one asana to another with breath awareness. As in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, the Surya Namaskar should be done with Ujjayi breath, keeping your inhalations and exhalations steady and even.

It is only after the student learns both the variations correctly that the teacher starts introducing the student to other asanas in the series, one by one. Thus the pace at which each individual learns is different and is best suited to their needs.

Ashtanga Yoga Surya Namaskar, Part A

This sequence has 9 Vinyasas or 9 movements with breath awareness.

  1.      Urdhva Hastasana – Raised Hands Pose.

        From Samasthiti, inhale and raise the hands up over the head, bring the palms together and look to the thumbs.

  1.      Uttanasana A – Standing Forward Bend

        Exhale and bend forward from the hip, bringing your hands down next to the feet. Relax the neck and look to your nose.

  1.      Uttanasana B – Standing Half Forward Bend

        Inhale, lift the head, lengthen the spine and lift the palms to bring your fingertips on the floor. Broaden the shoulders and look forward.

  1.      Chaturanga Dandasana – Four-Limbed Staff Pose

        Press the palms down, exhale, look forward and jump back (or as a beginner step the feet back), bend the elbows to lower down, lowerING the body and keeping the elbows tucked into your side. Keep the knees off the mat. (as a beginner you can stay in plank pose)

  1.      Urdhva Mukha Svanasana  – Upward-Facing Dog

        Inhale, straighten the elbows, push the chest forward and upward, point the toes away from the body and lengthen the spine as you look upward. Only the palms and top of the feet touch the mat – the legs and the body are off the mat.  

  1.      Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward-Facing Dog

        Exhale as you tuck the toes under to place the feet on the mat as you straighten the legs and lift the hips up towards the ceiling. Look to the navel and take 5 mindful breaths.  

  1.      Uttanasana B – Standing Half Forward Bend

        Bend the knees as you prepare to jump forward (or step forward) and bring the feet together between the palms, lengthen the spine as you inhale and look forward.

  1.      Uttanasana A – Standing Forward Bend

        Exhale to get into a forward bend by drawing the navel and lumbar spine close to the thighs, relax the neck and look to your nose.

  1.      Urdhva Hastasana – Raised Hands Pose

        Inhale and lift the head to straighten the body, raise hands over the head, bring the palms together and look to the thumbs.

Exhale and end with Samasthiti equal standing posture) with legs straight and arms to the sides.

—————————————–

Ashtanga Yoga Surya Namaskar, Part B

Start with the practice of Samasthiti (stand straight) with arms to the sides.

  1.      Utkatasana – Chair Pose

        From Samasthiti, bend the knees as much as possible while maintaining the verticality of  the pose. Raise the hands up over the head, bring the palms together and look to the thumbs.

  1.      Uttanasana A – Standing Forward Bend

        Exhale, straighten your legs and bend forward from the hip, bringing your hands down next to the feet. Relax the neck and look to your nose.

  1.      Uttanasana B – Standing Half Forward Bend

        Inhale, lift the head, lengthen the spine and lift the palms to bring your fingertips on the floor.Broaden the shoulders and look forward.

  1.      Chaturanga Dandasana – Four-Limbed Staff Pose

        Press the palms down, exhale, look forward and jump back, bend the elbows to lower down, lowering the body and keeping the elbows tucked into your side. Keep the knees off the mat.

  1.      Urdhva Mukha Svanasana  – Upward-Facing Dog

        Inhale, straighten the elbows, push the chest forward and upward, point the toes away from the body and lengthen the spine as you look upward. Only the palms and top of the feet touch the mat – the legs and the body are off the mat.  

  1.      Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward-Facing Dog

        Exhale as you tuck the toes under to place the feet on the mat as you straighten the legs and lift the hips up towards the ceiling. Look to the navel.

  1.      Virabhadrasana 1 – Warrior I (Right leg forward)

        Pivot the left foot and bring the right foot forward, between the palms, keeping the right knee bent. Inhale as you straighten the torso and raise the arms above the head. Bring the palms together and look to the thumbs. Keep the left leg straight and pressing into the mat.

  1.     Chaturanga Dandasana – Four-Limbed Staff Pose

       Exhale, bring the palms to the floor either side of the right foot. Step the right foot back, bend  the elbows to lower down, lowering the body and keeping the elbows tucked into your side. Keep the knees off the mat.

  1.     Urdhva Mukha Svanasana  – Upward-Facing Dog

       Inhale. Same as point 5.

  1.   Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward-Facing Dog

       Exhale. Same as point 6.

  1.    Virabhadrasana 1 – Warrior I (Left leg forward)

        Pivot the right foot and bring the left foot forward, between the palms, keeping the left knee bent. Inhale as you straighten the torso and raise the arms above the head. Bring the palms together and look to the thumbs. Keep the right leg straight and pressing into the mat.

  1.   Chaturanga Dandasana – Four-Limbed Staff Pose

       Exhale, bring the palms to the floor either side of the left foot. Step the left foot back, bend the elbows to lower down, lowering the body and keeping the elbows tucked into your side. Keep the knees off the mat.

  1.   Urdhva Mukha Svanasana  – Upward-Facing Dog

       Inhale, straighten the elbows, push the chest forward and upward, point the toes away from the body and lengthen the spine as you look upward. Only the palms and top of the feet touch the mat – the legs and the body are off the mat.  

  1.   Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward-Facing Dog

       Exhale as you tuck the toes under to place the feet on the mat as you straighten the legs and lift the hips up towards the ceiling. Look to the navel and take 5 mindful breaths.

  1.    Uttanasana B – Standing Half Forward Bend

        Bend the knees as you prepare to jump forward (or step forward) and bring the feet together between the palms, lengthen the spine as you inhale and look forward.

  1.    Uttanasana A – Standing Forward Bend

        Exhale to get into a forward bend by drawing the navel and lumbar spine close to the thighs, relax the neck and look at your nose.

  1.    Utkatasana – Chair Pose

        Inhale and lift the head and the body, bend the knees as much as possible while maintaining the verticality of the pose. Raise the hands up over the head, bring the palms together and look to the thumbs.

Exhale and end with Samasthiti equal standing posture) with legs straight and arms to the sides.

Yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice. As mentioned earlier, the Ashtanga Vinyasa style is both rigorous and vigorous, thus it is important that you first practice under the guidance of an experienced teacher before trying the above Vinyasa. The teacher will not only guide you but also give you variations for each of the above asanas based on your physical and mental ability.

Origins and History  

It is believed that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, as taught by Pattabhi Jois, has its roots in ancient Yoga text called ‘Yoga Korunta’ written in Sanskrit and authored by Vamana Rishi. It is said that the text was imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 1900’s by his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari, and was later passed down to Pattabhi Jois during the duration of his studies with Krishnamacharya, beginning in 1927.

It is thus believed that the knowledge of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga – as in in any Yogic and spiritual tradition in India – is passed down in Guru-Shishya parampara (tradition). However, the fact that the only copy of the text which T.Krishnamacharya had allegedly discovered in the National Archives of India and shared it with Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar -was in a bad state of decay and was eventually destroyed (eaten by ants), leaves us with no other evidence; thus the text’s existence and historicity has often been questioned.

This has led to much research and discussion. The following are a few interesting references made by scholars and yogis.

In A.G. Mohan’s biography of Krishnamacharya, he states that:

“He (Krishnamacharya) mentioned the “Yoga Kuranta’ on occasion during my studies. The Yoga Kuranta was apparently authored by the yogi named Korantaka, who is mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1.6).” (A.G. Mohan 2010). A.G.Mohan is a yoga teacher who had the privilege to study directly under T.Krishnamacharya. He has also authored several books on Yoga.

James Russell, a Yoga teacher trainer  (Devon, UK) who also writes regularly about the history and culture of Yoga, had contacted the The Lonavla Yoga Institute in India with regard to the name of a Hatha Yogi called ‘Kuarantaka’ that appears as the 13th name in the lineage of Yogis mentioned in the book Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Svatmarama.

Though he could not find any evidence with regard to Vamana Rishi,  nor any reference or mention of anything like Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (as practiced today) in books authored by Krishnamacharya, such as Yoga Makaranda (1934), in which he describes the Vinyasa method; the name ‘Kurantaka’ was the closest he could get to ‘Yoga Korunta’.

He learned that a yogi named ‘Kuarantaka’ had authored a text entitled: ‘Kapala Kuarantaka Yogabhysasa Paddahti’ (a pre 14th century text), which roughly translates as ‘The yoga method of Kurantaka Kapala’.
(Kapala means skull, and may be related to Kāpālika, a non-Puranic form of Shaivism tradition).

He also  received the following reply from Dr Gharote, the head of  The Lonavla Yoga Institute (India):

“It is possible to say that the text “Korunta” is actually “Kapala Kuaranta Hathabhyasa-Paddhati” because until now we have never come across any other text related to ‘Kurantaka’ term rather than this text. So unless and until we have any other evidences, we have to accept that “Korunta” is actually “Kapala Kuaranta Hathabhyasa-Paddhati”.

Though it may not be clear if it was Vamana Rishi or Kuarantaka who authored ‘Yoga Korunta’ which forms the basis of Mysore Style Yoga, it is certainly evident that the style has its roots in ancient Yogic wisdom and the benefits of this style, as taught by Sri.K.Pattabhi Jois and his students, has innumerable benefits, the most important being, it allows the Yogi to draw his/her attention inward, reflect and understand by surrendering to the practice, and gradually purify the body and mind inside out.

Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga

The combination of movement and Ujjayi breathing helps create heat in the body, or as Pattabhi Jois says, it boils the blood and makes it thin, so it can circulate freely. This results in sweating (profusely) allowing the impurities to leave the body, it improves blood circulation which helps reduce or get rid of body ache and joint pain, it  cleanses internal organs and flushes out toxins, and purifies the nervous system.

Practicing Ujjayi Pranayama throughout the flow, helps warm the body and calm the mind. Sweat is thus an important by product of Ashtanga Vinyasa. It is meant to be a daily practice, which results in keeping the body flexible, healthy, strong and pure like gold. Though the practice is all about repeating the sequence everyday, one discovers that no 2 days are the same. With regular practice, apart from building stamina, flexibility and concentration, one builds a sense of surrender and commitment, that helps one progress in the path of Yoga.

Popular Centers and Yoga Teachers

The city of Mysore is popularly known as the Ashtanga Yoga capital of India. It is where the main Ashtanga Yoga (KPJAYI) institute is located. The city boasts more than 200 yoga schools and is home to a myriad of different yoga styles, the most popular being Mysore Style Yoga. Most of these forms come from the lineage of Sri T Krishnamacharya.

Sri K Pattabhi Jois, TKV Desikachar, BKS Iyengar, BNS Iyengar, are some of the most popular names in Yoga and all have had the privilege to study under the most revered and distinguished Yoga Guru of 20th century, Sri T Krishnamacharya.

Many Ashtanga Yogis dream of practicing at KPJAYI, also known as “the main shala”, and practice with R. Sharath Jois, the grandson of Pattabhi Jois. However, it is not always easy to get a booking due to limited entries. If you are interested in pursuing your TTC in Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore, click here to know more about other options and teachers who teach same and similar styles.

Today, there are many Ashtanga Yoga teachers teaching  around the globe. To know about a teacher in your location, you can visit Ashtanga Yoga.com to get the complete list of registered teachers in your country. Matthew Sweeney, Lino Miele, Eddie Stern,  The Swenson Brothers,  David Williams, Tim Miller, Nancy Gilgoff, Saraswathi Jois, Govinda Kai, John Scott, are the first few and popular Ashtanga Yoga teachers.

The opening chant:

As per the tradition, the practitioner has to chant the opening prayer before commencing the practice. As seen in the translation, the prayer is a means to express gratitude to all the Gurus who have passed down the knowledge of Yoga, especially to Sage Patanjali.

The chant’S first verse, ending with Mohashantyai is a part of a longer poem called the Yoga Taravalli written by Adi Sankara, and is said to be one of Krishnamacharya’s favorites. The second verse is part of the Patanjali invocation.

~ OM ~

Vande Gurunam Caranaravinde  

Sandarsita Svatma Sukhava Bodhe

Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane

Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai

Abahu Purusakaram,

Sankhacakrasi Dharinam

Sahasra Sirasam Svetam,

Pranamami Patanjalim,

~ OM ~

 

Translation:

I bow to the lotus feet of the Supreme Guru who teaches…

the good knowledge, showing the way to knowing the self-awakening great happiness,

Beyond better, acting like the jungle physician…

able to remove the poison of ignorance of conditioned existence.

Taking the form of a human – below the shoulders,

Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword,

White in color with a 1000 radiant heads,

To Patanjali, the incarnation of Adisesa, I prostrate.

The closing prayer:

The closing chant brings the practice to a peaceful end and also works as a gentle reminder to surrender and offer the efforts of your practice to the wellbeing  of others and the world at large and pray for peace everywhere and for everyone.

~ Om ~

Svasthi Praja Bhyaha Pari Pala Yantam

Nya Yena Margena Mahim Mahishaha

Go Brahmanebhyaha Shubamastu Nityam

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi

Translation

May all be well with mankind

May the leaders lead the world with law and justice.

May all things that are sacred be protected.

May all beings everywhere be happy and free.

Om peace, peace, perfect peace


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