Ashtanga yoga is an ancient Indian science of the mind. It is an ancient system of self realisation and is a powerful and effective means of discovering truth and attaining freedom. Through the practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we are able to “suspend the fluctuations of the mind” and find sustainable inner peace and stillness. Ashtanga yoga integrates the practices of postures, breathing techniques, lifestyle choices, and mental exercises to bring the mind under control and enable a life of peace and happiness.
Ashtanga is the ancient practice of yoga, meaning eight limbs or branches, and is described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is an ancient system of self realisation of which asana is just one component, and through dedicated practice one is able to ‘suspend the fluctuations of the mind’ and attain freedom from suffering. Ashtanga yoga integrates the practice of the eight limbs - including breathing techniques, postures, mental exercises and lifestyle choices - to bring the mind under control and enable sustainable inner peace and happiness.
The modern method of Ashtanga yoga is technically known as the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, and is a series of asana sequences of increasing difficulty that work to strengthen, cleanse and purify the body in preparation for meditation and other higher practices of yoga.
The first series of asana sequences in the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system is known as the Primary Series (Yoga Chikitsa, Yoga Therapy). This series works to heal and align the body, with a particular focus on realignment of the spine and detoxification. Dedicated practice of the first series builds foundational strength, flexibility and endurance in preparation for the following sequences.
Ashtanga literally means ‘eight limbs’ (In Sanskrit ‘Ashta’ means eight and ‘Anga’ means limb). It is an ancient Indian science of the mind, and is practiced with the aim of attaining self realisation and discovering truth. Patanjali writes that yoga must be practiced with devotion and consistency. With regular practice and faith, the mind and body become strong, steady and open and the mind becomes clear and lucid. It is through practice that we are able to realise truth.
In a vinyasa yoga class, the teacher creates a different sequence each time. Often there is a focus on strengthening or opening a specific area of the body. There is usually a slower warm up followed by a stronger sequence of asanas leading to a ‘peak’ of the class, and then cooling postures. Classes are more or less vigourous depending on the teacher.
Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is a dynamic yoga practice synchronising breath and movement. The same sequence of asanas is followed each time allowing the body to realign and detoxify. As students progress they move to more advanced sequences. The first sequence is known as the Primary Series and focuses on building foundational strength and flexibility, including forward bends, twists and hip openers.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa system is made up of three groups of asana sequences that increase in difficulty and are designed to detox, realign, strengthen and purify the body in preparation for higher yogic practices and meditation. When practiced regularly with correct alignment, dedication and focus, the mind and body open. The series are designed to build upon each other, with practitioners focussing on integrating the physical and energetic benefits of each series before moving onto the next.
The first sequence is known as the Primary Series (Yoga Chikitsa, Yoga Therapy). This series heals, detoxifies and realigns the body so that the benefits of the subsequent sequences may be fully realised. Comprised of many forward bends, twists and hip openers, this fundamental sequence builds strength and flexibility, with a particular focus on realignment of the spine and purifying the body of toxins.
The second sequence is known as the Intermediate Series (Nadi Shodhana, cleansing of the Nadis). Following dedicated practice of the Primary Series to prepare the body, practitioners will be ready to access the benefits of this series. The nadis are subtle energy channels in the body, and by practicing the Intermediate Series they are purified and balanced. The series continues to open and strengthen the body, including back bending, arm balances and inversions.
The third sequence is known as the Advanced Series (Sthira Bhaga, Divine Stability). In order to make it more approachable it is divided into four parts (A, B, C, D). Practice of the Advanced Series cultivates inner strength and compassion. It requires high levels of humility and determination. The series includes deep backbending, deep twists and binds, advanced arm balances and deep hip openers.
In a led Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga class, the teacher instructs you through the sequence, with explanations of how to enter and leave each asana. The breath is counted so all students flow through the sequence at the same pace. The teacher may also perform adjustments and provide vocal cues to aid students in their alignment and their understanding of each asana.
In Mysore style Ashtanga classes there are no spoken instructions. Students self practice the sequence at the pace of their own breath, synchronising their breath and movement. There is a larger focus on teachers providing individual guidance and adjustments where necessary. For many practitioners, a deeper understanding of the sequence is developed. In Mysore Style practice, one is able to build a deep internal awareness due to fewer external stimuli, and there is no need to modify the pace of breath to match the rest of the class.
The modern approach to Ashtanga yoga is technically known as Ashtanga Vinyasa, and gained popularity in the West following Sri K, Patthabi Jois’ teachings in the late 20th century. The system had been passed to him by his guru Sri T. Krishnamacharya who had in turned gained his knowledge from his guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari.
Ashtanga Vinyasa is suitable for everyone! If you practice with the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher they will assist you in modifying the sequence to suit your body. The external appearance of the postures is not important, as the main focus of the practice is internal awareness and the breath. With a regular practice, your body will strengthen and open, and you will progress further in the physical practice of the sequence.