Ashtanga Yoga Explained

You’ve seen Ashtangis on Instagram, heard Ashtanga referenced philosophically, noticed it on schedules… Your interest is piqued… Read on to decode Ashtanga Yoga!

The Sanskrit word Ashtanga translates to “eight limbs.”

As with many Sanskrit terms, there are multiple translations of Ashtanga Yoga, and to describe one we must define the other…

Ashtanga Yoga Explained

Ashtanga Yoga- History and Philosophy

Ashtanga yoga is the eight-limbed science of classical yoga as Patanjali, the godfather of the ancient technology, defined thousands of years ago in the Yoga Sutras – a collection of short aphorisms (“threads” as sutra translates from Sanskrit).

The eight limbs of yoga include:

  • Yamas (ethical principles)
  • Niyamas (self disciplines)
  • Asana (postures)
  • Pratyahara (withdrawal)
  • Dharana (concentration)
  • Samadhi (absorption)

The eight parts are sequenced from the outer to the inner – beginning with the most tangible, our relationship with others and ourselves (yamas and niyamas), then diving deeper, toward our divine essence (the other limbs of yoga).

The physical practice, which many equate as the whole of modern yoga, is just one limb of Patanjali’s system. And all Patanjali said about the postures is that they must be steady and comfortable).

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Enter Pattabhi Jois

The Yoga Korunta, an ancient manuscript, was bestowed upon the famous teacher Sri T. Krishnamacharya who taught it to his student Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. This was the base for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which Jois began teaching in 1948.

Ashtanga Vinyasa students memorize a sequence and practice with others, at their own pace – this is “Mysore” style, named after the city, in India, where Jois’s school is located. The teacher is a guide who provides adjustments and assistance. Some schedules are sprinkled with “led” classes, in which the teacher leads a group through the same series at the same time.

Traditionally, Ashtanga Vinyasa is practiced six days per week. Jois said that daily asana practice is necessary to make the body strong and healthy which allows the mind to be steady.

Moon Days

As human beings are composed of about 70% water, we are affected by the phases of the moon. And in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, full and new moon days are observed as holidays.

The full moon energy corresponds to the end of inhalation when the force of prana is highest. Prana vayu is expansive, upward moving energy that energises but may make us feel emotional and not well grounded.

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The end of exhalation matches the new moon energy, when the apana force is greatest. Apana vayu is a contracting, downward flowing energy that invokes calmness and grounding, but also disinclination for physical exertion.

So many Ashtangis choose not to practice on moon days, however, legend has it that Jois really chose to take these days off for personal reasons…

Ashtanga Yoga as seen on studio schedules

A popular, physically demanding style of yoga in which students gradually progress through a set sequence of postures, each preparing the practitioner for the next.

The Ashtanga class title – same poses, same order, same number of breaths, no matter where or with whom you practice – will be prefaced with Mysore or Led, pending the style offered.

Core Concepts of Ashtanga Yoga

In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, there is an emphasis on uniting movement and breath (vinyasa), as well as a focus on several other central elements.

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  • Ujjayi Pranayama, or victorious breath, is audible breathing that heats the body and helps the student focus.
  • Drishti, or a place to focus the gaze, is prescribed to each pose.
  • Tristhana translates to “the three places of attention or action” and includes the pranayama, asana and drishti. These encompass the three levels of purification – body, nervous system and mind – and are meant to be practiced together.
  • Bandhas (locks or seals) are used throughout the practice help to direct the flow of energy and create stability. These are Mula bandha (root lock), Uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock) and Jalandhara bandha (throat lock).

Sequences and Series

This dynamic, athletic form of yoga comprises six series, each of which has a fixed order of postures. The sequences begin with ten sun salutations (five A and five B), standing poses, one of the six series, and end with a finishing sequence.

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The Six Series:

1. Primary SeriesYoga Chikitsa, Yoga Therapy

2. Second or Intermediate SeriesNadi Shodhana, The Nerve Purifier

3. Advanced A or Third SeriesSthira Bhaga, Centering of Strength (definitive of all four advanced series)

4. Advanced B or Fourth Series

5. Advanced C or Fifth Series: Rishi Series (the Fifth and Sixth, which were added to the original four later)

6. Advanced D or Sixth Series:

The Ashtanga Primary Series

Called Yoga Chikitsa, which means yoga therapy, because of the cleansing and toning effect it has on both body and mind.

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Physically – the asanas build strength and flexibility, loosening tight muscles and realigning the body and detoxifying the nervous system. Forward bends, twists, hip openers and vinyasas help facilitate this.

Mentally – focus, willpower, mind-body awareness and confidence expand as mental obstacles to practice are overcome.

Energetically – the Primary series subtly, therapeutically works to clear obstacles in the body’s energy channels (Nadis), which allows the life force energy (Prana) to flow more freely so the body and mind are more efficient and effective.

The Ashtanga Intermediate Series

The Second Series is known as Nadi Shodhana (also the Sanskrit name for Alternate Nostril Breathing) which means Nerve Cleansing, due to the focus on backbends. These cultivate suppleness of the spine and clearing of the energy channels allowing the free flow of Prana.

The Intermediate Series contains some familiar poses before it moves toward more intense backbends, hip opening poses and headstand variations.

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Each pose has its own benefits, but the specific combination works directly on the nervous system, so it has a different effect on the body than the Primary series or other dynamic yoga practices. Always end this practice with a long Savasana to properly restore and rest your nervous system.

The Advanced Series

Traditionally, the student would be told by their teacher when they are ready to move on to the next series.

David Swenson, the renowned Ashtanga Yoga teacher, says that it is not about “mastering” a series before moving on. It is not about doing every pose to its fullest expression. It is about the knowledge of the poses.

We can always learn more. We can always grow.

Before moving onto the next series, be able to practice without stopping or being stopped by your teacher, and without needing to refer to external resources. 

Mantra

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Mantra, or mind instrument, is a form of meditation, dedication, a practice in itself. And Ashtanga Yoga practice traditionally begins and ends with chants in Sanskrit, the language of the heart.

Chanting shifts the consciousness of the individual to a higher level of vibration, which is believed to bring one closer to, or unite with, Source or Higher Self – the eternal aspect of oneself – and leaves the practitioner peaceful, calm and centred.

Studies have shown that chanting can stabilise heart rate, lower blood pressure, produce beneficial endorphins and boost metabolic processes, which compliment the physical practice of asana.

Ashtanga Yoga Opening Chant

A blessing of gratitude offered to the lineage of teachers and students who have nurtured the ancient practice to survive thousands of years so that we may benefit from it today. The recitation of this mantra cleanses the energy of the space in which we will practice, and prepares the mind and body.

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Om
Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde
Sandarshita Svatma Sukava Bodhe
Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane
Samsara Halahala Mohashantyai

Abahu Purushakaram
Shankhacakrsi Dharinam
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam
Pranamami Patanjalim
Om

Translation:

Om

I bow to the lotus feet of the Supreme Guru
which awaken insight into the happiness of pure Being,
which are the refuge, the jungle physician,
which eliminate the delusion caused by the poisonous herb of Samsara (conditioned existence).

I prostrate before the sage Patanjali
who has thousands of radiant, white heads (as the divine serpent, Ananta)
and who has, as far as his arms, assumed the form of a man
holding a conch shell (divine sound), a wheel (discus of light or infinite time) and a sword (discrimination).

Om

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Ashtanga Yoga Closing Chant

A prayer to peacefully end the practice, seal in the effects and offer the fruits of our labour to improve the state of the world.

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 the rulers of the earth keep to the path of virtue
For protecting the welfare of all generations.
  May the religious, and all peoples be forever blessed,
  May all beings everywhere be happy and free
   Om peace, peace, perfect peace

Your Practice

Whenever and wherever you choose to practice, always seek an experienced teacher, practice with awareness and patience, and return to the breath.

And maybe set an intention for your next Ashtanga practice…

Check this out: Setting Yoga Intentions: A Guide

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