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What is Ashtanga yoga?

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

Learn more about Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga


With so many different styles of yoga to choose from, it can be tricky to know where to start and what to expect when you try yoga for the first time. I’ve been practicing and teaching Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and Ashtanga-informed yoga for many years and have put together a quick summary to help explain some key terms including what you might experience when joining an Ashtanga yoga class.


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Girl doing yoga pose in Exeter

What does “yoga” mean?

Before describing Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, we need to understand a little about what yoga means. This is an interesting topic in itself: how we define yoga might be based upon different sets of guiding principles and disciplines (for example Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga has a different set of traditions compared to Iyengar yoga). And we are all different in our associations with terms and the ways in which we ascribe meaning to concepts and apply them in our lives.


Yoga is both a philosophy and a practice and at its core the term means union. Historically this centred on the goal of spiritual union, but yoga is also about the sense of unity and balance that we can create between our body, mind and emotions. Yoga is a complete system for living and it provides a guide for how we approach our health and how we relate to people and the world around us, harmoniously and non-harmfully. Yoga is often associated with physical movement practices. Asana (the postures and shapes we create on the yoga mat) is actually only one strand of what yoga entails. This is captured beautifully in the Bhagavad Gita: through Sri Krishna’s guidance and advice to Prince Arjuna, yoga is represented as an ability to train and discipline the mind as we aim for the mind to be even, peaceful and still.


What is Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga?

First, let’s break down the two terms separately…


Ashtanga: this means eight limbs (read on for an explanation of the eight limbs)


Vinyasa: this refers to the flowing, smooth movements from one asana to the next, synchronising movements and postures with breathing


Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga was originally described in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. Patanjali described yoga as both the means (practices to obtain knowledge and states) and the goal (the quality of the mind, being single-pointed and less distracted or agitated; see Roots of Yoga). The Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga method was created by T. Krisnamacharya who passed it on to his student K Patthabi Jois. Jois subsequently brought the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system to the West and he is recognised as the modern-day Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga forefather.


The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga

The eight limbs (or practices) of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga were described by Patanjali to help us transcend suffering and realise our true nature.


  1. Yamas: These are observances or moral codes for living which ensures that we interact harmoniously with our surroundings. The ethical codes include being non-violent, being truthful, to not steal, to be faithful and to abstain from greed.

  2. Niyamas: These are abstinences or purification practices to ensure balance within body and mind. This includes physical and mental cleanliness, contentment, simplicity, self-study, discipline and surrender. The yamas and niyamas form the foundation from which yoga practice is taken.

  3. Asana: These are the physical poses and postures of yoga. Yoga asanas are aimed at detoxifying the body in preparation for pranayama, concentration, meditation and samadhi. Yoga understands the relationship between body and mind and how working with the body through asana practices can influence the functioning of the mind.

  4. Pranayama: Prana is the “life force” of the inner breath and involves using breathing practices and breath control to balance the mind and regulate the nervous system. In Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, pranayama is practiced throughout asana by using the ujjayi breath, and the breath is used to guide movement.

  5. Pratyahara: This is sense withdrawal. In Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, withdrawal of the senses is obtained by using visual focal points (Drishti) to keep the mind internally focused and less distracted by the external world. One of my yoga teachers once reminded me that we should be able to practice yoga effectively in Piccadilly Circus surrounded by noises and busyness using the ujjayi breath and Drishti to hold our focus on yoga.

  6. Dharana: This relates to concentration and focus. It involves using intense focus on breath, Drishti and muscle locks (Bandha) to keep the mind fully engaged with the yoga practice. The watchfulness of consciousness helps to prepare us for meditation and involves an effort to re-direct attention away from certain thoughts.

  7. Dhyana: This is the practice of meditation and refers to the mind being uninfluenced by extreme states using rest and learning to just “be” (rather than “becoming”). The mind is aware, without effort.

  8. Samadhi: This is the state of oneness and sense of absorption that is obtained from all the other limbs of yoga. It is when the mind is absorbed into pure consciousness, and we have de-conditioned ourselves to let go of negative patterns of the past. The samadhi state is the highest form of yoga and involves the suspending of thought waves and knowing of the true or divine self.


What is an Ashtanga yoga class like?

Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga classes are dynamic and involve lots of movements that are synced with the breath. The breath is used to guide movement into and out of the yoga postures and the breath also determines how long we stay in a certain pose (often for 5 breaths, although this varies depending on the posture!) Traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga follows a set series of postures which are practiced repeatedly to help build endurance, tolerance, and strength. The Ashtanga Vinyasa primary series is the first set of postures we learn, and this includes two types of sun salutations followed by a standing sequence, seated sequence, and a finishing sequence that includes backbends and inversions. The structured series of poses can be adapted so that everyone can access them safely. The rehearsal and repetition of the same postures in Ashtanga yoga helps create a meditative space and helps contribute to progress. Ashtanga yoga ends in the same way as all other types of yoga – the final pose of savasana is for rest and restoration.


 

Interested in practicing Ashtanga yoga?



Thanks for reading! 😊


BAM Therapy Exeter photographed in the ashtanga yoga primary sequence


References

  • Easwaran, E. (1985). The Bhagavad Gita. California: Nilgiri Press.

  • Maehle, G. (2006). Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy. Crabbes Creek: Kaivalya Publications.

  • Mallinson, J. & Singleton, M. (2017). Roots of Yoga. St Ives: Penguin Classics.

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