What is Ashtanga Yoga? A Beginner's Guide to Ashtanga
What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga Yoga is a highly disciplined practice that brings together the values and principles required for leading a meaningful life.
There are multiple spiritual elements to the Ashtanga system. However, the physical branch - Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga or Ashtanga Asana practices - often hogs the limelight. This article offers an introduction to Ashtanga as a healing practice for both body and mind.
What is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?
In short, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a sequence of yoga postures executed in a specific order to emphasise flow, focus and breath between movements. Ashtanga Vinyasa consists of seated and standing poses that can increase in difficulty but do not vary in order. There is a primary series, a secondary series, and four additional advanced levels. Each practice begins and ends with five cycles of sun salutations.
What does Ashtanga mean?
Ashtanga unites two Sanskrit words, “Ashta” and “Anga.” “Ashta” refers to the number eight, while “Anga” means limb or body part. Ashtanga is, therefore, the union of the eight limbs of yoga. In a teeny, tiny nutshell, the eight limbs of yoga offer guidelines for yogis to lead a life of intention and integrity.
These limbs or pathways come from the yoga sutras of Patanjali - an ancient philosophical text compiled of prescriptions for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline.
Essentially, the Ashtanga philosophy incorporates all of the eight limbs of yoga; Yama (moral codes), Niyama (self-discipline), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (oneness with the self, enlightenment, or bliss).
Where does Ashtanga originate?
So, we know that Ashtanga as a philosophical system originates in the yoga sutras. Ashtanga as a physical, individualised practice, though, is often linked to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, an Indian yoga teacher, ayurvedic healer and scholar.
Krishnamacharya is one of the most significant gurus of modern yoga, often referred to as "the father of modern yoga" due to his sweeping impact on the development of postural yoga in the 20th century.
Influenced by the drills and practices of Indian wrestlers and gymnasts, K. Pattabhi Jois - a dedicated student of T. Krishnamacharya - took Ashtanga and refined it into a new, exhilarating style designed to purify the body and liberate the mind.
Now, there are many famous Ashtanga yoga instructors teaching worldwide. Have you heard of David Swenson, for instance, or Kino MacGregor? There's Richard Freeman, Maty Ezraty, Tim Miller, David Williams, Chuck Miller, and Tim Feldmann too. The list goes on. The influence is profound.
What are the key elements of Ashtanga Yoga?
Yoga Chikitsa designates the Ashtanga Series in Sanskrit and means yoga therapy, expressing the cleansing and healing power of the practice on both body and mind.
Here are some key Ashtanga principles to explore on the yoga mat and to activate its therapeutic strengths:
Also known as victorious breath, Ujjayi is a slow and audible breathing technique that wakes up the body and increases focus levels throughout the practice. This technique produces a calming oceanic sound and helps to warm the body up from within.
Your Drishti is a specific focal point used in each asana to help us find balance. By steadying the gaze, we can also steady the mind.
In a way, Vinyasa is consciousness in motion. A mega chunk of Ashtanga is about connecting breath with movement - the meaning of Vinyasa. Interestingly, the term comes from the Sanskrit term nyasa, meaning “to place,” and the prefix vi, “in a special way” - denoting the harmonious linking of one pose to the next in alignment with the breath.
Bandhas are energetic locks that contain and harness prana - energy, force, life - and encourage core stability. Engaging the Bandhas is less about squeezing on any muscle groups and more about feeling energy as it pumps through points in the body - again, focusing body and mind.
Ashtanga, when approached traditionally, should be practised six days per week, keeping Saturday as a rest day. Some rest for full or New Moon days, and those who menstruate can take time out during their cycle.
What is the difference between Vinyasa and Ashtanga?
Many argue that Ashtanga is the root of all modern yoga practices, so naturally, there are many similarities between Vinyasa and Ashtanga.
That said, as we’ve already covered, Ashtanga - when practised traditionally - follows a strict series of movements. The primary, secondary, and third series, to be precise.
Vinyasa looks at connecting breath with movement and can be applied to any and all movements accompanied by the breath - regardless of sequencing.
This means that Vinyasa classes are incredibly varied and creative and do not follow any strict structure.
Can beginners do Ashtanga yoga?
You could argue that Ashtanga Yoga is more suitable for beginners than Vinyasa because, technically, you know what you’re getting. You practise the same sequence every time you roll out your Yoga Mat, which makes it much easier to get to know the basics.
Since Vinyasa can be more unpredictable, you're less likely to focus on the same postures in every class, making it harder to monitor progress. By progress, the emphasis is less on physically improving and more on finding a sense of ease and calm in the class. It can feel easier to connect with our breath in postures when we know what we're doing on the mat.
Sophie Heatley (she/her) is a Content Writer and Yoga Instructor based in London. She has been teaching at various studios, on retreat, and online since 2018. On the side, Sophie creates online and editorial content for clients within diverse industries, from the arts, to wellness, to financial law. Discover where she's teaching and what she's writing by following her on social media @sophieheatley_