Ashtanga Yoga is a popular form of yoga that has its roots in the ancient texts of the Yoga Sutras. The author of these texts, Patanjali, is a mysterious figure who some say is a single individual, but others say was a collection of authors. Patanjali devised a method that is one of the most dynamic and physically demanding style of yoga. It is known for its ability to promote strength, flexibility, endurance, and inner peace or equanimity. In this article, we will explore the history and philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga, its benefits, the physical elements of the practice known as the asanas, and potential contraindications. I also offer up a discussion on the need for students to regain agency of their own practice and move with less of a focus on aesthetic shapes and more on sensation or feeling.
Many of the poses, especially in the more advanced second and third series, involve extremely advanced arm balancing, even while putting your legs behind your head. The true reason for this yogic showmanship is less for ascetic or spiritual purposes and is really because when T. Krishnamacharya created the practice in the late 1800’s, he devised it to impress the Indian nobility so that they would fund a yoga school for young, troubled boys. Krishnamacharya, known as the “father” of modern yoga, wanted to devise a form of exercise that could strengthen the boys’ physicality so that they could sit in meditation for prolonged periods of time with a calm mind and body. Famous teachers such as B.K. Iyengar, who went on to create his own restorative version of Ashtanga, was in that initial group who impressed the group of elites. Ashtanga Yoga was further developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the early 20th century. Jois was another student of Krishnamacharya. Jois was a Sanskrit scholar and a practitioner of Hatha Yoga, and he combined these two disciplines to create the Ashtanga Yoga series.
Philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga Yoga is an ancient system of yoga that consists of eight limbs or components that guide practitioners towards a state of self-realization – knowledge of oneself through the study of the body, mind, and spirit. Through synchronized breath and movement, practitioners heighten their awareness of phenomena both outside and within the body. The philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga is based on the eight-limbed path outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. These eight limbs are interpreted slightly differently depending on the lens that one looks at them with. For example, Pratyahara (withdraw of the senses) is sometimes described as an ascetic removal from all sensual pleasures, but others take a less austere perspective and simply view it to mean a mindful protection of one’s energy.
It is important to note that the 8 limbs are not linear or sequential, but are interconnected, cyclical, and designed to work together in order to create a holistic approach to a yoga practice. Through the practice of asanas, pranayama, and meditation, practitioners can cultivate a sense of inner awareness and develop a deeper connection to themselves and the world around them. The philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga emphasizes the importance of self-discipline, self-awareness, and mindfulness in order to achieve the goal of Samadhi. The paradox here is that all goals should be released, and one should simply practice with no expectations. This can be difficult when one wants to be an “advanced” practitioner, but the more one lets go of the desire to be “good” at yoga is ultimately the moment they truly begin and succeed in the practice.
Here is an overview of the eight limbs of yoga and the philosophy of Ashtanga:
- Yama: The first limb of yoga is the Yamas, which are ethical principles that guide practitioners towards right action and behavior. There are five Yamas: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (celibacy or moderation), and Aparigraha (non-greed or non-attachment).
- Niyama: The second limb of yoga is the Niyamas, which are personal practices that guide practitioners towards self-discipline and self-awareness. There are five Niyamas: Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to a higher power).
- Asana: The third limb of yoga is Asana, which refers to the physical postures or poses that are commonly associated with yoga practice. In Ashtanga Yoga, the practice of asanas is meant to create strength, flexibility, and balance in the body, while also preparing the mind for deeper levels of meditation.
- Pranayama: The fourth limb of yoga is Pranayama, which refers to the practice of controlling the breath in order to enhance the flow of prana, or life force energy, through the body. In Ashtanga Yoga, pranayama is used to calm the mind and prepare the body for meditation.
- Pratyahara: The fifth limb of yoga is Pratyahara, which refers to the withdrawal of the senses from external distractions in order to focus the mind inward. In Ashtanga Yoga, pratyahara is used to help practitioners turn their attention inward and cultivate a deeper sense of inner awareness.
- Dharana: The sixth limb of yoga is Dharana, which refers to concentration or focused attention. In Ashtanga Yoga, dharana is used to cultivate a one-pointed focus of the mind, which can help to deepen meditation and bring about a sense of inner stillness.
- Dhyana: The seventh limb of yoga is Dhyana, which refers to meditation or contemplation. In Ashtanga Yoga, dhyana is used to help practitioners experience a deeper sense of inner peace and unity with the universe.
- Samadhi: The eighth and final limb of yoga is Samadhi, which refers to a state of divine consciousness or enlightenment, in which the ego is dissolved, and one is aware of their infinite being. It is important to note that this state consciousness is not a disembodied or transcendental phenomena but is only achieved through and with the body. In Ashtanga Yoga, samadhi is the goal of practice and is achieved through the integration of all eight limbs of yoga, which are designed to guide practitioners towards this goal by creating a container that holds the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of the self.
Asana, the third limb of the eight-limbed path, is the foundation of Ashtanga Yoga. The practice involves a set sequence of postures that are designed to purify the body and prepare it for deeper levels of meditation. The postures are divided into six series, and each series builds upon the previous one. The first series, called the Primary Series, is the most well-known and is often referred to as Yoga Chikitsa, which means yoga therapy. On a strictly physical level, the postures within the primary series target the spine and hips, which allow practitioners to meditate in Lotus pose (crossed legs with feet resting on the inner thighs) with minimal pain and proper spinal alignment, posture, and external hip rotation.
Of course, advanced postures like Lotus are not required to meditate, and like any other style of yoga, students should modify where they need to in order to prevent injury. Because the practice is traditionally so strict in terms of its attention to minute physical alignment and posture, this perspective is typically discouraged. Ashtanga teachers are notorious for their overly physical adjustments, trying to contort students into shapes their body is not ready for yet. This is a sure-fire way to injury, and if you see an Ashtanga teacher using this method, I advise you to find another Mysore-style studio. In the modern era where many Western bodies are stiff due to our culture’s demand for long work hours sitting in chairs, it is important that students – not teachers – are empowered to make the practice their own.
The Ashtanga primary series is performed the exact same every time you do it, making it all about discipline. Some people despise this aspect of Ashtanga because it is overly repetitive, while others enjoy that they can work on the same thing every time, making it easy to watch the body open step by step. As someone who started practicing yoga with very tight muscles, I love this element of Ashtanga. For example, being able to find an arm bind that you have been searching for weeks can be very rewarding. Traditionally, you can only move on in the series once a teacher sees you moving with ease, and then grants you access to more postures and eventually to a whole new series of more advanced asanas. While this is surely not the goal, seeing your body progress is still a motivating factor for getting on the mat.
The Ashtanga Primary Series
This is the foundational sequence of postures in the Ashtanga Yoga system. It consists of around 75-80 postures, which are linked together through a specific breathing technique called Ujjayi Pranayama. This form of breath is used to build heat from within. It is done by breathing out while imagining you are fogging up a glass window or mirror, so the back of the throat slights constricts as it pushes out the air. You can do this with the mouth open at first, and once you feel like the breath is activated, seal the lips so that the warm air of the exhalation is not fully released but is instead recycled in the body.
The postures are performed in a specific order, and each posture is held for five rounds of Ujjayi breath before moving on to the next one. The sequence begins with sun salutations, which warm up the body and prepare it for the more challenging postures and vinyasas later in the sequence. The standing postures come next, followed by the seated postures, backbends, and inversions. The practice of Ashtanga Yoga is meant to be a daily practice, and students are encouraged to practice six days a week, taking one day off for rest. Women are also advised to rest during menstruation. The practice is traditionally done in the morning, on an empty stomach, and in a room that is heated to around 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit. The warm temperature is meant mimic the climate of Mysore, in Southern India from which the practice originates. This helps to loosen up muscle fibers and decrease the risk of injury.
The Primary Series is divided into six sections, each of which focuses on different areas of the body. Here is a breakdown of the sections and some of the key postures in each:
- Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara A and B)
- The Primary Series begins with a series of Sun Salutations, which are a sequence of postures that are linked together with the breath. There are two variations of the Sun Salutations in the Primary Series, Surya Namaskara A and Surya Namaskara B. Each variation is performed five times.
- Standing Postures (Padangusthasana, Padahastasana, Utthita Trikonasana, Utthita Parsvakonasana, Prasarita Padottanasana)
- The Standing Postures focus on building strength and stability in the legs, hips, and core. These postures also help to improve balance and concentration. Some of the key postures in this section include Padangusthasana, which involves standing forward bend with the big toes held by the hands, and Utthita Trikonasana, which involves a triangle-shaped pose with the legs wide, about 3-feet apart.
- Seated Postures (Dandasana, Paschimottanasana, Purvottanasana, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana)
- The Seated Postures are designed to stretch and strengthen the back, hips, and hamstrings. They also help to improve posture and stimulate digestion. Some of the key postures in this section include Dandasana, which involves sitting with the legs straight out in front of you, and Paschimottanasana, which involves a seated forward bend.
- Seated Forward Bends (Janu Sirsasana, Marichyasana A, B, C, D, and E, Navasana)
- The Seated Forward Bends are a series of postures that focus on stretching the back and hamstrings. They also help to improve flexibility and release tension in the hips and lower back. Some of the key postures in this section include Janu Sirsasana, which involves a forward bend with one leg extended and the other foot placed against the inner thigh, and Navasana, which involves balancing on the sitting bones with the legs lifted off the ground.
- Backbends (Bhujangasana, Salabhasana, Dhanurasana, Ustrasana)
- The Backbends are a series of postures that focus on strengthening the back and opening the chest and shoulders. They also help to improve posture and increase lung capacity. Some of the key postures in this section include Bhujangasana, which involves a low cobra pose, and Ustrasana, which involves a camel pose.
- Finishing Sequence (Setu Bandhasana, Sarvangasana, Halasana, Karnapidasana, Urdhva Padmasana, Matsyasana, Uttana Padasana, Sirsasana, Balasana)
- The Finishing Sequence includes a variety of postures that help to cool down the body and relax the mind. These postures also help to stretch and strengthen the shoulders and spine.
Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga
- Increased flexibility: Ashtanga Yoga postures involve stretching and strengthening of the muscles and joints. This can lead to increased flexibility and range of motion in the body. Improved flexibility can help to prevent injuries, reduce stiffness and pain, and improve overall physical performance.
- Improved strength and endurance: Ashtanga Yoga is a physically demanding practice that can help to build strength and endurance over time. The postures require holding the body’s weight, which can strengthen the muscles, particularly in the upper body, core, and legs. The practice of Ashtanga Yoga also involves moving through a sequence of postures without rest, which can improve cardiovascular fitness and stamina.
- Reduced stress and anxiety: The practice of Ashtanga Yoga involves synchronized breathing and movement, which can help to calm the mind and reduce stress and anxiety. The focus on the breath and the present moment can also help to quiet the mind and promote a sense of relaxation and inner peace.
- Improved concentration and focus: Ashtanga Yoga requires concentration and focus, particularly in the more challenging postures. The practice of maintaining a specific breathing pattern while moving through a sequence of postures can help to improve mental clarity and focus. This can translate into improved performance in other areas of life, such as work or school.
- Increased self-awareness: Ashtanga Yoga encourages students to be present and aware of their thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. The practice can help to cultivate mindfulness, which is the ability to observe one’s thoughts and emotions without judgment. This can lead to greater self-awareness and emotional regulation.
- Improved digestion and detoxification: The twisting and compressing postures in Ashtanga Yoga can stimulate the digestive system and help to detoxify the body. These postures can help to massage the internal organs and promote the elimination of toxins from the body. Improved digestion can lead to better nutrient absorption and improved overall health.
- Improved cardiovascular health: The dynamic nature of Ashtanga Yoga can help to improve cardiovascular health. The practice involves moving through a sequence of postures without rest, which can increase heart rate and improve cardiovascular fitness. Improved cardiovascular health can lead to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and other chronic health conditions.
As with any physical practice, it is important to be aware of the contraindications of Ashtanga Yoga in order to prevent injury and ensure safe practice. Here are some common contraindications of Ashtanga Yoga:
- Pregnancy: Ashtanga Yoga involves a lot of twisting and jumping, which can be dangerous for pregnant women. Pregnant women should avoid practicing Ashtanga Yoga until after they have given birth.
- Injuries: If you have a pre-existing injury or medical condition, it is important to consult with your doctor before practicing Ashtanga Yoga. Injuries such as back pain, herniated discs, and knee injuries can be aggravated by certain postures in the Ashtanga Primary Series.
- High blood pressure: Certain postures in the Ashtanga Primary Series, such as inversions and backbends, can increase blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, it is important to modify your practice or avoid these postures altogether.
- Joint pain: If you have joint pain or arthritis, it is important to be mindful of your range of motion and not push yourself too far in any postures that may cause discomfort.
- Low bone density: Some postures in the Ashtanga Primary Series, such as forward bends and seated twists, can be beneficial for improving bone density. However, it is important to be mindful of your body and not push yourself too far in any postures that may cause discomfort or pain.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome: Ashtanga Yoga can be a physically demanding practice, and individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome may not have the energy or stamina to complete the entire Primary Series. It is important to modify your practice and take breaks as needed.
- Mental health conditions: Ashtanga Yoga can be a powerful tool for managing stress and anxiety, but it is important to be aware of your mental health and not push yourself too far in any postures that may trigger anxiety or panic attacks.
Overall, the practice of Ashtanga Yoga can have numerous benefits for both the body and mind. Regular practice can lead to increased flexibility, strength, and endurance, as well as reduced stress and anxiety, improved concentration and focus, increased self-awareness, improved digestion and detoxification, and improved cardiovascular health. However, as previously mentioned, it is important to listen to your body and practice with mindfulness and awareness. If you have any concerns or questions about whether Ashtanga Yoga is appropriate for your body and health, it is important to consult with a qualified yoga teacher or healthcare professional.
As with any spiritual, physical, or mental practice, it is easy to get overly serious or rigid in our approach. It is critical to let go of expectations, goals, and desires for specific outcomes. Moreover, students should be encouraged to move with an awareness of sensation rather than an aesthetic. In other words, move based on how you feel, rather than how you look in each shape. Don’t worry about being the best or worst in the room, as this will only get in the way of your ability to be present and reap the benefits of the practice. As someone who has practiced Ashtanga for years, trust me when I say that the practice will consistently kill your ego if you hold onto it too tightly. If you are not having fun, then why do it? Keep it simple, have a beginner’s mindset, and enjoy the flow!