Understanding Ashtanga Yoga

Your Go-To Guide For All Things Ashtanga Yoga

a woman in a yoga pose

Before you begin your yoga journey, it can be overwhelming deciding which class to go to or which type of yoga would be best for you. Our advice to calm this type of anxiety is to explore! There is no harm in trying out the different yoga practices and seeing which one is best for your body. If you are considering Ashtanga Yoga, then you have made your way to the right place.

In this article, we will go over the background of Ashtanga Yoga, how to practice, why you should consider this type of yoga, and finally where you can practice Ashtanga Yoga if this article has piqued your interest. Keep an open mind and get ready to learn about this inspiring method of yoga.

The History of Ashtanga Yoga

To get a clear picture of what Ashtanga Yoga is, we need to start at the beginning of its origin. Ashtanga yoga is a method of yoga that was originally taught by the late Sri. K Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. He was also known by Guruji, Pattabhi Jois. He brought this method of yoga to western culture in the early 1970s, so this is still a fairly new practice to the United States. Ashtanga yoga continues to grow in popularity in the US because of its strong mental, spiritual, and physical benefits.

To break down the explanation further, “Ashtanga” actually means “eight limbs” in Sanskrit, which is the ancient language of India. Patanjali (an ancient Indian sage), who wrote “The Yoga Sutras” (the authoritative text on yoga) was the first to use this term. He talked about the eight practices (or limbs) that we should master to transcend suffering and recognize our true nature. Patanjali believed that the path of internal purification for revealing the Universal Self consists of the following eight spiritual practices:

  1. Yama [moral codes]
  2. Niyama [self-purification and study]
  3. Asana [posture]
  4. Pranayama [sense control]
  5. Pratyahara [sense control]
  6. Dharana [concentration]
  7. Dhyana [meditation]
  8. Samadhi [absorption to the Universal]

The first four limbs - yama, niyama, asana, pranayama - are considered external cleansing practices. The last four limbs - pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi - would then be considered internal cleansing. According to Pattabhi Jois, defects in the external practices are correctable, whereas defects in the internal cleansing practices are not correctable and can be dangerous unless the correct Ashtanga yoga method is followed.

an older woman in a yoga pose
You can begin your yoga practice at any stage of your life. The earlier you begin the better, however, it is never too late.

How to practice

Ashtanga Yoga involves synchronizing the breath with a set series of postures in a vinyasa style. Through breath and vinyasa, there is an internal heat produced, which leads to cleansing, and improved circulation. In turn, this allows the body to become healthy, light, and strong. Deep breathing with sound is the link that ties the conscious and the subconscious mind together. In Ashtanga Yoga, the poses become merely an opportunity for you to breathe. Once you recalibrate your attention towards the breath, it no longer matters what pose you are doing or not doing.

There are six series of postures using a vinyasa method that can take up to a lifetime to learn. Every student will start by learning the first series and then advances to the following series when they are ready as determined by their teacher. However, the students do not entirely rely on the teacher to lead them through the class. The teacher will come to know the students' practice which helps to create a personal and intimate relationship between teacher and student. The practice is most beneficial when the student can develop trust with the teacher to help them continue to grow and move forward with the practice.

To perform asana the correct way in Ashtanga Yoga, the student must incorporate the use of vinyasas. The first vinyasa, for example, is inhaling while raising your arms over your head, and putting your hands together; the second is exhaling while bending forward, placing your hands next to your feet, etc. In this way, all asanas are assigned a certain number of vinyasas.

For those at the beginning of their practice, it can be very beneficial to do a bit more research about specific poses or sequences. It can be helpful to watch tutorials of foundation poses from a qualified teacher. Learning how to think through the technique of the asana helps you understand how to work. If you have the time to read further into the texts of Ashtanga Yoga, you will be able to understand the deeper elements and intentions of the practice which will help you to further enjoy the different postures.

Each posture in Ashtanga Yoga is a preparation for the next posture that comes. The student will develop strength, flexibility, and balance of both the body and mind throughout the practice. Remember to cultivate a peaceful attitude towards your body and never push or force yourself into poses you may not be ready for. Practice being with your body in a space of loving-kindness.

a man in a headstand
Those who are goal-oriented may have an even greater appreciation for Ashtanga Yoga. There are always new poses and different vinyasas to explore and work your way towards. However, be careful not to push yourself before your body is ready for a certain pose.

Why Practice

Practicing Ashtanga Yoga has a countless number of benefits. Just a few of the benefits of this practice include:

  • Improved flexibility
  • Increased strength
  • Increased muscle tone
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness
  • Improved posture
  • Reduced body fat
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Increased focus and creativity
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Purification of the Nervous System

One of the main benefits of practicing Ashtanga Yoga is the control of your mind. With the body and sense organs stabilized, the mind can be steady and ultimately more controlled.

When looking deeper at the anatomy and internal benefits of the practice, one will see how practicing Ashtanga Yoga is good for the blood's circulation. Synchronizing breathing and movement in the asanas heats the blood, cleaning and thinning it so that it may circulate more freely. Improved blood circulation relieves joint pain and removes toxins and disease from the internal organs. The sweat generated from the heat of vinyasa then carries the impurities out of the body.

Many athletes can be found practicing Ashtanga Yoga because it can be a great complementary activity for other forms of sports, as it has been proven to prevent injury. As you get older and your body becomes more prone to injuries, practicing yoga is a great way to stay fit so you can enjoy a better quality of life.

At the bottom of the list, you can see that there is a purification of the nervous system that takes place when practicing Ashtanga Yoga. This is possible with the breathing technique called ujjayi, or victorious breath. This happens when the inhale and exhale are steady and even and the length of the inhale is the same as the length of the exhale. Over time, the length and intensity of the inhalation and the exhalation should increase. Long, even breathing increases the internal fire which in turn strengthens and purifies the nervous system.

a young girl in a yoga pose
If you are a young person or know of young people who are interested in practicing yoga there are many kids yoga classes and other resources available for the youth who want to get a head start on their yoga journey.

Where can you practice?

If you are in the Pittsburgh area, you can practice at yoga studios like The Shala. If you are currently reading this article from a different state, there are thousands of other yoga studios across the United States that are eager to welcome more students. Many studios will offer packages as well so you can register for a few classes in advance to get more for your money.

If you are not yet comfortable with attending a yoga class in person or are worried about being able to afford the classes, there is always the option to follow tutorials on the internet on platforms such as YouTube. All you need to be able to follow along with these is some comfortable clothing and open space for you to be able to practice.

Ashtanga Yoga is a very powerful form of yoga. Its popularity continues to grow as more people engage in this practice, and are reaping the benefits. There is always more to learn about Ashtanga Yoga and as you practice this method of yoga you will continually learn more about yourself. There is no better time to begin this journey than now. The pandemic has caused many people to spend more time alone with themselves than they have been used to. We might as well take advantage of this time spent alone and be productive with ourselves by growing mentally, spiritually, and physically with the help of yoga.

If you have any further questions or comments please reach out to our team, as we are more than happy to help.

Sarah Parry

Sarah is an entrepreneur based in Pittsburgh, PA.
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