“I have found Ashtanga Yoga to be the most complete and balanced routine of physical for the development of stamina, strength and flexibility. Further, its application as a therapeutic tool in the treatment and recovery from sports related injury is unsurpassed.”
Dr Calvo (President, Texas Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery)
So you think that Ashtanga is that Power Yoga practice, where you need to be an athlete to do it? You're burning calories and working up a sweat. This is the Yoga to take if you want to get into shape. It's not about that meditative-type stuff. Let`s separate the myths out – yes you do get pretty sweaty practicing Ashtanga Yoga and actually, yes, you will become very physically fit if you practice it regularly but it's also all about focus and meditation, along with breathing. If you want to get really literal about it, Ashtanga is Yoga.
The heart of Ashtanga practice is the six series of linked postures which last anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours. Most people only get as far as the first two series, the Primary Series, or/ and the Intermediate Series. The Primary Series is the foundation and meant to detoxify the body. Many Forward Bends are included. The Intermediate Series cleanses the energy channels, and back bends are involved. The four advanced series were originally only two, but they were eventually divided up into four because of their inherent difficulty. Those who accomplish them have an extraordinary amount of strength, flexibility - and humility. Linking the breath to the moves is what Vinyasa (flowing posture) is all about. Ashtanga is sometimes called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (and occasionally you'll also see its alternate spelling, Astanga).
Repetition of a sequence is part of the nature of the style but it is a comprehensive physical routine – working every facet of the body – the ritualistic nature enables the meditation because you don’t need to be concerned with what posture comes next and this allows you to focus on the breath.
Pranayama, or breathing, is one of three additional aspects which are crucial to Ashtanga. The specific pranayama performed is Ujjayi, in which the breath is inhaled and exhaled through the back of the throat, making an echo-like sound (some call it the "Darth Vader" breath). The other important practice involves the Bandhas or locks - tensing up parts of the body to control and enhance energy flow and protect the body. The two locks most often used are the Mula Bandha, or root lock, located around the perineum (between the sex organs and the anal orifice). The second lock is Uddiyana Bandha, or Upward Lock, in which the lower part of the belly, below the navel, tightens. There's also a third lock, the less-discussed chin lock or Jalandhara Bandha. The third key element is the Drishti (or gaze point) which is the focal point for the eyes. This soft focus point on or around the body stops the eyes and mind from being distracted by things around you, allowing you to focus on your own body and mat.
Sun Salutations are practiced to warm up the body (and usually Ashtanga is practiced in a warm room - although it's not as hot as some styles). Then comes the series of poses for whichever level of Ashtanga is being taught. Every Ashtanga class ends the same way - with a set of cooling-down postures and a good, long Shavasana.
Because Ashtanga Yoga is strenuous, it is possible to injure yourself and in truth, most injuries that happen during Ashtanga Yoga are the fault of the student themselves. The students that Ashtanga draws in are often go-getters who tend to be ambitious. Sometimes they push themselves far harder than they should, and that's when they get hurt. That is why humility and patience are so important in Ashtanga practice. And while Ashtanga doesn't have the precision of some forms of yoga, it is very important to get the technique right - the combination of breathing, locks and Asana. The proper technique, combined with the proper attitude, will keep injury at bay.
Ashtanga’s physical nature does not however mean that it is not accessible to everyone – irrespective of age, conditioning, fitness, flexibility, weight, etc. By using variations to suit you, focusing on the breathing, not being competitive and taking breaks whenever you need to, you can tailor the practice to meet your daily needs. As David Williams (one of the first Westerners to learn the style in the ‘70’s) says: "Real yoga is what you can't see. It's invisible. Otherwise you would have to tell people with physical limitations that they can't do yoga. Yoga is about union. You can't exclude people. You don't have to do this to do yoga
The best aspect of Ashtanga is its freedom to teach you about yourself. It is not an easy Yoga style, and it will bring out all your frustrations, delusions of grandeur and petty emotions. The only real way to progress is not by becoming more strong and flexible, but by conquering these negative ego traits first. If you master your ego, the strength and flexibility will follow. Always remember - you outer world is only a reflection of what is going on inside you.
For a beginner to Ashtanga, we recommend guided classes. In the Self Practice format, students can practice Ashtanga at their own pace with more individual attention from the teacher, which provides an opportunity to move into new postures when it's appropriate. Guided classes are great for learning how to practice and also for the energy and esprit de corps that comes from everyone breathing and moving together.
Generally, most serious students gravitate toward Self Practice classes, where they are expected to know the proper pacing and sequencing of the practice, and supply their own motivation. Once Suryanamaskar A and B (Sun Salutations) and the traditional sequence of standing poses have been committed to memory, then one is ready for it. Some people prefer being told what to do and when to do it (another option here would be to do a Beginners Course to develop a foundation for your practice). For these people, obviously, a guided class is good. Others prefer to work independently and figure things out on their own. For them, a Self Practice class is good. But perhaps another perspective is that some independent spirits may benefit from the discipline of a guided class and some more dependent spirits could benefit from the independence that the Self Practice format provides. The most important thing, of course, is to practice, both regularly (at least 2/3 times a week) and for a sustained period of time.
“Practice is the best of all instructions.” Aristotle
Sources: Yoga Journal, All Spirit Fitness and David Swenson.