When I started my yoga journey a few years ago I have heard and read about Ashtanga yoga several times, but I never practiced it until I went to India in October 2018, where Ashtanga yoga was part of our daily routine during our Yoga Teacher Training. I fell in love with the practice right away and wanted to share some more information and insights about it, because it is so much more than just the physical aspect (well, as always when it comes to yoga right?)!
This specific style of yoga dates back to the early 1900’s, where Sri T. Krishnamacharya was taught Ashtanga Yoga by his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari. It was passed on until it finally reached Pattabhi Jois who started teaching Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore, India from 1948 onwards. More and more students arrived at his yoga shala, until this dynamic style of yoga became internationally known in the early 1970’s.
Ashtanga Yoga is, as already mentioned, a very dynamic form of yoga, the term ‘Ashtanga’ derives from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (= the basis of classical yoga philosophy) and stands for “eight-limbs“, which basically act as a guide for a yogi or anyone who wants to life full of purpose and meaning. Ashtanga yoga practitioners incorporate these eight limbs, or at least as many as possible, into their practice in order to reap the full benefits, since Ashtanga yoga and yoga in general act as a wonderful tool to help you live your own life with more clarity, focus and bliss. And who doesn’t want to live a life like that? 🙂
↠ The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga ↞
Yama [ethical standards/moral codes]
- Ahimsa: nonviolence, non-harming
- Satya: truthfulness
- Asteya: non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: continence
- Aparigraha: non-possessiveness
The first limb of Ashtanga yoga, the Yamas, do not only refer to yourself, but also to everybody else in your life. If you practice non-violence, truthfulness, etc. with yourself and all the people around you, you will eventually achieve harmony with yourself and your surroundings.
Niyama [self-purification, -discipline and study]
- Saucha: purity, cleanness
- Samtosa: contentment, acceptance
- Tapas: self-discipline, endurance
- Svadhyaya: study of the self and the Vedas
- Isvara pranidhana: surrender to the Supreme, Brahman, God
By practicing the second limb, the Niyamas, the aim is to become fully and deeply aware of yourself, your mind, body and spirit. The Niyamas are all about self-discovery and self-discipline, as well as personal development and self-reflection. It most importantly requires mindfulness and through surrendering to what is, what was and what is about to come, you will enter a state of complete acceptance and peace.
Āsana [physical yoga postures]
The most obvious part and third limb of Ashtanga yoga are the Asanas, or physical yoga poses. Yet, there is much more than meets the eye. In fact, the Asanas help to achieve and maintain a healthy physical body in order for you to be able to follow all other limbs of Ashtanga yoga and experience bliss. In total there are six different series, all of which follow a specific and coordinated sequence of postures. The most commonly practiced series are the first and second one, as they are already physically demanding and only very few yogis are really able to move on to a higher level. Pictured below is the primary series of Ashtanga including all Asanas:
It might sound a bit monotonous to you when you think about repeating the same sequence over and over again, but there’s obviously a good reason behind that. In Ashtanga yoga, avoiding simply does not exist, which means you have to enter and hold every pose for 5 breaths, whether you enjoy the Asana or not.
You might have heard this saying “the yoga pose you avoid the most is the one you need the most” and while I do not fully agree with this quote, because sometimes your body and bone structure is just not designed for intense backbends or full splits, I also believe, that we usually tend to attend those yoga postures, which come easy to us and feel good on our bodies. So while I think that it’s important to listen to your body and practice the poses, that feel good for yourself and do wonders to your body, I am also a firm believer that, in order to grow physically and mentally you have to challenge your mind and body by attending and holding Asanas, which do not come too easy for you and might feel like a pain in the ass (at least at first).
This is what I love so much about Ashtanga yoga, because you just can’t pick out those poses that you really like. You have to go through the same sequence every single time and you will perform the poses you love and the ones you hate. There are no short-cuts either, since you will perform each and every Asana for 5 constant in- and exhales before you move onto the next, meaning there are no breaks inbetween. There’s no changing, no avoiding, nothing of that kind. You probably also might have noticed that your mind loves to go after things that are easy and don’t require too much effort and that your mind loves to wander around while producing thousands of irrelevant thoughts a day. Ashtanga yoga provides you with clarity and focus. It sets an intention and acceptance to your practice and your life. You can practice being fully present without having to think about what pose to attend next. Just try it out for yourself and see whether you will feel a freeing sensation while and after practicing Ashtanga yoga.
Pranayama [extension and control of the breath]
‘As long as there is breath in the body, there is life. When breath departs, so too does life. Therefore, regulate the breath.’ ~ Hatha Yoga Pradipika Ch.2, S.3
The fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga is Pranayama, the awareness and practice of the breath. The Sanskrit term Pranayama can be divided into two parts: ‘Prana‘ is the life force or universal/vital energy, whereas ‘Ayama‘ means extension or control. Consequently, Pranayama relates to the extension/control of your life force.
In order to deepen your awareness and concentration Ashtanga practitioners apply a specific form of breathing, the so called Ujjayi breath, translated as ‘victorious breath’ or breath of fire. Ujjayi breathing is used to synchronize the breath and movements of the body and to create heat within the body. It also helps to become present and make the mind still. Ideally you want your in- and exhales to be of equal length accompanying you through your entire practice. Ujjayi breathing acts as anchor that you can always come back to and use it to check in with yourself.
Check out this video if you want a practical guide on how to learn the Ujjayi breath.
Pratyahara [internal withdrawal of the senses]
Pratyahara, the withdrawal of senses, falls under the fifth limb of Ashtanga and is used to free yourself of any disturbing thought patterns or external distractions, which might interrupt your practice. This is where the ‘Mysore’ style comes in. Every Ashtanga yoga practitioner has its own pace and the focus lies upon your self-practice only. There is no comparison, no glancing over to your neighbor and what she/he might be doing ‘better’ than you. Regarding your five senses:
- Eyes ~ No staring at others or comparing; keep your awarness on your focus points (Drishtis – explained below)
- Ears ~ Listen to your own breath, your Ujjayi breathing;
- Nose ~ Ideally you want to take a shower before your practice in order to avoid any unpleasant smells; no strong fragrances or perfumes
- Taste ~ This might be obvious, but you should not eat or drink during your practice to keep your focus
- Touch ~ There are no contacts other than the ones from your teacher or your bodyparts on your mat
Dharana [one pointed concentration]
Concentration is an essential part of your Ashtanga yoga practice, which is where Drishtis, focus points, come into play. In every Asana there are specific body parts you are focusing your attention (and eyes) on, so you can stop your mind from wandering around. In total there are 8 different Drishtis, or focused gazes, such as
- Angusthamadhye (thumb),
- Bhrumadhye (eyebrow),
- Nasagre (tip of nose),
- Hastagrahe (tips of hands),
- Parshva (side),
- Urdhva (up),
- Nābhicakre (navel),
- Padayoragre (tips of feet)
Whenever you take an Ashtanga yoga class, your teacher will usually guide you through your practice and tell you when and where you should focus your gaze on (not in the Mysore style though – every student is required to know the sequence and Drishtis)
Dharna, the sixth limb, also functions as a preperation for the mind to be able to ‘fall’ into meditation towards the end of the practice. While you focus on the specific Drishtis throughout your practice, you also have your attention fully on the breath and the present moment.
The seventh limb of Ashtanga yoga is Dhyana, or also reffered to as meditation. Translated from the Sanskrit word ‘Dhyai‘ it means ‘to think of’. The idea behind your Ashtanga practice is that, after implementing all previous limbs and completing your practice, you are supposed to fall into meditation in Padmasana (Full Lotus Pose) shortly before Shavasana. In meditation you are completely focused on your breath, you are absolutely present in the here and now and free of anything that doesn’t serve you in this moment.
In our daily Ashtanga practice in India, before entering Shavasana, we stayed in Lotus pose for 25 breaths (or Half Lotus, since Full Lotus Pose is a very advanced pose and requires a lot of hip flexibility and not everyone of us was able to attend the pose, which is totally fine, because this pose asks for mindfulness, rather than open hips). Our wonderful yoga teacher Lydia offered us to repeat a few words in our mind while we inhale and exhale to help us stay present.
With each inhale mentally repeat ‘I am not my body’ and with every exhale ‘I am not even the mind’.
I still use this amazing technique every now and then, because I can feel the power of these words. This is also what Dhyana/meditation is here to teach you ↠ you are so much more than just your body or your mind. There’s an infinite universe within yourself, that you can only get to know and truly discover when your mind is still and you are not identified with your outer layers. Keep in mind that so far no master has fallen from the sky! Meditation is a life long ‘practice’ and requires patience and persistence. It is a daily practice and there are so many wonderful ways to practice meditation, which I’m going to write about in another article (I promise) 🙂
Ultimately, you are supposed to reach Samadhi, the eight and final limb of Ashtanga. After your meditation in Padmasana you will relax in Shavasana, in which you will feel the energy (Prana) flowing through your body and you will be able to receive all the amazing benefits from your practice. You will feel the bliss. Samadhi, as many other Sanskrit words, does not have one definite translation, as there are many different meanings to it. Samadhi is translated as ‘to see equally’ or ‘to direct together’, which means that you are able to see and connect the human consciousness with the cosmic or universal consciousness. You will feel completely connected to your Higher Self and the universe. Furthermore, there is no comparison between one or the other ↠ there is just Oneness itself. A state of complete bliss and freedom. Samadhi is composed of different states, which I also would love to explain in more detail in another blogpost, but for now these are the most fundamental aspects of the eighth limb of Ashtanga yoga.
I guess these were the most important insights about the Ashtanga practice and I hope that you got a better overview about this style of yoga. So if this has awoken your interest in trying out Ashtanga for yourself, just look for a yoga studio close by, which offers Ashtanga classes or search for online classes on Youtube, etc, but keep in mind, that Ashtanga is a very dynamic and vigorous practice and it is totally fine to start out slowly and move your way up!
I hope you enjoyed this blogpost and I was able to share with you some interesting and worth knowing insights, which help you understand this practice a bit better! All references, unless otherwise linked, all derive from my yoga and philosophy teachers in my Yoga Teacher Training in Goa, India at Ek Omkar Yoga in October 2018.
Have a wonderful day!