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Ashtanga Yoga: What is it?

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 235 views

Power for the body: Ashtanga Yoga is one of the most dynamic yoga styles. It’s challenging, sweaty and involves a lot of jumps. This calms the mind and stimulates blood circulation. Read more about it here.

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

A dance of the breath with the body: Asthanga Yoga is like a choreography that combines dynamics and statics. The yoga style has a high tempo, which is created by the flowing transitions of the exercises. The yogi also holds certain positions for up to 25 breaths.

The Indian Sri K. Pattabhi Jois discovered this yoga style. Among others, Bryan Kest, the founder of Power Yoga , as well as Sharon Gannon and David Life, the founders of Jivamukti Yoga , learned from him .

Ashtanga Yoga consists of six series, which in turn consist of a fixed series and a certain number of postures (asanas). The high speed of the yoga style helps to reduce stress , has a holistic effect and also promotes physical well-being such as the ability to concentrate and vitality. However, a slow approach is important, especially for beginners. Otherwise the jumps can lead to strains and knee problems.

The word Ashtanga is composed of two components: Astau stands for eight, anga for limb. The name refers to the eight limbs of the yogic path, which the sage Patanjali explained in the Yoga Sutra.

Patanjali probably lived between 200 BC and 200 AD. According to legend, he is said to have been the incarnation of the snake god Adishesha. So he came to earth to help people. All exercises in Ashtanga Yoga are integrated into a so-called Vinyasa structure.

Vinyasa in this context means “change”. In Ashtanga Yoga, a change from one asana to another takes place through predetermined movements. They are linked to a specific rhythm of inhalation and exhalation.

According to the Yoga Sutra, the goal of yoga is achieved when a person can bring his mind to complete stillness. There are eight steps to get to this step:

  • Yama – attitude towards the world
  • Niyama – behavior towards ourselves
  • Asana – physical exercises
  • Pranayama – the concentration of energy through breathing exercises
  • Pratyahara: the withdrawal of the senses from the outside world
  • Dharana: the concentration on the essence
  • Dhyana: Meditation
  • Samadhi: the self-knowledge

This is how Ashtanga Yoga works

The time in the early morning is generally best for Ashtanga Yoga. Immediately after getting up, the body is not yet distracted with the digestive process. The exercises also lead to a good body feeling and strengthen the nerves. However, if you don’t have time in the morning, you can easily do the training in the evening. The advantage of the late training time: the muscles are more flexible in the evening.

Ashtanga Yoga is practiced in a set order. There are a total of six series that have an increasing level of difficulty. Each series consists of a fixed sequence of asanas. Founder Pattabhi Jois compares the principle of Ashtanga Yoga to a garland or wreath. Just as flowers are drawn one after the other on a wreath, the asanas in Ashtanga Yoga are also lined up according to a certain pattern.

The image of the wreath illustrates the cyclical aspect of Ashtanga Yoga, explains the author. Every single session is a kind of life cycle. It ends with Shavasana, the corpse pose. When you get out of it, it’s like a kind of rebirth. Even after a session you usually feel reborn. Yogis sweat out toxins, the mind clears and thoughts come to rest.

The first series is called Yoga Chikitsa, which means yoga therapy. The focus is on the healing effects of yoga. The second series, the Nadi Sodhana, is about promoting body and mind through the harmonization of the nervous system. Sthira Bhaga is the name of the third series. Its task is to intensify the life energy, the prana. It is divided into four parts. This completes the six rows.

An hour usually begins with a breathing exercise. It consists of 24 deep inhalations and exhalations or alternating breaths. Students often come to the lesson from a stressful everyday life. The ten minutes of silence gives them a chance to calm down and prepare for the session.

Then comes the opening mantra. In some cases there are other preparatory exercises to open the hips or to flex the toes. After the introductory mantra, the bodywork begins with the sun salutations. Then come the standing and sitting positions and the closing sequence. The body work concludes with the Ashtanga final mantra before the session ends with a relaxation exercise while lying down.

Then comes the opening mantra. In some cases there are other preparatory exercises to open the hips or to flex the toes. After the introductory mantra, the bodywork begins with the sun salutations. Then come the standing and sitting positions and the closing sequence. The body work concludes with the Ashtanga final mantra before the session ends with a relaxation exercise while lying down.

The Mysore Technique in Ashtanga Yoga

In Ashtanga Yoga, the yogis do not move synchronously. Rather, everyone does the specified asana order at their own pace. The advantage of this so-called Mysore technique is that everyone can take their time with the asanas that are difficult for them. It is only necessary to know the basic sequence at all. A teacher is there to support the lesson, walks through the rows, corrects and provides assistance.

Occasionally, Ashtanga Yoga is also offered as a guided class. In this case, the courses are called Led Class or Talk through. With them, the teacher announces all asanas including inhalation and exhalation. The purpose behind it is to promote the condition of the practitioners.

The Vinyasa principle in Ashtanga Yoga

All asanas in Ashtanga Yoga are connected in a precisely defined sequence. The interplay of breathing and movement is precisely defined. The goal of Vinyasas is inner purification. The idea behind it: through the combination of breath and movement, the blood boils. The heat that yoga generates is said to purify the blood and make it more fluid. This allows it to circulate more easily throughout the body, reaching internal organs and connective tissues , thereby eliminating physical ailments.

Die Ujjayi-Atmung in Ashtanga Yoga

The breath plays an important role in Ashtanga Yoga. Ujjayi breathing is used throughout the training. Translated, this means something like “victorious breathing”. It helps to gain control of the chest.

Ujjayi breathing is always through the nose. Typical of Ashtanga yoga is the sound that is made when you breathe. It is sometimes compared to the “wind whispering in the branches” or to the sound of a cobra. Specifically, it is caused by the narrowing of the glottis. This occurs when the tongue is rolled back so that the tip hits the roof of the mouth.

Focusing on this tone is an important method of training attention and gaining awareness of the moment.

Bandhas in Ashtanga Yoga

In Ashtanga Yoga, breathing is always directly connected to the activation of the so-called Bandhas. Literally translated, Bandha means something like lock or chain. The goal of a Bandha: By contracting certain muscles, the energy should be kept in the body. This creates a beneficial effect.

The Mula-Bandha plays an elementary role in Ashtanga Yoga. Behind this is the so-called root closure or root foundation. Specifically, it is about pulling the anal sphincter towards the navel. This strengthens the pelvic floor and the lower digestive organs.

The Uddiyana Bandha is considered to be the most dynamic Bandha. Uddiyana means “flying upwards”. The focus of this energy management exercise is controlling the abdomen. This forms an ideal foundation for inhalation.

The Jalandhara Bandha is also known as the Closure of the Throat. It occurs primarily in pranayama (breathing exercises). It prevents pressure from building up in the head while holding the breath. It is also designed to prevent energy from leaving the body.

Drishti: the points of view in Ashtanga Yoga

Drishti means point of view. The goal is to focus the mind on one spot. The attention should be directed away from other objects and more and more inwards to prepare for the spiritual stages of the eightfold path of yoga. There are nine different viewpoints in total:

  • nasagrai (the Nase)
  • brumahya (the third eye, which can also be called the inner eye)
  • angushta ma dyai (die Daumen)
  • Nabi Chakra (The Nabel)
  • urdhva (to the ceiling)
  • hastagrai (at hand)
  • Padhyograi (Zu Den Zehen)
  • parshva (to the right side or to the left side)

Tristhana: the unity of posture, breathing and focus

The unity of posture, breathing and focus is called Tristhana. It triggers an energy that allows the energy of the five Ayurvedic elements to unfold in the body. These are:

  • Earth: It is given through Mula-Bandha and strengthens stability and down-to-earthness of the body.
  • Water : It enters the body through physical exertion in the form of perspiration, where it remains as energy.
  • Air: The interplay of Bandhas and Ujjayi breathing bring lightness to the body.
  • Fire: All of the preceding elements stimulate Agni, the digestive heat.
  • Ether: It presents Prana, the life energy that remains as the sum of everything

The Effects of Ashtanga Yoga

Since the pace of Ashtanga Yoga is high and the yogi sweats a lot, the fitness factor is high. The yoga style also helps to reduce stress, promotes the ability to concentrate and improves blood circulation in the body. Digestion also gets going.

Who is Ashtanga Yoga suitable for?

Ashtanga Yoga is very demanding and therefore perfect for anyone who wants to work out. But anyone who is interested can also take part. Especially those who feel stiff or old can benefit from the dynamic training. It is only important that yogis do not overtax themselves, but do everything at their own pace. If you have injuries or are pregnant, you should first check with a doctor or yoga teacher to what extent you can participate.

Where are Ashtanga yoga classes?

In larger German cities, Ashtanga Yoga is often offered in yoga studios. In addition, there are often workshops lasting several days, which are particularly suitable for beginners. Those who would like to do Ashtanga Yoga on vacation can also take part in retreats organized by various organizers.

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