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What is Ashtanga yoga – or “The Original Vinyasa”?

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Ashtanga Vinyasa, often shortened down to Ashtanga, is one of the best-known styles of yoga both in India and in the West.

Despite its apparent popularity, only a small percentage of people practice Ashtanga yoga, whether it’s due to its physically demanding nature or the commitment it requires.

In this article, we will examine what makes Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga so special.

What is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?

primary ashtanga series stickman infography
What is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga? (infography of Ashtanga’s Primary Series)

Ashtanga yoga is a traditional practice with focus on discipline and progression.

The full name of this yoga practice is Ashtanga Vinyasa. The term ashtanga translates from Sanskrit as “eight limbs” in reference to the teachings of Sage Patanjali.

The word vinyasa means “to place in a special way”. It refers to the precise, flowing movements that are intrinsically connected with each breath.

The practice of Ashtanga yoga uses breathing, yoga asanas, and transitions between them as tools for self-improvement in one’s journey to enlightenment.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the path to spiritual enlightenment can be broken down into eight steps, or “limbs”, which include physical practice, breath work, meditation, and a series of ethical guidances.

History of Ashtanga

ancient indian pillars
History of Ashtanga

Due to its ancient origins, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact decade or even century when Ashtanga yoga was born.

Some may argue that Ashtanga yoga dates back to 200 B.C., when Sage Patanjali devised the concept of the eight limbs of yoga. However, there is no concrete evidence as to when the style of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as we know it came to exist.

The Ashtanga yoga method was popularized in the mid-twentieth century by K. Pattabhi Jois, an Indian yoga teacher who claims to have inherited his knowledge from his teacher Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.

In 1948, Jois founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, a city in southern India.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Ashtanga made its way to the West. The first Ashtanga yoga workshop in the Unites States took place in 1975, attracting only a dozen students.

Despite a very humble start, Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga began to gain popularity. Jois was invited to host workshops all over North America, as well as other countries, including Brazil and the UK.

Ashtanga Yoga Legacy

Manju P. Jois continued his fathers tradition, teaching the Ashtanga method at the Swami Gitananda Ashram. After accompanying his father to California for the original Ashtanga workshop, he continued spreading Ashtanga teachings all over the world.

Pattabhi Jois also had a daughter, Saraswathi Rangaswamy. Similar to her brother, she practiced yoga with her father since she was young. Saraswathi was the first woman to attend the Sanskrit College in Mysore, where she studied yoga and the basics of Sanskrit language.

As a woman, Saraswasthi faced a lot of backlash. When she began to teach yoga, she could only work with female students. In the 1980s, she was the first female yoga teacher in India who taught men and women together.

In India, the Ashtanga tradition is continued by R. Sharath Jois, the grandson of Patthabhi Jois. In 2007, he became the director of the Ashtanga Institute, taking over after Pattabhi was not able to teach any further.

In 2019, Sharath opened the Sharath Yoga Centre, where he leads classes and teacher training courses along with his sister Sharmila Mahesh. Currently, Sharath Yoga Centre is the only school where you can become an officially certified Ashtanga yoga teacher.

Controversy of Ashtanga

In the interest of full transparency, it is important to mention that the history of modern Ashtanga yoga is somewhat tarnished by the actions of its founder, Pattabhi Jois.

Almost a decade after his death, it has come to light that Pattabhi Jois had been using his revered status of a yoga guru to take advantage of female students.

In 2018, many of his former students started to come forward with their accounts of improper conduct, harassment, and sexual assault.

In 2019, Sharath Jois finally addressed these claims, apologizing to the women who fell victim to his grandfather’s actions and taking accountability for his own negligence:

“It brings me immense pain that I also witness him giving improper adjustments. I am sorry it caused pain for any of his students. After all these years I still feel pain from my grandfather’s actions.”

Structure of Ashtanga Yoga

middle aged man in lotus pose ashtanga
Structure of Ashtanga Yoga

The Ashtanga method revolves around discipline and repetition. It follows a set sequence of poses and transitions, bookended by the opening and closing chants.

The vast discipline of Ashtanga yoga is broken down into stages:

  • Primary series, or yoga chikitsa, is a set of poses primarily composed of forward bends. The purpose of the Primary series is to build heat within the body and target the major internal organs.

  • Second series, also known as Intermediate series or nadi shodhana, is focused on managing the nervous system. This sequence is composed of backbends, deep hip openers, and inversion asanas.

  • Advanced series, or sthira bhaga, is further broken down into four more stages. Through a series of challenging inversions and arm balances, it plays with strength and gravity.

Each new series is more difficult than the previous sequence. The practitioner can only move on to the next stage once they mastered the previous set of poses.

As the practice grows more advanced, the process is broken down even further. At this stage, the teacher may assign new asanas one by one, only when they feel that the practitioner has perfected the previous poses within the current series.

At its core, Ashtanga is a never ending practice that encourages the practitioners to better themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually through hard work and dedication.

Benefits of Ashtanga

woman in bound twist
Benefits of Ashtanga

For all of its challenges and commitment, Ashtanga remains a popular yoga practice around the world. This could only be attributed to its incredible benefits.

  • Physical strength. Due to the challenging nature of this practice, Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is a full-body workout. If you’re looking for a way to improve your fitness levels, Ashtanga yoga is sure to make you stronger.

  • Endurance. A full practice of the Primary series typically takes around 90 minutes, or even longer for a newer practitioner. It’s a long time to endure such a high-intensity practice!

  • Consistency. The entire principle of Ashtanga yoga is built upon commitment. Repeating the same sequence of poses multiple days a week is quite a challenge. However, it also allows the practitioner to witness their own progress and identify their weaknesses.

  • Cardiovascular health. Compared to the lower-impact styles of yoga, Ashtanga is guaranteed to get your blood flowing. The cardio aspect of Ashtanga Vinyasa results in reduced risk of heart disease, improved circulation, and a more stable blood pressure.

  • Flexibility. In addition to its strengthening qualities, Ashtanga yoga includes many poses that stretch major muscle groups and improve joint mobility. In fact, it is one of the few styles of yoga that focuses on active flexibility.

  • Variable pace. One of the more peculiar things about Ashtanga is the opportunity to practice at your own pace. The poses and transitions are defined by the breaths, which naturally results in some practitioners moving slower than others.

  • Mental clarity. The purpose of Ashtanga is to use asanas, pranayama, and intense focus as a means to achieve mental clarity and complete release of one’s ego. The effort required for this practice can really help you put things in perspective.

  • Continuous development. No matter how proficient you become within your personal practice, there will always be room for improvement in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. Ashtanga practice is a lifelong commitment with a promise of great gratification in a form of personal development.

Ashtanga Terminology

indian sanskrit engravings
Ashtanga Terminology

Before you attend your first Ashtanga yoga class, it’s important to familiarise yourself with the terms commonly used in this type of yoga. Ashtanga is a fast-paced practice, so the teacher may not be able to stop and explain the meaning of each term in the middle of a lesson.

Surya Namaskar

Surya Namaskar is colloquially known as Sun Salutations. A sequence within a sequence, Surya Namaskar takes place at the start of the practice.

It is a series of transitions synchronized with the breaths that helps the body warm up and become more supple.

In Ashtanga yoga practice, there are two variations of Surya Namaskar, A and B. They are repeated several times in a fluid, continuous manner.

Vinyasa

A term that gave life to an adjacent style of yoga, in the context of Ashtanga, Vinyasa refers to the transition between certain poses or sequences.

At its core, Vinyasa includes three asanas:

  • Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)

  • Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukho Svanasana)

  • Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukho Svanasana)

Vinyasa allows the body to reset between asymmetrical poses, in addition to acting as a segue between different asanas.

Chakrasana

Another type of transition in Ashtanga yoga, Chakrasana is essentially a backwards roll that allows the practitioner to switch between a supine position into Chaturanga Dandasana, kickstarting a round of Vinyasa.

Chakrasana is only featured in the finishing sequence that includes postures such as Plow Pose (Halasana) and Upwards Lotus (Urdhva Padmasana).

Due to its technical nature, and the potential risks one faces if the transition is not performed correctly, some Ashtanga students opt not to use Chakrasana.

Jump-through

Transitioning from the seated postures into Vinyasa, one must perform a so-called jump-through.

This transition involves pulling the knees into the chest, and bringing the weight into the hands to lift the seat off the ground before jumping back into Chaturanga.

After Vinyasa is completed, the jump-through works just as well in the opposite direction, allowing the practitioner to return to the seated position from Downward Dog.

Mysore

There are two types of Ashtanga yoga classes: Mysore and led classes.

In the led class, students are instructed by the teacher, moving in unison from start to finish.

In contrast, Mysore-style classes take place in a shared space, with every practitioner moving at their own pace. The teacher keeps an eye on everyone, adjusting them as needed.

Counting

In traditional Ashtanga practice, transitions between poses are announced with a count rather than asana names.

Before attending your first Ashtanga class, it’s best to learn Sanskrit numbers and the poses they correspond with.

What to expect in Ashtanga Yoga classes?

ashtanga yoga class people in forward fold
What to expect in Ashtanga Yoga classes?

Ashtanga class starts with an opening chant. In a public class, teacher will often have a printout available for the students to read.

The physical practice begins with five repetitions of Surya Namaskar A and B.

After that, practitioners follow a predetermined sequence of poses, holding each asana for five to ten breaths.*

The Primary series is broken down into the standing sequence, seated sequence, and finishing sequence, followed by the Final Three:

  • Bound Lotus (Baddha Padmasana)

  • Lotus Pose (Padmasana)

  • Scale Pose (Tolasana or Utplutihi)

The practice ends with the closing chant and an extended relaxation in Corpse Pose (Savasana).

*while majority of asanas are performed for 5 breaths, inversions of the finishing sequence are held for 8 breaths, and the Final Three poses are held for 10 breaths.

FAQs

What is the difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga?

On the surface, Ashtanga yoga and Vinyasa Flow may appear to be the same. The confusion is facilitated by the similarity in their respective names, as well as their process.

The style of Vinyasa Flow actually evolved from Ashtanga, embracing such aspects as the fast pace, breathing technique, and many of the poses.

The main difference between these two styles is in their approach to yoga. Ashtanga is a fairly rigid practice, following the same sequence of poses with very little deviation.

Vinyasa Yoga, on the other hand, is more varied and liberal. It may include less traditional pose variations, making it more accessible to beginners and casual practitioners.

Is Ashtanga suitable for beginners?

The short answer is no. Ashtanga is an incredibly demanding practice, even in its simplified form. Additionally, this is a fast-flowing practice that involves quite a long sequence of asanas.

If you are a beginner set on becoming an ashtangi, it’s best to spend some time working your way up to it.

What time of the day is best for Ashtanga practice?

Traditionally, Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is practiced early in the morning, greeting the sun as it rises above the horizon. This way, the practice is performed with a clear head and on an empty stomach.

How often should you practice Ashtanga Vinyasa?

Practitioners of Ashtanga yoga are expected to devote six days a week to their practice, with the exception of illness or the first three days of a menstrual cycle.

Even if you don’t complete a full practice, the act of showing up every single day is a commitment that will serve your body and mind for many years to come.

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