What Is Ashtanga Yoga? A Beginners Guide

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Are you one of those people that love fitness but feel Yoga is too gentle for you?

So often I hear people say that Yoga isn’t much of a workout, or they prefer a workout that will make them sweat. Well maybe you should try Ashtanga Yoga.

Ashtanga is a dynamic and strong practice linking breath to movement through quick sequences. Prepare to challenge yourself, sweat and tone your entire body.

What Is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga translates to ‘8 limbed yoga’, referring to the 8 limbs of Yoga. (1) The 8 limbs of Yoga are guidelines that were intended for yoga practitioners to follow in order to live a more disciplined life.

​Ashtanga yoga was created by an Indian man called Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (2) who developed the practice focusing on the 3rd limb of yoga which is asana (pose). He believed that by practising the sequence of postures he developed that the 7 remaining limbs of Yoga would be realised.

Ashtanga is a set sequence of postures linked together with vinyasa, or flow of movement, in order to build heat in the body. The aim is for every breath taken to be a conscious one, creating a moving meditation. The set sequence is a consistent flow of dynamic movement designed to stretch and strengthen your body and to allow breath and energy to flow through your body easily.

There are six series, or sequences, of Ashtanga Yoga progressing greatly in strenuousness. Most practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga will stick with the Primary Series, which is the first and most recognised sequence of Ashtanga Yoga.

​There is no age limit on practicing Ashtanga, or any form of yoga for that matter. If you begin a regular practice you will see great progress and change in your body. In this short video you will see a man of 43 years with an extremely high level of Ashtanga practice and he only began at the age of 38.

​No matter what age or fitness level you are at, you can achieve greater control over your body and mind.

What To Expect In An Ashtanga Yoga Class

You’ve decided you want to try an Ashtanga class, but with no experience is this for you? Quite simply, yes. Beginners are encouraged in Ashtanga and the only way to learn this style of yoga is to give it a go.

I would always recommend letting the teacher know you are new to Ashtanga and they will assist you with modifications.

Opening Chant

To begin with you chant the opening prayer, this is a blessing of gratitude to all the teachers that have enabled this practice to continue. Chanting in a group setting helps clear the energy of the room ready for the practice to begin.

If you are not familiar with the chant just close your eyes and enjoy the energy that the chant creates.

Vinyasa, Vinyasa, Vinyasa

The sequence begins with five sets of sun salutation A, followed by five sets of sun salutation B. You may be familiar with sun salutations from vinyasa or hatha yoga.

Vinyasa translates to flow and this is exactly what you are doing in a sun salutation and in a vinyasa, flowing from one movement to the next in time with your breath.The entire foundation of Ashtanga Yoga is based upon the dynamic flow of the sun salutation.

​As you move into the seated section of the primary series you will do a vinyasa in between each side of every pose. This is extremely strenuous and can cause injury if you get tired and lose focus on alignment.

The teacher will advise you to sit in dandasana, a simple seated posture with your legs extended, and connect to your breath. Remember, yoga is all about listening to and respecting your body, so there is no shame in sitting out of a few vinyasas.

Repetition

The Ashtanga yoga sequence is set, it never changes. So you can go to any Ashtanga class in the world and be guided through the exact same postures.

The benefit of this is that you will start to see the progress in your practice as your body begins to find ease in the postures that you once found difficult.

​Expect To Be Adjusted

There is a lot of hands on adjustment from the teachers in Ashtanga, so don’t be alarmed if suddenly the teacher is laying on your back when you are in a seated forward fold.

There is little demonstration in an Ashtanga class. You will be guided vocally through the sequence and adjusted on a one to one basis as the teacher walks around the room.

When you become familiar with the Ashtanga sequence this can be a really freeing and enjoyable experience. Not having a teacher to watch at the front of the class allows you to have a more internal practice and keep focus, encouraging a more meditative approach to the physical side of yoga.

What Makes Ashtanga Yoga Different From Other Forms Of Yoga

#1 Ashtanga VS Vinyasa

The technique of vinyasa, linking each posture to breath in a fluid movement, derives from Ashtanga. So there are similarities in that both styles build heat and strength in the body. The main difference is that there is freedom in a vinyasa class, whereas Ashtanga is a set sequence.

Each vinyasa class you attend will be different and there will be a theme or key posture that you are warming your body up to perform.

#2 Ashtanga VS Hatha

Similarly, the main difference is that there is no set sequence of postures in Hatha yoga. Hatha is much more passive and static than an Ashtanga class. In Hatha yoga there is not always a need to flow from each pose as the focus is more on the benefit of that particular posture and getting deeper into it.

​#3 Ashtanga VS Bikram

Ashtanga and Bikram both have a set sequence of postures. The difference is that Bikram is practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees and does not include vinyasa or sun salutations. Both of these styles are physically challenging but Ashtanga has a deeper philosophical approach and spiritual goal at the focus.

#4 Ashtanga VS Yin

The aim of Yin yoga is not to create heat in the body, in fact you can practice this style cool. Yin is extremely passive, performing the majority of the postures on the floor and holding poses for anywhere between 3 to 15 minutes.

In Yin yoga you are working to target the deeper layers of the body, the connective tissue and joints. In Ashtanga you are targeting the superficial layers of the body through short held postures and quick movements.

#5 Ashtanga VS Kundalini

Ashtanga is very physical, whereas Kundalini has a strong focus on breathing and meditation. Again there is no set sequence in Kundalini and the intention is to awaken the energy that lays dormant at the base of our spine.

This energy works its way up your spine aligning your energy centres, which are also known as Chakras. Ashtanga has a stronger emphasis on using breath with movement to create and preserve energy (prana) in the body

#6 Ashtanga VS Iyengar

In Iyengar the intention is to perform each posture with correct alignment. You may hold an asana for a longer period to ensure you are performing it accurately. There is a lot of work with props in Iyengar to aid the alignment of postures and to enable you to get the most out of each pose.

Benefits Of Ashtanga Yoga

Increase in strength

There are many postures in the Ashtanga sequence that require weight bearing. Combining these postures with the repetition of vinyasa and chaturanga (plank push up) build bone density and muscle strength.

Working with your own body weight is a great way to build strength in your muscles. (3) That is one reason why Ashtanga yoga is very popular with men.

Increase in flexibility

Being flexible is extremely beneficial for our physical body. It helps protect against injuries and enable faster muscle recovery after working out.

The stretches included in Ashtanga not only stretch the muscles, but also the joints. These particular yoga stretches release lactic acid from muscle cells making muscle contraction easier. (4)

Mood Elevation

Mood elevation and peace of mind are widely recognised benefits of yoga and with good reason. Maintaining focus on your breath allows you to quiet the mind and leave you with a sense of calm.

Many studies have proven the effects yoga has on your mind. One study in particular concluded that the practice of yoga increased GABA levels in the brain (5) and resulted in a decrease in anxiety and depression. (6)

Increase in fitness

Being a vigorous form of yoga, Ashtanga could count as a cardio workout. This style of yoga increases the heart rate, builds heat in the body and will definitely break you out in a sweat.

​Lowers blood pressure

With yoga reducing symptoms of anxiety and elevating mood it’s not a surprise that it can also lower blood pressure. In a study ran by Dr Debbie Cohen (7), she was able to show that a regular yoga practice can result in a drop in blood pressure. (8)

This ancient discipline encourages focus, inner strength and stillness in the mind. Being such a physically strong form of yoga, Ashtanga gives you the opportunity to gain the fitness benefits we all desire as well as the mental clarity and peace of mind we all need.

“Anyone can practice. Young man can practice. Old man can practice. Very old man can practice. Man who is sick, he can still practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people; lazy people can’t practice Ashtanga yoga.”  
- Sri.K. Pattabhi Jois

Begin An Ashtanga Practice At Home

Practice the Sun Salutations with Kino MacGregor (9), international yoga teacher and one of the few people to receive the certification to teach Ashtanga yoga from the founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois himself.

1. Practice the Sun Salutations with Kino

2. One hour introduction to Ashtanga Yoga with Lesley Fightmaster. (10)

3. The full primary series Ashtanga class

In Conclusion

Ashtanga Yoga is a very traditional and physically strong form of yoga based upon the principle of integrating the eight limbs of yoga into your life. If you want to practice a style that will challenge you, make you sweat and develop your inner and outer strength then I highly recommend Ashtanga Yoga.

​Madonna (13) is a big fan of Ashtanga yoga and with such a great physique it’s no surprise. In an interview Madonna said she got into Yoga after having a baby and that ‘Ashtanga is a metaphor for life...Yoga is a workout for your mind, your body and your soul’

​Whether you are new to yoga or an experienced yogi there is something in Ashtanga for you. Practicing a style that has its roots still firmly grounded in India and Yoga philosophy is both refreshing and invigorating.

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