What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is a form of dynamic yoga and is distinct from Hatha yoga in that it includes the practice of the ‘vinyasa’. Vinyasa literally means a system of movements and synchronized breath. These movements are what link each posture to the next and are what make Ashtanga yoga dynamic. Each posture is meticulously designed with a set number of movements and breaths so that the advanced student is able to link these postures with no extra breaths and movements. The sequence of postures is always the same and the student adds postures as her practice progresses. As well as the system of vinyasa, there are other elements that characterize the practice: Ujjayi breathing (pranayama), Bandha (energy lock) Drishti (gaze point). These all help the practitioner to concentrate and increase his energy during the practice.
Ujjayi breathing is achieved through gently contracting the glottis (a small muscle level with the trachea), which produces a breath that is audible, slow and even. It is essential, for an effective practice, to employ Ujjayi breathing at al times. Hearing the sound of our breath also helps to calm and focus the mind.
Bandhas are muscular contractions, which aid control of energy. Mula Bandha, at the level of the coccyx, consists of contracting the anal sphincter muscles and Uddyana Bandha is a contraction of the lower abdomen. Another, Jalandara Bandha, which is at throat-level, is practiced during some pranayamas (breathing exercises). By using bandhas we improve our concentration and control our energy.
Drishti (‘gaze point’ in Sanskrit) consists of completely focusing our gaze throughout the duration of the posture. Each posture has it own drishti and employing this total concentration leads to meditation. It also boosts general concentration and tones the ocular muscles, which can help eyesight problems.
By means of these three elements – Ujjayi breathing, Bandha (or control of energy centers) and Drishti (or control via gaze) we can increase our capacity for concentration during the whole practice and learn to control our energy. We also become aware, through practice, that if we are not concentrating well it is difficult to realize the postures.
Ashtanga yoga practiced with the correct breathing technique purifies the body physically, mentally and emotionally. Through the body we become aware of our emotional blocks and our mental processes, learning to observe them with detachment, or without identifying ourselves with them. The Primary Series (of asanas) of Ashtanga is also known as Yoga Chikitsa, which means yoga therapy. Practicing Ashtanga regularly will heal not only the body but also the spirit. It enables the development and intensification of concentration, controlling and purifying the thinking. Patanjali, the great sage who compiled and structured all knowledge of yoga in the Yoga Sutras speaks of this close relationship between yoga and the mind: “yogaha vritti nirodaha”, with yoga, fluctuations of the mind cease.
Once this is achieved we are no longer dominated by dilemmas and troubles. Yoga takes us to a mental state that is more alert, serene and conscious. We stop being victims of our mental and emotional processes and cultivate a greater control over our minds. Upon achieving control we also gain freedom.
Ashtanga Yoga – The eight limbs
Patanjali, the great yogi and sage who lived between 500 and 200 years BC, compiled and put into writing all the then existing knowledge of yoga in what are called ‘sutras’. In this text Patanjali defines yoga as the path towards self-realization.
Ashtanga’ in Sanskrit means eight limbs or steps, and ‘yoga’ has many meanings of which the most important are: union and path. Yoga unites the body, mind and spirit. When we connect internally with our most profound essence we achieve the dissolving of duality and we connect with ourselves. It is this sensation of unity that allows us to feel connected. The second meaning refers to the path that leads us to this union.
Embarking on the path of Ashtanga Yoga assumes practicing the eight limbs. These are:
- Yama: moral codes
- Niyama: personal
- Asana: postures, or physical practice
- Pranayama: control of prana via the breath
- Pratyahara: retraction of the senses from external objects in order to begin looking inward.
- Dharana: mental concentration
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: contemplation or total union of the self and God
The yamas and niyamas are regarded as the pillars, or the base, of this personal realization but often they are impossible to achieve for a Westerner who has not received a religious or philosophical upbringing. For this reason, Sri. K Pattabhi Jois recommends beginning with the practice of asanas as a means of purifying the body and mind and to acquire mental clarity.
The yamas can be divided into:
- Ahisma (non-violence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (not stealing)
- Brahmacharya (sexual abstinence)
- Aparigraha (detatchment)
The niyamas refer to personal purification:
- Saucha (purification of the body)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (self-discipline)
- Swadhyaya (the study of philosophical texts)
- Ishwarapranidhana (devotion)
In Ashtanga yoga there are 3 series of Asanas. The primary series, Yoga Chikitsa, detoxifies the physical body, aligns the vertebral column and purifies the body. The intermediate series (nadi shodhana) purifies the nervous system unblocking the energy channels and allowing the energy to flow freely through the shushumna nadi (spine) and the advanced series, Sthira Bhaga, (sub-divided into A-B-C-D) works on strength and stamina.
Nevertheless, even from the first day of practicing Ashtanga we can feel how the practice of asanas has an influence on our nervous system, on our mental strength (concentration) and on our state of consciousness. Our breathing becomes deeper, our concentration increases, and gradually we acquire a state of inner peace not previously experienced. The other five steps of Ashtanga yoga appear little by little with time.
Patience is an extremely important element of yoga practice. It is more important to have initiated the process than to be more or less close to the finish, since the ambition to progress moves us further away us from the goal or from self-realization. It could be said that the goal (if there is a one) is to be conscious of the present moment in which we live day by day. Being obsessed with progressing in the practice of asanas distances us from the essence of yoga because it causes the body to become tense. I have seen many people injure themselves because of the desire to advance too quickly. It is important that beginners especially are conscious of this.
The body is slow and its rhythm must be respected. Knowing and respecting the body, however, is more difficult than it appears. We can only know the body through transcendence of the physical and by accessing pranic energy. Only then, with humility, can we learn to respect it.
For these reasons I believe that patience and humility are perhaps the most important qualities to possess on the yogic path. Pattabhi Jois always says “do your practice and all is coming”. He advises that practising with consistency and perseverance will yield results in 100% of cases. Indeed, everyone I have known that has commenced with the practice has told me the same: “my life has changed since I began practising Ashtanga”.