Ashtanga Yoga

All You Need To Know About Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga is one of the oldest and most practiced forms of yoga. Born out of Mysore, India in the 21st century, it lays out guidelines that empower people live life as their best self.

As with other yoga styles, Ashtanga yoga is made of a sequence of postures that you connect with breath and movement. The idea is that each asana (or posture) is linked to the other. The poses help release tension in the body while strengthening the muscles.

In an Ashtanga yoga class, you typically will not find music or special lighting. It is a yoga style focused on bringing your gaze within and quiet outside distractions. By practicing Ashtanga yoga and incorporating the guidelines into your daily life, it will help you find your best self and also find peace in your every day.

In the rest of this article, you will find answers to where Ashtanga yoga started, the benefits of Ashtanga yoga, what to expect out of an Ashtanga yoga class, and more.

History of Ashtanga Yoga

As already mentioned, Ashtanga yoga is one of the oldest forms of yoga. It is practiced all over the world and focuses on incorporating the ‘eight limbs’ of yoga into the yoga practice and into your everyday life.

In Sanskrit, Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’. The term was first used by Patanjali, author of The Yoga Sutras, an authoritative text for all styles of yoga. The eight limbs are eight practices that need to be mastered in order to recognize your true nature, find your best self, and transcend suffering.

The eight limbs of yoga include:

  • Yamas (the behavioral observances you should incorporate into your daily life)
  • Niyamas (the behavioral observances you should not incorporate into your daily life)
  • Asana (the physical practice, poses in yoga, promotes concentration and discipline)
  • Pranayama (the practice of breathing techniques or breath control to channel your life force or energy)
  • Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses, looking within)
  • Dharana (concentration, slowing down thinking)
  • Dhyana (meditation, quieting of the mind)
  • Samadhi (enlightenment, the transcendence of self)

Ashtanga yoga is the embodied practice of these eight limbs. The Yoga Sutras go into more detail on the eight limbs. The Yoga Sutras also explains the meaning of yoga and how to allow yoga to permeate into all aspects of daily life.

In the 21st century, yoga teachers Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois began to develop the Ashtanga yoga style we know today. They developed Ashtanga yoga in Mysore a Southern city in India. Pattabhi Jois was a student of Krishnamacharya, who is considered the grandfather of modern-day yoga. He taught Jois (and many others) the Ashtanga yoga series and style that each student practice at their own pace but under their teacher’s guidance.

The traditional way to practice yoga was done at your own pace with the guidance of a teacher. In Ashtanga yoga, this branch of class style is still taught. It is called a Mysore style Ashtanga class. We will dive deeper into this branch of Ashtanga yoga throughout the rest of this article.

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga yoga often gets likened to a Vinyasa yoga class. But it is very different because you will have a set sequence of yoga poses that you know you will do every time. There are six different sequences of yoga poses. Each set sequence of asanas is called a series.

There are two branches of Ashtanga yoga, the Mysore branch, and led-style branch. The Mysore style of class is done at your own pace. A teacher is present to offer assistance and adjust your alignment but you come into the class space and no one is directing you in your movements. Whereas, a led-style class would be similar to a Hatha or Vinyasa style yoga class. A teacher is there to guide you through the sequence and help you link the movement with the breath.

As already mentioned, Ashtanga yoga has a set routine called series. The reason behind this routine has to do with finding a meditative state. The idea is that instead of having to focus on which pose is next, you can bring your attention inward and calm any thinking.

A large part of the Ashtanga yoga tradition is the concept of ‘parampara’, which is the passing knowledge from teacher to student. There are strict regulations put in place in order to become an Ashtanga yoga teacher. You are only allowed to teach an Ashtanga yoga class after years of dedicated practice and study from an authorized teacher. An authorized teacher is someone who been certified via approved places like the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, which oversees the Ashtanga tradition in Mysore, India.

Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga

There are many benefits to practicing Ashtanga yoga. These benefits will help both your body and your mind. These are just a few of the many benefits you will find when you regularly practice Ashtanga yoga.

Less anxiety

Ashtanga yoga will decrease anxiety. Pranayama, the breath practice limb of Ashtanga yoga lowers the heart rate and stills the busy mind. The breath in Ashtanga yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which is your ‘rest and digest’ state. By stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system, you allow your body to find rest and decrease anxiety.

Builds body muscle

Ashtanga yoga will strengthen and tone your muscles. Through the holding of standing, balancing, and inversion asanas you build strength through your yoga practice. As a 90 minute practice, you will often find your heart rate rise through the more advanced portions of the class which is great for cardiovascular health.

Makes you happier

As already mentioned, Ashtanga yoga decreases anxiety which in turn elevates your mood. One of the most powerful benefits of Ashtanga yoga practice is its ability to calm the mind and quiet the chaos of your everyday. Ashtanga yoga is at its core a lifestyle practice and encourages your entire outlook on life to become more positive.

Increased flexibility

Like other yoga class styles, Ashtanga yoga will increase flexibility. As you stretch your muscles in your Ashtanga yoga practice you are releasing tension being held throughout your body. On top of increasing flexibility, Ashtanga yoga lubricates the joints easing joint pain as well.

Inner peace

The ultimate reason you do Ashtanga yoga is to find Samadhi, a deep state of meditative enlightenment. Through the connection of breath and movement, you will become more connected with your body and notice the habits of your mind. As you become aware of what is happening within yourself, you will be able to take stock on what you need to move towards inner peace.

What to expect from an Ashtanga Yoga class

If you like routine, an Ashtanga yoga class is perfect for you. Traditional Ashtanga yoga class will be set without music or fancy lighting. You will often start class with a chant to set the mood before the asanas.

The goal of the yoga class is to help you find a deeper connection with yourself so that you can reach Samadhi (inner enlightenment). To gather the full benefits from Ashtanga yoga, you are supposed to practice 6 days a week.

A set sequence of poses

There are six different series throughout the Ashtanga yoga tradition. There is a Primary series, Intermediate series, and four Advanced series. Each series builds on the last and will lead you through more difficult asanas.

The Primary series consists of the asanas that you often see in a typical Vinyasa style yoga class. The biggest difference is just that when you go to an Ashtanga class it will always be the same flow. As with other yoga styles, the class and sequence of poses will warm up the body so that you can get into deeper twists, holds, and more. The Primary Ashtanga series is designed to help focus the mind while purifying and toning the body.

Although the Intermediate series starts the same way as the Primary series, it includes more backbends than the primary series. It also includes headstand variations plus a few more challenging twists for the spine. The Intermediate Ashtanga series is designed to cleanse the nerves. Since the nervous system runs the spine, there is a focus on opening up the back to cleanse.

The Advanced series are the most challenging Ashtanga classes. You will only be encouraged to move to the Advanced series once you have conquered the Intermediate series with ease.

A more challenging yoga practice

Even in the primary series, there are challenging postures. It is important to note, that the Primary series takes 90 minutes. This can be a long time for someone who is not practiced for that length of time before. Each series is built to be challenging so that you learn discipline and concentration.

Breathwork & meditation 

Ashtanga yoga is breath-focused. First and foremost, Ashtanga yoga is a breathing practice. Like most other yoga styles, the point of Ashtanga yoga is to find a meditative zone that allows you to remove yourself from the chaos of the day. Eventually, the hope is to reach a place where you do not need to listen to the cues from the teacher and instead just move with the rhythm of your breath.

A structured asana flow

As already mentioned, you will have a structured and set sequence in every class. However, the sequence of poses can be adapted to the individual practitioner. In an Ashtanga yoga class, you will do what is called the Vinyasa flow. This is a set sequence of postures that moves you from downward-facing dog to chaturanga to upward-facing and back to your downward-facing dog. This vinyasa flow is done to cleanse and reset the body. You do it throughout the class.

Hands-on adjustments

Typically, Ashtanga yoga classes will include hands-on adjustments. Hands-on adjustments also called hands-on assists are suggestions made by the teacher leading the yoga class. The adjustments can be done to correct alignment or as a therapeutic way to help you sink deeper into asanas.

Ashtanga Yoga compared to other Yoga Styles

Ashtanga yoga will be similar to other yoga styles that are flow-based. You will start with a warm-up and then progress into more advanced asanas. You will end the class like other yoga classes in savasana.

Ashtanga compared to Vinyasa  

Ashtanga yoga is very similar to Vinyasa yoga. The biggest difference between Ashtanga yoga and Vinyasa yoga is the structure of the class. In Vinyasa yoga you never know what type of poses you may be lead through whereas you know exactly what poses you will do in an Ashtanga yoga class based on the series you are doing. Plus, both these class styles will include a vinyasa flow.

Ashtanga compared to Hatha

Ashtanga yoga embodies a lot of characteristics of Hatha yoga. Hatha yoga is the oldest style of yoga so most yoga styles have aspects that make them similar to a Hatha style yoga class. There are two big differences between a Hatha style yoga class and a Vinyasa style yoga class. The first big difference is that there is no set sequence in a Hatha style class so you never know what poses you may do. The second big difference is that you will flow much faster in an Ashtanga style yoga class compared to a Hatha style yoga class.

Ashtanga compared to Restorative

Ashtanga yoga is much more active than a Restorative yoga class. In a Restorative yoga class, you will spend the entirety of the class focused on letting go of tension through restful poses. Comparatively, in Ashtanga yoga, you spend much of the class building heat through standing postures.

Ashtanga compared to Inyengar  

Both Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga will help you channel your breath and support flexibility. Iyengar yoga classes will have you holding poses longer than in an Ashtanga yoga class. Plus, both of these classes will have a focus on alignment.

Ashtanga compared to Yin  

Ashtanga yoga will move much faster than a Yin yoga class. In a Yin yoga class, you will hold poses between 3-7 minutes. Whereas in Ashtanga yoga you will flow from each pose with your inhale and exhale. You will be standing up for much of an Ashtanga class while seated in much of a Yin style yoga class.

Ashtanga compared to Bikram  

One of the big differences between Ashtanga yoga and Bikram yoga is that Bikram yoga is done in a heated room. Similar to Ashtanga yoga, Bikram yoga is a set sequence of postures. This means in both of these classes you will know what poses you will do and the order of the poses. Both of these classes are perfect for people who want structured classes.

How to start practicing Ashtanga yoga

The tradition of Ashtanga yoga is that you are always learning and aiming to grow, no matter what series you are in. There will always be subtle and small things to better and sink deeper into. If you are overwhelmed at first, be patient and keep practicing. As already mentioned, you are supposed to practice 6 days a week to gather the full benefits.

Go to a yoga studio’s Ashtanga yoga class

Remember, there are two different branches of yoga classes within the Ashtanga yoga style. You can have a led-style class which is similar to the Hatha style or Vinyasa style classes. The Mysore Ashtanga style classes will not have a teacher leading you from pose to pose. Instead, the teacher is there to help you if you get stuck and give alignment adjustments.

Typically, it is a good idea to first go to a led-style class so you can familiarize yourself with the sequence of poses. Also, try a Mysore Ashtanga style class. No matter which one resonates with you, an Ashtanga yoga practice will help you physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Start a small home, personal yoga practice

As with most yoga styles, all you truly need for Ashtanga yoga is space to practice and the right mindset. Because Ashtanga yoga is a set sequence of poses, you do need to know the poses. You can find these poses online. There are also many Ashtanga style yoga classes available online. Remember, Ashtanga yoga series are built so that it takes time to learn and practice with ease. So stay consistent.

Some would consider Ashtanga yoga one of the challenging styles when practiced the right way. Ashtanga yoga requires you to practice 6 times a week for about 90 minutes each day. Each series is different but can include several advanced postures such as inversions or binds. An ashtanga yoga practice requires discipline, commitment, and patience.

The goal of an Ashtanga yoga practice is to find transcendence of self.  You will conquer both your body and mind. Through your Ashtanga yoga class, you will find a deeper connection to yourself.