Yoga, as we all know, is the ancient practice of balancing physical and mental health and elevating the spiritual level, originally developed by sage Patanjali. As Yoga spread from the Indian subcontinent to other parts of the world, it was moulded according to the needs of the people. Ashtanga Yoga is one such modified version developed by K Pattabhi Jois. Jois claimed to have learned the style from his Guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. He even went on to establish the first Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore in 1948. Hence the style is often called as the Mysore style of Yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga is a type of Vinyasa yoga. Vinyasa yoga involves a series of smooth transitions between different asanas which are done in proper coordinating with the breath. Apart from Ashtanga Yoga, the very popular in the west, Bikram Yoga is also a type of Vinyasa Yoga. According to Jois and Krishnamacharya, the Ashtanga Yoga style is derived from Hatha Yoga mentioned in Yoga Kurunta written by the unknown Vamana Rishi.
The name ‘Ashtanga’ which means eight-limbed is derived from the eightfold path mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The eight limbs of Ashtanga include:
- Yama or abstinence
- Niyama or observance with discipline
- Asana or posture
- Pranayama or breathing
- Pratyahara or withdrawal of senses
- Dharana or concentration
- Dhyana or meditation
- Samadhi or absorption/salvation
The first four limbs, also called the external cleansing practices are easy to follow and correct according to Jois. However, the remaining four, or the internal cleansing practices can be damaging until the correct Ashtanga yoga method is followed.
Ashtanga Yoga Principles
Ashtanga Yoga which involves a total of six series (three main series and four sub-series) involves a few key principles that define it:
- Asana – or the Yogic posture in case of Ashtanga Yoga is a set of six series and it is important to master one series before a person proceeds to the next.
- Breathing – The breathing technique that accompanies Ashtanga Yoga is called Ujjayi or victorious breathing. The person practising this style of Yoga is recommended asana for five to eight breaths and slowly increase the holding time.
- Drishti – Also known as looking place determines a person’s gaze while performing each asana. There are a total of nine Drishtis.
- Vinyasa – It is the coordination of breathing and asanas.
- Bandhas – Bandha is translated into English as ‘lock’. It is a part of the Ujjayi breathing and is the kind of body lock that follows with each asana.
- Practice – To be perfect at Ashtanga Yoga and to inculcate the eightfold path, regular practice is mandatory.
K Pattabhi Jois regarded Tristhana, Vinyasa and The Six Poisons as the three major facets of Ashtanga Yoga. Asana, breathing and Drishti are included in Tristhana which means three places of attention. The six poisons are depicted in the Yoga Sutras as krodha (anger), kama (desire), lobha (greed), matsarya (envy), moha (delusion) and mada (sloth). The ultimate purpose of Ashtanga Yoga is to help a person purify their mind as well as the body by burning the six poisons by focusing on Tristhana and Vinyasa.
Ashtanga Practise Begins And Ends With A Prayer
Ashtanga practises always begins with a chant which signifies giving respect and honour to the Gurus who have passed upon us the knowledge of yoga. The opening prayer is as follows:
Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde
Sandarsita Svatma Sukhava Bodhe
Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane
Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam,
I salute the lotus-feet of my guru that have experienced the knowledge and bliss of Atman,
and that serve as a doctor for removing the delusion of people caused by the poison of samsara.
This chant, known to be Krishnamacharya’s favourite comes from a long poem, Yoga Taravalli written by Adi Shankara.
Ashtanga series ends with a closing prayer. The chant is derived from Rig Veda and is known as the Mangal Mantra. This mantra is chanted at the end of many ceremonies signifying a peaceful closure by asking the almighty for the well being of the whole world through our actions. The closing prayer is as follows:
Svasthi Praja Bhyaha Pari Pala Yantam
Nya Yena Margena Mahim Mahishaha
Go Brahmanebhyaha Shubamastu Nityam
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi
Thus Ashtanga Yoga is not only for the upliftment of oneself, but to give up our selfish selves and divert our actions towards the well being of each and every living being.
Ashtanga Yoga: What’s So Special?
Ashtanga Yoga has been developed as a series of pre-defined asanas and provides the flexibility to move from one level to another at your own pace. This means you are free to take your own time to master a particular series of Ashtanga yoga.
Often referred to as ‘Raja Yoga’ or the Royal Path, Ashtanga Yoga holds the key to vairagya or detachment. Regular practice can lead you to moksha or the most desired salvation.
Ashtanga Yoga Benefits
- Increases physical and mental strength. It helps become a person Stithpragya, that is one who remains undeterred in all situations.
- Tones the muscle and reduces the fat content of the body.
- Improves body flexibility which can prevent unwanted injuries.
- Provides relief from anxiety, stress and hypertension.
Ashtanga yoga is thus an ultimate plan for improving overall health.
Can I Practice Ashtanga Yoga?
One must remember that Ashtanga Yoga is not a beginner’s style but even the primary series demands a lot of effort and practice. Hence a person seeking to inculcate Yoga into his or her lifestyle is not recommended to begin with Ashtanga Yoga but to first practice different asanas and gain the flexibility of the body. The style that is equivalent to an intense cardio workout is also not recommended for people looking for a calm and soothing style.
ASHTANGA YOGA SERIES
The Ashtanga Yoga sequence begins not with the first or the primary series but with five round of Surya Namaskar (sun salutation) A and five rounds of Surya Namaskar B. Until a disciple becomes deft in the two types of sun salutations, the Guru does not progress further to the Ashtanga series. These sun salutations form a base for the upcoming Yoga practice. They differ from the common Surya namaskar practised in Hatha Yoga as it entails the special Ujjayi breathing.
Surya Namaskar A
It consists of a total of 9 asanas:
Step 1: Urdhva Hastasana or Urdhva Virksasana, that is the raised hands pose
Step 2: Uttanasana A or the standing forward bend
Step 3: Uttanasana B or standing half forward bend
Step 4: Chaturanga Dandasana, commonly known as the plank pose
Step 5: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana or the upward facing dog pose
Step 6: Adho Mukha Svanasana, also called parvatasana or the downward-facing dog pose
Step 7: Uttanasana B
Step 8: Uttanasna A
Step 9: Urdhva Hastasana
The sun salutation ends with samasthiti or the straight standing pose.
Five rounds of Surya Namaskar A is then followed by five rounds of Surya Namaskar B.
Surya Namaskar B
Beginning with Samasthiti, Surya Namaskar B consists of a total seventeen steps.
Step 1: Utkatasana
Step 2: Uttanasana A
Step 3: Uttanasana B
Step 4: Chaturanga Dandasana
Step 5: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Step 6: Adho Mukha Svanasana
Step 7: Virbhadrasana A or Warrier Pose I with right leg forward
Step 8: Chaturanga Dandasana
Step 9: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Step 10: Adho Mukha Svanasana
Step 11: Virbhadrasana A or Warrier Pose I with left leg forward
Step 12: Chaturanga Dandasana
Step 13: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Step 14: Adho Mukha Svanasana
Step 15: Uttanasana B
Step 16: Uttanasana A
Step 17: Utkatasana
The cycle ends with samathiti.
The Standing Poses
The Surya Namaskars are proceeded by the basic standing poses. These include:
- Padangushthasana or the big toe pose
- Pada-hasta-asana or the hand feet pose
- Uttitha Trikonasana or extended triangle pose
- Parivritta Trikonasana or revolved triangle pose
- Uttitha Parshvakonasana or extended side angle pose
- Parivritta Parshvakonasana or revolved side angle pose
- Prasarita Padottanasana A or wide-legged forward bend A
- Prasarita Padottanasana B or wide-legged forward bend B
- Prasarita Padottanasana C or wide-legged forward bend C
- Prasarita Padottanasana D or wide-legged forward bend D
- Parshvottanasana or the Pyramid pose
This is followed by sixteen asanas of the advanced standing poses sequence. These poses are performed in a harmonious manner.
- Salamba Sarvangasana or supported shoulder stand
- Halasana or plow pose
- Karna Pidasana or ear pressure pose
- Urdhva Padmasana or lotus pose in headstand
- Pindasana or embryo womb pose
- Matsyasana or fish pose
- Uttana Padasana or raised leg pose
- Shrishasana A or headstand A
- Shirshasana B or headstand B
- Urdhva Dandasana or upward facing staff pose
- Balasana or child’s pose
- Baddha Padmasana or locked lotus pose
- Yoga Mudra
- Padmasana or lotus pose
- Utplutih or scales pose
The end of Surya namaskar A, B and the standing poses depicts the end of the practice session that precedes the real Ashtanga Series. Once a person gains expertise of the aforementioned asanas, they can proceed to the Ashtanga Series.
Series 1: The Primary Series
The Primary series which is the first series of Ashtanga Yoga is known as Yoga Chikitsa in Sanskrit. Translated as Yoga Therapy, it is named so because of its therapeutic effect on mind and body. The primary series forms the foundation of the intermediate and advanced series. It helps in building physical and mental strength through regular practice and introduces the concept of vinyasa.
The primary series sequence includes:
- Dandasana or staff pose
- Paschimottanasana A or seated forward bend A
- Paschimottanasana B
- Paschimottanasana C
- Paschimottanasana D
- Purvottanasana or upward plank pose
- Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana or half bound lotus forward fold
- Triyam Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana or three parts forward bend pose
- Janu Shirshasana A or head to knee pose A
- Janu Shirshasana B
- Janu Shirshsana C
- Marichyasana A or sage twist pose A
- Marichyasana B
- Marichyasana C
- Marichyasana D
- Navasana also called Naukasana or the boat pose
- Bhuja Pidasana or shoulder pressing pose
- Kurmasana or tortoise pose
- Supta Kurmasana or sleeping tortoise pose
- Garbha Pindasana or embryo in womb pose
- Kukkutasana or rooster pose
- Baddha Konasana A or cobbler pose A
- Baddha Konasana B
- Baddha Konasana C
- Upavishtha Konasana A or wide-angle seated forward bend A
- Upavishtha Konasana B
- Supta Konasana or reclined angle pose
- Supta Padangushthasana or reclined big toe pose A
- Supta Parshvasahita or stretched sideward pose
- Ubhaya Padangushthasana or double big toe pose
- Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana or upward-facing intense stretch pose
- Setu Bandhasana or bridge pose
- Urdhva Dhanurasana or Chakrasana called the upward facing bow pose
The concluding sequence of the primary series is the harmonious performance of the sixteen advanced standing poses.
- Detoxification of the body
- Increasing flexibility of muscles
- Improves concentration and strengthens the brain in general
Series 2: The Intermediate Series
The second or the intermediate series of Ashtanga Yoga is known as Nadi Shodhana or the nerve purifier series. In this series, there is a raised focus on backward bending asanas. They strengthen the spinal cord which is a major part of the central nervous system. Including a set of forty asanas, the intermediate series provides a free flow of the prana. The asanas are performed in the following order:
- Pashasana or noose pose
- Krounchasana or heron pose
- Shalabhasana A or locust pose A
- Shalabhasana B
- Bhekasana or frog pose
- Dhanurasana or bow pose
- Parshva Dhanurasana or side bow pose
- Ushtrasana or camel pose
- Laghu Vajrasana or little thunderbolt pose
- Kapotasana A or pigeon pose A
- Kapotasana B
- Supta Vajrasana or supine thunderbolt pose
- Bakasana A or crane pose A
- Bakasana B
- Bharadvajasana or torso stretch pose
- Ardha Matsyendrasana or half lord of the fishes pose
- Eka Pada Shirshasana or one leg behind the head pose
- Dvi Pada Shirshasana or feet behind the head pose
- Yoga Nidrasana or the yogic sleep pose
- Tittibhasana A or firefly pose A
- Tittibhasana B
- Tittibhasana C
- Pincha Mayurasana or peacock feather pose
- Karandavasana or Himalayan duck pose
- Mayurasana or peacock pose
- Nakrasana or crocodile pose
- Vatayanasana or horse pose
- Parighasana or gate pose
- Gomukhasana A or cow face pose A
- Gomukhasana B
- Supta Urdhva Pada Vajrasana or one-legged reclining fastened firm pose
- Mukta Hasta Shirshasana A or tripod headstand A
- Mukta Hasta Shirshasana B
- Mukta Hasta Shirshasana C
- Baddha Hasta Shirshasana A or bound headstand A
- Baddha Hasta Shirshasana B
- Baddha Hasta Shirshasana C
- Baddha Hasta Shirshasana D
- Urdhva Dhanurasana or upward facing bow pose
The intermediate series has the same concluding sequence as that of the primary series.
- Improves blood circulation and gives relief from heart ailments
- Detoxification of the body
- Improves functioning of lungs
- Leads to pranic healing by opening up energy channels
Series 3: The Advanced Series
The third series of Ashtanga Yoga is the advanced series and is called Sthira Bhaga. It is reached to only through the vigorous practice of the sun salutations, the standing poses, the primary series and the intermediate series. Hence, the advanced series requires greater Yoga skills and efficient coordination of the asanas with the breathing. A person who reaches the advanced level, often after years of practice is able to develop not only physically and mentally, but also spiritually. Completing the whole sequence of the advanced series requires around three to four hours, which means the series demands a huge amount of patience.
The advanced series entails four sub-series.
ADVANCED SERIES A
It consists of 35 asanas done in proper sequence:
- Vashishthasana or side plank pose
- Kasyapasana or bound side plank pose
- Chakorasana or moon bird pose
- Bhairavasana or formidable pose
- Skandasana or half squat pose
- Urdhva Kukkutasana A or upward rooster pose A
- Urdhva Kukkutasana B
- Urdhva Kukkutasana C
- Galavasana or flying pigeon pose
- Eka Pada Bakasana A or one legged crane pose A
- Eka Pada Bakasana B
- Kaundiyasana A
- Kaundiyasana B
- Ashtavakrasana A or eight angle pose A
- Ashtavakrasana B
- Purna Matsyendrasana or full spinal twist pose
- Viranchyasana A or heavy spirit pose A
- Viranchyasana B
- Dvi Pada Viprita Dandasana or two legged inverted staff pose
- Eka Pada Viprita Dandasana or one legged inverted staff pose
- Viparita Shalabhasana or superman pose
- Ganda Bherundasana or formidable face pose
- Hanumanasana or monkey pose
- Supta Trivikramasana or supine split
- Digasana A or warried III pose A
- Digasana B
- Utthita Trivikramasana or standing splits
- Natarajasana A or dancer pose A
- Natarajasana B
- Raj Kapotasana or king pigeon pose
- Eka Pada Raj Kapotasana
- Urdhva Dhanurasana
ADVANCED SERIES B
The Advanced B series of Ashtanga Yoga is also known as its fourth series. It consists of a total of 41 poses done in a proper harmonious manner:
- Mulabandhasana or root lock pose
- Paschim Namaskar or reverse prayer hands
- Jnana Mudra
- Vrishchikasana or scorpion pose
- Sayanasana – it is a variation of the scorpion pose
- Buddhasana or awakened pose
- Kapilasana or Kapila pose
- Akarna Dhanurasana A or shooting bow pose
- Akarna Dhanurasana B
- Poorna Dhanurasana or full bow pose
- Padangushtha Dhanurasana B or big toe bow pose B
- Marichyasana E or Sage Marichi pose E
- Marichyasana F
- Marichyasana G
- Marichyasana H
- Tadasana or mountain pose
- Samanasana or balancing prana pose
- Punga Kukkutasana or side cock pose
- Parsva Bakasana or side crow pose
- Dwi Hasta Eka Pada Padangushta Dhanurasana or Both Hand One Legged Big Toe Bow Pose
- Ek pada Kapotasana B or one leg pigeon pose B
- Ek pada Kapotasana A
- Supta Paschimottanasana or reclined intense back stretch pose
- Paryankasana A or couch pose A
The advanced series also ends with the same sequence as the concluding sequence of the primary series.
Benefits of Advanced series:
- Rejuvenates the body
- Improves eyesight
- Improves oxygen intake by increased breathing efficiency
Caution & Points To Remember
Although Ashtanga yoga practice heals the body from within and helps one walk on the path of spirituality; it is not recommended for everybody. Certain things must be kept in mind:
- Search for a good yoga practitioner as practising the poses can lead to injury and doing the poses wrong can have unwanted side effects on the body rather than benefits.
- It is not a onetime thing but can often take a lifetime to become polished in the Ashtanga series. So if you’re thinking to master all the series in a year or two, it might not happen. The practice requires a huge amount of perseverance.