Yogi. A form of being that has become almost synonymous with authenticism – being your true self. One must be mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically present in a state that combines balance, peace and harmony. To evolve as a true yogi is to not only learn the asanas, or postures, and practice them regularly but also lead the way to self-gratitude. When one begins this journey, the synthesis of mind and body leads to a powerful connection to one’s consciousness. In order to understand the true meaning and effect of yoga, it is imperative to be aware of the different styles of yoga that exist today. Each style, with its significance, is similar in benefitting all aspects of one’s being – it will strengthen your body, control your mind and free your spirit.
In Sanskrit, Ashtanga means, “eight-limbed” with a combination of vinyasa, which translates to “free-flowing movements and breathing.” Originally introduced by the sage Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta and Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra, this ancient form of yoga was passed down to Sri T. Krishnamacharya, who started teaching Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the 1920s. Through years of learning, Pattabhi Jois opened the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. Since its popularization in the 1940s, Ashtanga yoga or Ashtanga vinyasa yoga has become and continues to be widely adopted in the western world.
The inseparability of asanas (postures), rechaka and puraka (breathing system) and drishti (looking place) builds the foundation of any yoga practice. To create and sustain a strong learning basis, one must master this tristhana (the three places of attention or action). In complement to the tristhana, Ashtanga yoga also utilizes bandhas, muscle contractions that are essential to the breathing technique. Using these components, Ashtanga yoga is based on a sequential six series of asanas that create a harmonious flow between the body, breath and mind, ultimately leading to Samadhi, a state of meditation leading to divine consciousness or self-awareness.
Vinyasa, where there is one breath for each movement, brings a dynamic flow to the Ashtanga practice. While Ashtanga yoga requires the student to patiently adjust and align their body by repeating the same poses, vinyasa brings movement and internal cleansing through the power of rechaka (exhalation) and puraka (inhalation). This breathing method, known as ujjayi, is incorporated in every practice and is an important aspect of reaching Pranayama, a way of reducing impurities in the body by igniting Agni, the fire of life. Hence, in Pranayama, a new student or even a well-versed yogi becomes his or her own master.
In comparison with other styles of yoga, Ashtanga yoga is powerful and challenging because of its healing and strengthening properties. It teaches the student patience and allows them to discover their inner power. During the practice, each asana is broken down to its basics, which for some students, may lead to a level of discomfort that their bodies were previously not used to.
Traditionally, as taught by Pattabhi Jois, an Ashtanga yoga practice is comprised of a series similar to the one listed here.
Surya Namaskara – The rigorous act of perfecting a sun salutation builds a strong foundation for a beginner’s practice and helps in perfecting the tristhana.
Fundamental Positions – The constant learning of asanas helps one fine tune self-balance and undergo free flowing movement through vinyasa.
Finishing Sequence – The calming down of the breath, slowing down of bandhas and moving of drishti inwardly guides one to finish their practice with savasana, corpse pose.
Primary Series (Yoga Chikitsa) – This series is an extension of one’s practice and requires increased dedication and physical stamina.
Intermediate Series (Nāḍi Śodhana) – This series leads to the cleansing of energetic channels and refinement of the nervous system through Pranayama.
Advanced Series (Sthira Bhaga) – This series demands a high level of flexibility and endurance integrated with grace and confidence.
Mysore-style self-practice is also widely common for those who are looking for a highly personalized approach in a group setting. In classes that are taught Mysore-style, students are allowed to work at their own pace under supervision, as long as they are following their breath and calming their mind. Ideally, these classes incorporate the same energy that fills a structured class but they give you the freedom to believe in your physical power and mental well-being. Focusing on your forces and clearing away any distractions makes students be within themselves, leading to a state of self-appreciation.
For beginners level, Ashtanga yoga will require vigor and discipline that leads to an evolutionary practice and continuous self-learning. Those at an intermediate level may enjoy the challenge of following their progress through supervised self-practice. For advanced students, Ashtanga yoga may lead to self-gratification that is achieved by mastering each step with patience and poise. In the end, Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a system that has evolved over the years with the sole purpose of teaching students to live in the moment, accept their bodies and challenge their limits. So, go ahead and enjoy the journey where the destination for you is coming home to yourself. Namaste.
The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V Desikachar
Yoga for Everyone by Judy Smith, Doriel Hall, Bel Gibbs