Ashtanga is a method of internal and external exploration. Ashtanga, in itself, originates in Mysore, India. It has been developed by Sri K. Patthabi Jois, a student of Krishnamarchaya. It is said that the sequence has its origin in an old text, theYoga Korunta, which has been recorded by the sage Vamana Rishi. The text focuses on asanas, breathing, and bandha, according to information having been given to Pattabhi Jois by Krishnamarchaya.
Patthabi Jois passed away in 2009, and his grandson, R. Sharat Jois continues to keep the yoga tradition alive.
When one is performing self-practice, it is called Mysore style yoga, which means that you do your own practice, as far as you have been taught. This can be done under the guidance of a teacher, or by yourself, on a yoga mat rolled out anywhere.
Ashtanga literally means ‘eight-limbed yoga’, as outlined by Patanjali in the yoga sutras. To become in greater contact with the universal self, eight practices -or steps- have to be followed and mastered.
Yama – moral codes
Ahimsa – compassion towards all living things
Satya – commitment to the truth
Asteya – non stealing
Brahmacharya – merging with the one Universal power
Aparigraha – non grasping
Niyama – self-purification and study
Shaucha – purity
Santosha – contentment
Tapas – burning enthusiasm
Swadhyaya – self-study
Ishvarapradhidana – celebration of the spiritual
Asana – posture
Pranayama – breathing exercises
Pratyahara – sense control
Dharana – concentration
Dhyana – meditation
Samadhi – merging with the universal power
According to Patanjali, the definition of yoga is “the controlling of the mind.” [citta vrtti nirodhah] The first two steps toward controlling the mind are the perfection of yama and niyama. However, according to Pattabhi Jois, it is “not possible to practise the limbs and sub-limbs of yama and niyama when the body and sense organs are weak and haunted by obstacles.” To strengthen the body and the mind, a person needs to take up daily asana practice. When the body and the sense organs are stabilised, the mind can be steady and controlled. This will help in the pursuit of the first two limbs, yama and niyama.
To perform asana correctly in Ashtanga yoga, one must incorporate the use of vinyasa and tristhana. Vinyasa means breathing and movement system. For each movement, there is one breath. The purpose of vinyasa is to create internal heat in the body. The heat created makes the blood thinner, it improves blood circulation, which helps the joints to release tension. The heat also leads to sweating; this helps remove toxins and impurities from the body. The vinyasa also creates a strong and light body. It builds stamina and strength.
Tristhana – three points of action while practising.
Asana – postures, which in ashtanga yoga are grouped into 6 series. “The Primary Series [yoga chikitsa] detoxifies and aligns the body. The Intermediate Series [nadi shodhana] purifies the nervous system by opening and clearing the energy channels. The Advanced Series A, B, C, and D [sthira bhaga] integrate the strength and grace of the practice, requiring higher levels of flexibility and humility. Each posture is a preparation for the next, developing the strength and balance required to move further.
Breath – In Ashtanga, we use the Ujjai breathing technique, which is a deep breathing, creating sound in the back of the throat. Ujjai means victorious breath, where both the inhalation and the exhalation should be of the same length. Long, even breathing increases the internal fire, creates more heat in the body and helps to steady the mind, as well as to clean the nervous system. It also brings an element of meditation into one’s practice. The breath also works as a protective system for the physical body. There should not be any strenuous effort in an asana while breathing.
Dristhi is the gazing point on which one focuses while performing the asana. There are nine dristhis: the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, thumb, hands, feet, up, right side and left side. Dristhi purifies and stabilises the functioning of the mind. In the practice of asana, when the mind focuses purely on inhalation, exhalation, and the drishti, the resulting deep state of concentration paves the way for the practices of dharana and dhyana, the sixth and seventh limbs of Ashtanga yoga.
As with any other form of daily practice, Ashtanga also demands dedication and determination. The practice is very challenging from all angles. It will test you physically, push you mentally, and challenge you emotionally. If you stick with it, changes will start to happen, but you might just let go of it after a while … perhaps you were not quite ready.
Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, for me personally, is a moving meditation. At the same time, it is important to remember that the physical practice, which takes place on the mat, is far from what yoga really is.
It is good to keep our body in shape, active, strong and healthy. But what if we suddenly experience an illness or accident which leaves us physically disabled for a while? The practice needs to carry us through all stages in life.
The Benefits of Ashtanga yoga
The best thing about Ashtanga is that it allows you to develop a self-practice.
As we start Ashtanga, we face attachment, non-attachment, greed, happiness, sadness, love and hate. Hopefully, as we progress, we will be able to experience greater peace, inner stillness, and acceptance of the now, and understand that the moment of now is exactly the way it has to be – no more, nor less. It is about a mindful way of accepting life exactly the way it is in this moment. And making yourself aware about what is not supporting your daily life.
Our practice should be supporting us in our daily life, just as everything else we choose to do. Ashtanga practice is a constant development of ourselves, of observation, exploration and acceptance.
Ashtanga will gradually bring a change to your life. Ironically, at one point, the Ashtanga practice will hopefully bring an understanding that there is actually nothing we should change in our life, or in our selves.