Ashtanga Yoga: What to Know About This Athletic Style
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Do you think you can’t get a hardcore workout doing yoga? If you still maintain that misconception, you haven’t been to an Ashtanga class.
What is Ashtanga? This athletic yoga style works your entire body through a series of 75 poses — with classes lasting up to two hours. You’ll keep moving the whole time, performing vinyasas or coordinated breath-body movements as you flow through the postures.
The result is a healthy, flexible body with incredible muscle tone and strength. You’ll also get your heart pumping. Are you up for the challenge? Here’s what you need to know about the athletic Ashtanga style.
A Brief History of Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga yoga has roots in antiquity, arising from the “Yoga Korunta” penned by Vamana Rishi and compiled somewhere between 200 B.C.E. and 250 C.E. T. Krishnamacharya studied this ancient volume while living with a guru in a cave during the early 1900s. In 1931, he began teaching at the Sanskrit College in Mysore.
That’s where T. Krishnamacharya met Pattabhi Jois, a star student who would go on to bring Ashtanga yoga to the west. By 1948, he opened his shala in Mysore.
Jois was perhaps one of the first to recognize the importance of the mind-body connection. The word “Ashtanga” itself translates to “eight limbs,” representing the yoga sutras. These include:
- Yamas: Moral discipline
- Niyamas: Positive duties and observances
- Asanas: Posture
- Pranayama: Breath
- Pratyahara: Sense withdrawal
- Dharana: Focus and concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation
- Samadhi: Total meditation absorption
What sets Jois’ philosophy apart is that he believed to reach the other seven sutras, you first had to start by controlling the energy in the body. Only once you master your physical self can you achieve sufficient objectivity and calm inner purity to attain peak focus and enter a deep, meditative state where you understand what comprises moral conduct and gain insights into truth.
Western science supports this theory of the mind-body connection. For example, exercise releases endorphins, encouraging a positive mood state and reducing pain perception by binding to opioid receptors in your brain. Anyone who has tried to balance a budget report with a raging headache knows how discomfort can affect your concentration ability.
Today, you can find Mysore-style shalas in nearly every major city around the globe. Practitioners are called Ashtangis, and the devout adhere to their routine six days a week — a fairly grueling physical regimen that takes considerable time. However, millions occasionally participate in classes, adjusting their practice to meet their schedule.
The Six Series of Ashtanga Yoga
Technically, Ashtanga yoga has six series. However, most casual participants never advance beyond the first or primary series, which is designed to cleanse and tone the entire body. The second or intermediate series focuses on soothing the nervous system. The third through sixth includes some hardcore acrobatics — you’ll need to find an experienced teacher and devote years to training.
Only a handful of people progress beyond the primary and intermediate series — so please don’t feel bad if you stick with them. Once you try these, you’ll see how challenging they are and effective at working every muscle.
What to Expect From an Ashtanga Yoga Class
Are you ready to give Ashtanga yoga a try? Here’s what you can expect from your first class.
Class begins with the opening Ashtanga yoga mantra. Although it is spoken in Sanskrit, it won’t take too long to pick up on it — it’s okay to remain silent in a mountain pose with your hands at the heart center until you know the words.
After that, you’ll flow several times through Surya Namaskar, or the Sun Salutation series. There is both an A and B variation. From there, you’ll flow through the rest of the poses.
Unlike most yoga classes, your guide won’t demonstrate most postures. Instead, they’ll call them and count as they circulate the room and adjust students, helping them get into more challenging poses and perfect their form.
However, please don’t worry about getting lost, at least after your first few classes. Ashtanga follows the same sequence of 75 postures in every session. Once you master the names, it’s easy to go with the flow. Be patient with yourself as you learn.
Ashtanga yoga is sometimes called “Ashtanga vinyasa” because you’ll be moving the entire time. Transitioning between postures is as important as the poses themselves in this practice, with each movement linked to a specific breathing pattern. For example, you inhale as you extend your arms upward in Surya Namaskar A and exhale as you bend forward.
You’ll need to set aside a considerable chunk of time. Although some classes run as long as two hours, most are roughly an hour and a half. After 90 minutes of intense activity, you’ll delight in the final savasana.
5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Ashtanga Yoga
How can you get the most out of your Ashtanga yoga practice? These five tips will make your class experience more enjoyable.
1. Find the Right Shala
If you live in a rural area, you could struggle to find a Mysore-style Ashtanga shala near you. Your best bet is to call local studios and ask if they offer this style. You can often tell genuine Ashtanga offerings from similar, vinyasa-style classes by the length — if it’s an hour or less, they may leave off the finishing sequence or do an entirely different routine.
You can also use an online search tool to find a shala near you. Surprisingly enough, you can find quality Ashtanga programming on YouTube if you prefer to start your journey in the privacy of your living room. Purple Valley Ashtanga, a retreat based in Goa, India, has hundreds of videos to guide your practice and help you perfect your form.
2. Talk to Your Guide
Talking to your guide before class is essential for beginner Ashtangis — especially if you have chronic pain, a history of trauma or both. Far too many people flee in terror from their first class and get a negative impression of yoga as a result.
Why? Your Ashtanga guide will come and adjust you during class. While they receive specialized anatomy training, they could move you in ways that worsen pain. Furthermore, those with past trauma might not invite a stranger’s touch. However, your teacher will respect your needs if you alert them.
3. Invest in a Quality Mat
Although Ashtanga shalas aren’t necessarily warm — unless you practice outdoors on the Indian subcontinent — you will work up a sweat. The right mat is essential to keep you from slip-sliding away.
Look for one made from a material like cork that absorbs moisture. You might also want to bring a stash of towels for mopping your face and keeping your mat relatively dry.
4. Bring Plenty of Water
When you sweat a lot, you dehydrate more quickly. Please bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. Also, note that your guide won’t necessarily include water breaks, so feel free to sip up whenever necessary.
5. Be Gentle and Patient With Yourself
Ashtanga yoga is hardcore. Feeling comfortable with the primary series can take a year or more. Therefore, please be gentle with yourself and take your time.
If you can’t get into a specific posture, talk to your guide about an alternative. Otherwise, it’s acceptable to sit in an easy sukhasana seated position or stand in a mountain pose until you feel comfortable.
If you want a challenging yoga routine, you can’t do better than Ashtanga yoga. This athletic style is perfect for those who want to work up a sweat while attaining inner peace and clarity.
The tips above will help you get started with your practice. Be patient with yourself, and you will rise to the challenge.