Ashtanga yoga is a form of hatha yoga. It is a traditional and dynamic practice defined by the use of tristana. This is the use of vinyasa (connection of breath and movement), dristi (gaze points) and bandhas (physical energy locks). It was the first yoga style in which the static postures were linked by a vinyasa movement.
Contrary to popular belief, the use of ujjayi breath is not the method for the style. It should be an easeful, free deep breathing, rather than a Darth Vader style that many teachers promote. Each asana, or posture has a specific breath count that you will learn. The use of this breath creates an inner heat in the body which cleanses the organs and lengthens the muscles.
Dristi, / gaze points are specific to each posture and are usually the nose, third eye, navel or hands. This gives you greater concentration and internal focus on the prana or energetic body. Bandhas or muscular-contractions are used lift yourself in postures from the inside rather than over use of the muscles.
This method serves to produce a degree of structure in the practise, allowing for a profound understanding of the deeper-layers of body awareness. Traditionally practiced early in the morning 6 days a week, the method is a discipline, and one from which many rewards are reaped on all levels.
Ashtanga Yoga Sequence & Series
The Ashtanga system is based on set sequences of asanas over 6 series.
The first or primary series, is named in Sanskrit yoga chikitisa which means yoga therapy. It works to develop a basic level of health in the individual. Working on the systems related to the muscles and joints, as well as the internal processes. In particular, the digestion, which is considered to be the seat of bodily health by all traditional medicines.
Once this is achieved students may graduate to the intermediate series. In Sanskrit this is referred to as nadi shodhana or nerve cleansing. It involves deeper flexions and spinal twisting, working with the parasympathetic nervous system through stimulating the vital nerves located along the spinal axis. At this point, the student is advised to be practicing regularly with a teacher as the postures are intense as are the challenges and pitfalls.
There are four proceeding sequences collectively known as the advanced sequences A, B, C and D, and known by the Sanskrit term ‘Sthira Baga’ (steady strength). Traditionally these were for the purpose of demonstration, to inspire students to undertake the arduous challenges of yoga. They display exciting and impressive feats of strength and flexibility.
Generally practiced by only the most dedicated and adept students, these postures demand an incredible physical ability and are very rarely if ever completed by most students.
Ashtanga Yoga Mysore Style v Led Classes
In the Ashtanga yoga tradition as taught in Mysore students are encouraged to practice 6 mornings a week. It is this dedication to the early morning practice that leads one to live a yoga lifestyle in order to facilitate the early mornings and comfort in the practice.
There are two types of class that the week is comprised of as below.
Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga
Mysore is the town in India where this style of yoga teaching originated. Rather than all students being led through a series of postures at the simultaneously, you will be taught the postures of the series individually according to your own body type and ability.
You will quickly gain strength and learn how to do the postures correctly and safely, allowing you to progress at your own pace. With a greater understanding of what you should be working within the posture working with your own unique breath pattern and developing a deeper lung capacity.
This takes quite a degree of commitment and is greatly assisted by the support of the teacher as well as fellow practitioners. This sangha who you will see most days and will form a bond with even before speaking to them.
Practically speaking, this daily group of friends provides an instrumental support network. It helps when, from time to time, you might struggle with discipline or the inevitable challenges of life.
Led Ashtanga Yoga Class
The led class is when the class practices together at the call of the teacher, with the focus of the breath, breathing as one according to the postures. This is a good check in to see where you might be speeding up through postures that are not your favourites and where you may be taking extra time in the Mysore class.
Both styles of classes complement each other and offer different challenges and benefits.
History of Mysore Ashtanga Yoga
The Ashtanga yoga system we have been looking at is one of the traditional forms of yoga derived from Sri Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) who is widely considered as the architect of modern yoga.
It was originally claimed that his yoga knowledge was passed down through a sacred Indian text called The Yoga Karunta. This was taught to him by a mysterious yogi living in the Himalayas called Ramamohana Bramachari. This has never been sufficiently validated. However, it is certain that Krishnamacharya travelled to study in this area of northern India for extended periods in his earlier life.
Having completed his studies he settled in Mysore, South India. He taught yoga for the Maharaj (king) of Mysore, in a dedicated wing of his palace. It was traditional for a parting student to pay his teacher on completion of his studies. What Krishnamacharya was asked for in exchange was the dissemination of yoga. Previously a secret or esoteric practice, to the general populous.
He was the teacher of B.K.S Iyengar who went on to develop his own style of yoga. This was one of the very first brought to the West and set up his Iyengar yoga school in Pune.
The Ashtanga yoga system was carried on by another of his students, Pattabhi Jois. He remained in Mysore with his own school and over the years, this tradition has been spread far and wide. Jois was first discovered teaching from his living room by the Belgian Andre Von Lisbeth in the mid 1950’s. By the 1960’s American hippies travelling to India had been led to Mysore and the Ashtanga yoga they had heard about. It was these early students that brought the system back with them. It proved an immediate hit for its ability to produce, fairly quickly, a noticeable physical and mental fitness.
Today Sharath Jois carries on his grandfather’s teaching at his own school in Mysore. Students continue to travel to experience this traditional form at its source.
Whatever else can be said about the integrity of its form, yoga postures have been recorded to exist in the scriptures and sacred texts. Found in the Indus Valley dating back thousands of years. For this reason, it is deemed to be an ancient practice. It has always been contextualised around other methods of further discipline, not only physical.