Ashtanga Yoga Demystified: Understanding the Ancient Tradition

Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic and physically demanding style of yoga that focuses on synchronizing breath with a series of postures. While it is famous for being an athletic practice, it can be modified to be accessible to anyone. It is a great choice for beginners who are looking to build strength, flexibility, and mental focus.

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic and physically demanding style of yoga that originated in India. It follows a specific sequence of postures, focusing on synchronizing breath with movement. It is known for its emphasis on strength, flexibility, and mental focus.

What is the history and origins of Ashtanga yoga?

Ashtanga yoga, also known as the “eight-limbed” yoga, has a rich and ancient history that dates back thousands of years. Its origins can be traced back to the ancient Indian sage Patanjali, who is believed to have compiled the Yoga Sutras, a collection of philosophical teachings on yoga.

Ashtanga yoga follows the principles outlined in the Yoga Sutras and is characterized by a systematic approach to cultivating self-discipline and self-realization. The practice consists of eight limbs, or steps, which together create a path towards spiritual enlightenment.

The practice of Ashtanga yoga gained popularity in the 20th century, thanks to the efforts of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, a renowned Indian yoga teacher. Jois was a disciple of T. Krishnamacharya, who is often called the father of modern yoga. Jois studied under Krishnamacharya and later developed his own method, which became known as Ashtanga yoga.

Ashtanga yoga is known for its dynamic and physically demanding nature. It consists of a set sequence of postures, or asanas, which are performed in a specific order. The practice is characterized by the synchronization of breath and movement, known as vinyasa. Each movement is linked to a specific breath, creating a flowing and meditative practice.

The primary series, or Yoga Chikitsa, is the foundation of the Ashtanga practice. It focuses on detoxifying and purifying the body through a series of standing, seated, and finishing postures. As practitioners progress in their practice, they may move on to more advanced series, such as the Intermediate Series (Nadi Shodhana) and Advanced Series (Sthira Bhaga).

Ashtanga yoga has gained a strong following around the world, with dedicated practitioners and teachers spreading its teachings far and wide. Its emphasis on discipline, strength, and flexibility has made it a popular choice for those seeking a physically challenging and spiritually rewarding practice.

What are the primary principles and philosophy of Ashtanga yoga?

Ashtanga yoga encompasses a set of principles and philosophies that guide practitioners towards physical, mental, and spiritual growth. This classical practice is more than just exercise. Rooted in ancient teachings, Ashtanga yoga provides a holistic approach to self-discovery and self-transformation. Here are some of the primary principles and philosophy of Ashtanga yoga:

Yama and Niyama

The foundation of Ashtanga yoga lies in practicing ethical principles known as Yama (restraints) and Niyama (observances). Yama emphasizes moral codes such as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and non-possessiveness. Niyama relates to personal observances like purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to a higher power.


Asana refers to the physical postures practiced in Ashtanga yoga. It involves a dynamic, flowing sequence of postures that build strength, flexibility, balance, and focus. The precision of alignment and breath control within asanas helps to purify the body and prepare the mind for meditation.


Pranayama involves the practice of conscious breath control. Through various breathing techniques, practitioners learn to regulate and expand their life force energy (prana) within the body. Pranayama harmonizes the body and mind, cultivating a state of relaxation, clarity, and vitality.


Drishti refers to the focused gaze in asana practice. By fixing the eyes on specific points, the mind becomes steady and concentrated. Each asana has a designated drishti to direct the energy and attention, fostering a deeper connection between body, breath, and mind.


Bandhas are energetic locks within the body that help to direct and control the flow of prana. The three main bandhas used in Ashtanga yoga are Mula Bandha (root lock), Uddiyana Bandha (abdominal lock), and Jalandhara Bandha (chin lock). Activating these bandhas during the practice helps to awaken and balance the subtle energy channels.


Vinyasa refers to the synchronization of breath and movement. In Ashtanga yoga, each asana is linked together through a continuous flow of vinyasas, creating a dynamic, meditative practice.

The benefits of practicing Ashtanga yoga

Ashtanga yoga brings numerous benefits to those who practice it regularly. Let’s delve into some of the key benefits of practicing Ashtanga yoga:

Physical Strength and Flexibility

Ashtanga yoga consists of a set sequence of poses that systematically engage the entire body. The continuous flowing movements build functional strength and enhance overall flexibility. Regular practice helps to develop long, lean muscles and improves balance and coordination.

Cardiovascular Health

The dynamic nature of Ashtanga yoga generates heat within the body, promoting increased blood circulation. This results in improved cardiovascular health, as the heart is challenged to pump oxygenated blood more efficiently. The practice also enhances lung capacity and respiratory function.

Stress Relief and Mental Clarity

Ashtanga yoga incorporates deep breathing techniques, which help to calm the mind and reduce stress. The focused attention required during the practice helps to cultivate mindfulness and promote mental clarity. Regular practitioners often report experiencing a sense of calmness and inner peace, relieving anxiety and improving overall mental well-being.

Detoxification and Cleansing

The combination of vigorous movements, deep breathing, and sweating in Ashtanga yoga aids in detoxifying the body. The practice stimulates the lymphatic system, helping to eliminate toxins and purify internal organs. This detoxification process can lead to improved digestion, enhanced immune function, and a rejuvenated mind-body system.

Increased Energy and Vitality

Ashtanga yoga generates prana, or life force energy, through the practice of breath control and movement. This increased prana circulation revitalizes the body and mind, providing a natural energy boost. Regular practice can lead to improved stamina, increased vitality, and a greater sense of overall well-being.

Self-discipline and Focus

Ashtanga yoga is traditionally practiced in a set sequence, encouraging practitioners to establish a disciplined routine. Consistency and repetition cultivate self-discipline and focus, both on and off the mat. This enhanced focus can translate into increased productivity, improved concentration, and a greater ability to stay present in daily life.

How does Ashtanga yoga differ from other types of yoga practices?

Ashtanga yoga sets itself apart from other types of yoga practices like vinyasa yoga and hatha yoga in several ways.

One notable difference is the emphasis on a specific sequence of poses. Unlike other styles of yoga, Ashtanga follows a set series of poses, which are performed in a specific order. This sequence, known as the Primary Series, is designed to build strength, flexibility, and endurance. The consistent practice of the same sequence allows practitioners to develop a deeper understanding and connection to their body and breath.

Another distinguishing feature of Ashtanga yoga is its focus on vinyasa, which refers to the synchronized movement and breath. In Ashtanga, each movement is linked to a specific breath, creating a flowing and dynamic practice. This continuous movement helps to generate heat in the body, purifying it and promoting detoxification.

Additionally, Ashtanga yoga places great importance on the concept of drishti, or gaze. In this practice, each pose has a designated point of focus for the eyes. The intentional gaze helps to foster concentration and inner awareness, allowing practitioners to cultivate a sense of mindfulness during their practice.

Ashtanga yoga is known for its strenuous and physically demanding nature. It requires a certain level of fitness and strength to successfully progress through the series. This rigorous approach challenges practitioners both physically and mentally, helping them to build resilience and discipline.

Are there any specific breathing techniques used in Ashtanga yoga?

Yes, Ashtanga yoga incorporates specific breathing techniques known as ujjayi breath. Ujjayi breath, often referred to as “victorious breath,” is a deep and audible breath that helps create internal heat in the body during the practice.

To practice ujjayi breath, start by taking a comfortable seat or finding a comfortable standing position. Close your eyes and relax your body. Take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose to establish a steady rhythm.

Now, slightly constrict the back of your throat, creating a soft hissing sound as you inhale and exhale. Imagine fogging up a mirror with your breath. The ujjayi breath should be audible to you, but not so loud that it becomes distracting to others around you.

As you flow through the Ashtanga yoga sequence, synchronize each movement with the Ujjayi breath. Inhale as you expand and lengthen your body, and exhale as you fold or compress. This rhythmic breathing technique not only helps to build internal heat, but also aids in focusing the mind and enhancing the flow of energy throughout the practice.

Remember, ujjayi breath is vital to Ashtanga yoga and should be practiced with awareness and intention. As you become more comfortable with this technique, it may deepen your practice, allowing you to connect more fully with your body, mind, and breath.

What are the primary series and secondary series in Ashtanga yoga?

There are six series in Ashtanga yoga, but the primary series and secondary series are the most essential parts of Ashtanga yoga practice. These two series, also known as “yoga chikitsa” and “nadi shodhana,” form a structured sequence of yoga postures that help cultivate strength, flexibility, and focus.

The primary series, or yoga chikitsa, is the foundation of Ashtanga yoga. It focuses on detoxifying and purifying the body through a specific sequence of asanas (postures) combined with synchronized breath work. This series primarily targets the primary energy channels, or nadis, of the body, helping to clear any blockages and restore balance.

As you progress in your Ashtanga practice, you may eventually move on to the secondary series, also known as nadi shodhana. This series builds upon the foundation established by the primary series and includes more challenging postures that require increased strength and flexibility. The secondary series works on a deeper level by opening and purifying the subtle energy channels, allowing for a greater sense of freedom and expansion.

Both the primary and secondary series in Ashtanga yoga are traditionally practiced in a specific and sequential order. Each series consists of a set sequence of asanas, performed in the same order every time. This approach allows practitioners to develop a strong foundation and a deep understanding of each posture before progressing to the next.

It is important to note that the primary and secondary series are not meant to be rushed through. They are designed to be practiced over an extended period of time, providing an opportunity for gradual progression and transformation. As you dedicate yourself to the practice of Ashtanga yoga, you will discover the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of these deeply therapeutic series.

Whether you choose to focus on the primary series or eventually work towards the secondary series, both sequences offer a structured and profound pathway to self-discovery and self-transformation. Embrace the journey, listen to your body, and let the transformative power of Ashtanga yoga guide you toward greater health, balance, and inner peace.

What are some common poses or sequences in Ashtanga yoga?

Here are some common poses and sequences you can expect to encounter in Ashtanga yoga:

Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar): This sequence consists of a series of poses that flow seamlessly together, warming up the body and building strength. It includes poses like mountain pose (tadasana), forward fold (uttanasana), plank pose (phalakasana), and upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana).

Standing Poses: Ashtanga yoga includes a wide range of standing poses that help to build strength and stability. Some common standing poses include warrior I (virabhadrasana I), warrior II (virabhadrasana II), and triangle pose (trikonasana).

Seated Poses: These poses are practiced on the mat and focus on opening up the hips, stretching the legs, and bringing awareness to the breath. Examples of seated poses in Ashtanga yoga include lotus pose (padmasana), seated forward fold (paschimottanasana), and bound angle pose (baddha konasana).

Inversions: Ashtanga yoga incorporates inversions such as headstand (sirsasana) and shoulderstand (sarvangasana), which help to increase strength, balance, and focus. These poses are usually practiced towards the end of the sequence.

Backbends: Backbends are an integral part of the Ashtanga yoga practice and help to open up the chest, strengthen the back, and improve posture. Poses like upward bow pose (urdhva dhanurasana) and camel pose (ustrasana) are commonly practiced.

Finishing Sequence: The Ashtanga yoga practice concludes with a specific sequence of poses, including inversions, seated forward folds, and gentle twists. This sequence aims to cool down the body and prepare for the final relaxation pose, corpse pose (Savasana).

Here is an example of poses you’ll do in an Ashtanga yoga class.

What is an Ashtanga Yoga class like?

An Ashtanga yoga class typically follows a structured sequence of postures, known as the Ashtanga Primary Series. The class is usually led by a teacher who guides students through the sequence, emphasizing the synchronization of breath with movement. The teacher will count the asanas in Sanskrit as the students flow through the postures.

Students move through a series of sun salutations, standing poses, seated poses, and finishing poses, with each pose flowing into the next. The class may also incorporate breathwork, meditation, and chanting. It is important to note that the intensity and pace of the class may vary depending on the level and experience of the students.

The will start with a opening mantra that is chanted in Sanskrit and ends with a closing mantra also chanted in Sankrit. Dpn’t worry about knowing the mantra when you start practicing. Overtime as you practice you will learn it.

A full 90 minute class can seem intimidating at first, but the primary series can be shorted and modified for beginners.

What is a Mysore Ashtanga Yoga Class?

A Mysore style Ashtanga yoga class is a self-paced and individualized approach to practicing Ashtanga yoga. In a Mysore class, students are given the freedom to practice the Ashtanga sequence at their own pace and level of proficiency. The class is named after Mysore, India, where Ashtanga yoga originated.

In a Mysore class, students arrive at the studio and begin their practice whenever they are ready, rather than starting and ending at a specific time. The teacher is present in the room to provide individual guidance, adjustments, and modifications as needed. New students are typically taught the sequence pose by pose, gradually building their practice over time.

The Mysore style allows students to develop a personal and consistent practice, as they memorize the sequence and progress at their own pace. It is a meditative and introspective practice, as students focus on their breath and movement, cultivating a deep connection with their body and mind.

Mysore style classes are suitable for practitioners of all levels, from beginners to advanced students, as each individual can work at their own level of ability and flexibility. It is a unique and traditional way of practicing Ashtanga yoga that encourages self-discipline, self-awareness, and personal growth.

How often should one practice Ashtanga yoga to see benefits?

To fully experience the benefits of Ashtanga yoga, regular practice is key. Ideally, practitioners should aim to practice Ashtanga yoga six times a week. Consistency is important in order to cultivate strength, flexibility, and mental clarity.

Practicing Ashtanga yoga frequently allows your body to adapt and gradually improve in various aspects. Ashtanga yoga’s dynamic and vigorous nature helps build endurance, increase cardiovascular fitness, and promote weight loss. It also enhances muscle tone, core strength, and overall physical performance.

Moreover, Ashtanga yoga is a physical practice and a method for self-transformation. The regularity of practice allows you to deepen your connection with your breath and cultivate mindfulness. As you progress, you may notice an improvement in focus and a sense of calmness that transcends into your everyday life.

While practicing six times a week is recommended, listening to your body and adjusting your practice accordingly is important. If you are new to Ashtanga yoga or have specific physical limitations, it is advisable to start slowly and gradually increase the frequency and intensity of your practice.

Remember, yoga is a personal journey, and each individual’s progress may vary. So, be patient and allow yourself the time needed to experience the transformative effects of Ashtanga yoga. With consistent practice, dedication, and an open mind, you will surely reap the numerous benefits this dynamic style has to offer.

How can one incorporate Ashtanga yoga into their daily routine or lifestyle?

Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic and vigorous style that can bring many physical and mental benefits to your daily routine and lifestyle. Here are some ways you can incorporate Ashtanga yoga into your daily life:

Create a dedicated practice space

Find a quiet and comfortable spot at home where you can practice Ashtanga yoga regularly. Clear the area of any distractions and decorate it with items that inspire you.

Set a consistent schedule

Dedicate a specific time each day for your Ashtanga practice. Whether it’s early morning or evening, consistency is key to establishing a routine.

Start with the primary series

Ashtanga yoga typically follows a specific sequence of postures, known as the primary series. Begin your practice by learning and mastering the primary series, gradually adding more advanced poses as you progress.

Seek guidance from a knowledgeable teacher

It’s highly recommended to find a qualified Ashtanga yoga teacher who can guide you through the practice. A teacher can help you develop proper alignment, provide modifications, and ensure you’re practicing safely. Joining Omstars will give you access to Ashtanga yoga teachers in the comfort of your own home. You can practice with recorded classes or LIVE streaming classes.

Practice regularly

Dedicate a specific amount of time each day for your Ashtanga practice. Start with shorter sessions and gradually increase the duration as your stamina improves.

Focus on breath and mindfulness

Ashtanga yoga emphasizes the importance of linking breath with movement. Pay attention to your breath throughout the practice, staying present in the moment and cultivating mindfulness.

Take rest days

Ashtanga yoga can be physically demanding, so it’s essential to give your body time to rest and recover. Incorporate rest days into your routine to prevent overexertion and promote overall well-being.

Explore other yoga styles

While Ashtanga yoga can be a complete practice on its own, exploring other yoga styles can offer a well-rounded experience. Consider trying different styles like Hatha, Yin, or Restorative yoga to complement and enhance your Ashtanga practice.

Find community support

Joining a yoga community or attending workshops and retreats can provide opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals and deepen your understanding of Ashtanga yoga. Omstars provides you with the support of a global community of at-home yoga practitioners like you.

Remember, incorporating Ashtanga yoga into your daily routine takes time and patience. Be consistent, listen to your body, and enjoy the journey of self-discovery and growth through this powerful practice.

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Photo by Karl Solano: