Ashtanga Yoga: What Is It? Discover Benefits

If you’ve been exploring the world of yoga, you may have come across the term “Ashtanga yoga” and wondered, Ashtanga yoga, what is it exactly? This dynamic and physically demanding vinyasa practice has captivated the hearts and minds of many yogis around the globe. Rooted in ancient traditions and structured with a precise sequence of poses, Ashtanga yoga offers not just a workout but a transformative journey for the body and mind. In this blog post, we’ll dive deep into the essence of Ashtanga yoga, unraveling its history, principles, and what makes it a unique and powerful form of yoga. Whether you’re a seasoned practitioner or a curious beginner, this guide will help you understand the profound impact Ashtanga yoga can have on your life.

Origins and Philosophy

Ashtanga Yoga traces its roots to the ancient Vedic tradition, where it was revitalized by T. Krishnamacharya. This lineage was further developed and propagated by his student Pattabhi Jois.

In Ashtanga, the practice is known as the “eight-limbed path,” which refers to the eightfold path of yoga outlined by Patanjali. This approach integrates physical postures, meditation, and ethical guidelines to cultivate overall well-being and self-awareness.

Historical Background

Ashtanga yoga, with its vigorous vinyasa sequences and meditative flow, has a rich history that dates back to ancient times. The roots of Ashtanga yoga can be traced to the sage Vamana Rishi, who is believed to have outlined the practice in an ancient manuscript called the “Yoga Korunta.” This text was reportedly discovered in the early 20th century by the renowned yoga teacher T. Krishnamacharya in the National Library of India, although the original manuscript is said to have been lost.

Krishnamacharya, often hailed as the father of modern yoga, played a pivotal role in reviving and teaching Ashtanga yoga. He passed on this ancient knowledge to his disciple, K. Pattabhi Jois, who became the foremost authority on Ashtanga yoga. In 1948, Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, which remains a central hub for practitioners worldwide.

The term “Ashtanga” itself means “eight limbs” in Sanskrit, referring to the eightfold path outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. These eight limbs serve as a comprehensive guide to living a meaningful and purposeful life, encompassing moral and ethical guidelines (Yamas and Niyamas), physical postures (Asanas), breath control (Pranayama), sensory withdrawal (Pratyahara), concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana), and ultimately, the state of blissful awareness (Samadhi).

What sets Ashtanga yoga apart is its structured yet flexible approach. The practice is divided into six series, each designed to challenge and deepen one’s physical and mental capabilities. Practitioners move through these series at their own pace, mastering each pose before progressing to the next. This methodical progression not only builds strength and flexibility but also cultivates discipline and self-awareness.

Ashtanga yoga gained international recognition in the late 20th century as Western students traveled to Mysore to study under Pattabhi Jois. These students brought Ashtanga yoga back to their home countries, sparking a global movement. Today, Ashtanga is practiced by millions around the world, cherished for its dynamic vinyasa flow which helps harmonize the body, mind, and spirit.

Patanjali’s Influence

Patanjali’s contributions to yoga are monumental, establishing the ethical, spiritual, and practical framework that guides many modern practices. His monumental text, the Yoga Sutras, is a cornerstone work that outlines the philosophy of yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga closely follows Patanjali’s eight-limbed path. This includes ethical guidelines.

The eight limbs are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.

Yama and niyama form the ethical foundation. Asana and pranayama focus on physical practice.

Pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi address mental and spiritual practices. Their influence is evident in Ashtanga.

Through the lens of Patanjali’s teachings, Ashtanga integrates mind, body, and spirit. Practitioners experience a holistic transformation.

Thus, Patanjali’s work remains vital to understanding Ashtanga Yoga. His influence permeates every aspect of the practice.

The Core Principles of Ashtanga Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide

As mentioned earlier, Ashtanga means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb), as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These eight principles form the foundation of Ashtanga Yoga, guiding practitioners towards spiritual growth, mental clarity, and physical well-being. Let’s delve into each of these principles, their meanings in both Sanskrit and English, and how they manifest in practice.

Yama (Moral Restraints)

Yama refers to ethical guidelines and moral restraints that govern our behavior towards others and the external world. These are universal practices that transcend time, culture, and place.

Key Aspects

Ahimsa (Non-violence): Promoting compassion and kindness towards all living beings.

Satya (Truthfulness): Being honest in thoughts, speech, and actions.

Asteya (Non-stealing): Refraining from taking what does not belong to us.

Brahmacharya (Moderation): Practicing self-control and moderation, particularly in sexual activity.

Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness): Avoiding greed and not clinging to material possessions.

Application in Practice

In Ashtanga practice, Ahimsa is embodied by listening to your body and not pushing beyond your limits to avoid injury. Satya is observed by being truthful about your abilities and progress. Asteya encourages respecting others’ space and time in the yoga shala. Brahmacharya and Aparigraha inspire practitioners to adopt a balanced lifestyle and to let go of unnecessary attachments, fostering a focused and content mind.

Niyama (Personal Observances)

Niyama refers to personal practices or observances that cultivate self-discipline and personal growth.

Key Aspects

Saucha (Purity): Maintaining cleanliness of body and mind.

Santosha (Contentment): Cultivating a sense of contentment and gratitude.

Tapas (Discipline): Developing self-discipline and commitment to personal growth.

Svadhyaya (Self-study): Engaging in self-reflection and study of sacred texts.

Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to a Higher Power): Surrendering to the divine or a higher principle.

Application in Practice

Saucha in Ashtanga practice involves keeping the practice space clean and maintaining personal hygiene. Santosha encourages practitioners to find joy in their progress and practice without comparison. Tapas is demonstrated through regular and disciplined practice, even when it’s challenging. Svadhyaya involves reflecting on one’s practice and studying yogic texts. Ishvara Pranidhana is about surrendering the ego and trusting the process and the teachings of yoga.

Asana (Postures)

Asana refers to the physical postures practiced in yoga. In Ashtanga Yoga, these postures are performed in a specific sequence, known as the Primary, Intermediate, and Advanced Series.

Application in Practice

The practice of Asanas in Ashtanga involves a set series of postures that are designed to build strength, flexibility, and stamina. Each pose is linked with breath (Vinyasa), creating a flowing, meditative practice. This helps in cultivating physical health, mental clarity, and inner peace.

Pranayama (Breath Control)

Pranayama refers to the regulation of breath through specific techniques, which enhance the flow of prana (life force energy) in the body.

Application in Practice

In Ashtanga, practitioners incorporate Ujjayi breathing, a technique involving slow, deep breaths through the nose, producing a resonant sound. This breath control is integral to maintaining focus, stability, and energy flow during the practice.

Pratyahara (Withdrawal of Senses)

Pratyahara involves withdrawing the senses from external objects, directing attention inward to cultivate inner awareness.

Application in Practice

During Ashtanga practice, Pratyahara is achieved by focusing on the breath, Drishti (gaze points), and internal sensations rather than external distractions. This inward focus enhances concentration and deepens the practice.

Dharana (Concentration)

Dharana refers to focused concentration on a single point or object.

Application in Practice

In Ashtanga, Dharana is cultivated through sustained attention on specific points during postures (Drishti) and synchronization of breath with movement. This concentration helps quiet the mind and prepares it for deeper meditative states.

Dhyana (Meditation)

Dhyana is the practice of uninterrupted meditation, leading to a state of profound inner peace and awareness.
Application in Practice

Ashtanga practitioners experience Dhyana when they achieve a seamless flow of movement and breath, resulting in a meditative state. This often occurs naturally as the practitioner progresses and becomes more proficient in the practice.

Samadhi (Union)

Samadhi is the ultimate goal of Ashtanga Yoga, representing a state of spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine.

Application in Practice

Samadhi is the culmination of consistent practice and dedication to the other seven limbs. It is characterized by a deep sense of oneness with the universe and transcendent peace. While challenging to achieve, glimpses of Samadhi can occur during moments of profound connection and insight during practice.

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga provide a comprehensive framework for living a balanced and meaningful life. By integrating these principles into daily practice, practitioners can achieve physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual growth. Each limb supports and enhances the others, creating a holistic approach to personal development and well-being. Whether you are a seasoned practitioner or new to yoga, embracing these principles can transform your practice and your life.

What makes Ashtanga yoga different?

Unlike other styles, Ashtanga prescribes a fixed order of postures, allowing practitioners to develop a deep and refined practice over time.

The commitment required for Ashtanga can yield profound physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.

Practicing Ashtanga Yoga

To start practicing Ashtanga Yoga, a sequence of pre-defined postures, or asanas, is consistently followed. This structured approach encourages muscle memory and self-discipline. Practitioners often begin with the Primary Series, which purifies the body and builds foundational strength.

Finding the right environment is crucial; many seek guidance from certified teachers in yoga shalas or online platforms. As practitioners progress, they move to the Intermediate Series, addressing deeper layers of the body and mind. This systematic progression not only enhances physical stamina but also cultivates mental resilience and spiritual awareness.

Key Poses and Sequences

The Primary Series or Yoga Chikitsa forms the basis of Ashtanga Yoga practice. Beginning with Surya Namaskar A & B, this series opens the body and warms up the muscles.

Subsequent standing poses build strength and stability.

The progression then leads to seated postures which focus on flexibility, alignment, and mindfulness through deep forward folds, twists, and hip openers. Practitioners explore poses like Marichyasana and Navasana, facilitating profound inner awareness and physical endurance.

As students advance, they transition to the Intermediate Series, known as Nadi Shodhana. This sequence emphasizes nerve purification and includes more complex backbends, arm balances, and inversions. Through these postures, practitioners cultivate an elevated state of physical, mental, and spiritual vitality.

Daily Routine

Maintaining consistency in your Ashtanga Yoga practice is paramount for growth and development.

Wake Up Early: Traditionally, you would start your day before sunrise, but regular practice is more important. Commit to a time you can practice daily.

Meditation and Pranayama: Begin with 10-15 minutes of mindfulness meditation followed by breath-control exercises.

Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations): Perform 5 rounds of Surya Namaskar A & B to warm up the body.

Primary Series Practice: Follow the sequence of standing, seated, and finishing poses of the Primary Series.

Cool Down: Conclude with calming poses and a brief Savasana (Corpse Pose) for relaxation.

Hydrate and Nourish: Rehydrate and enjoy a light, nutritious meal post-practice.

Reflect and Journal: Spend 5-10 minutes journaling your thoughts, progress, and any realizations post-practice.Commit to practicing six days a week, taking one rest day and moon days off.

If possible, practice in a space conducive to focus and tranquility, such as a dedicated home studio or an inspiring natural setting.

Tools and Props

While Ashtanga Yoga traditionally requires minimal equipment, certain tools and props can enhance your practice.

Yoga Mat: A non-slip mat provides stability and cushioning during poses.

Straps: Assists in achieving deeper stretches and proper alignment.

Blocks: Offers support and helps in maintaining balance in challenging poses.

Yoga Towel: Absorbs sweat to maintain grip and prevent slipping.

Bolsters: Useful for restorative postures and added support.

Blankets: Adds comfort in seated poses and can be used for modifications.

Wall Space: Provides support for inversion practice and alignment check.

These props can help beginners ease into poses and allow seasoned practitioners to deepen their practice.

While not mandatory, these tools can be beneficial in making your Ashtanga Yoga practice more accessible and comfortable.

Types of Ashtanga Classes

As you familiarize yourself with the Ashtanga world, you’ll notice that different types of Ashtanga classes are offered. Let’s take a look at the two major types of classes you’ll find so you know what to expect.

Mysore Classes

Mysore classes offer a personalized approach to learning Ashtanga Yoga, named after the city in India where this vinyasa method originated.
Individual Pace: Practitioners move through sequences at their own speed.

Teacher Guidance: Instructors provide one-on-one adjustments and support.

Memory-Based Practice: Students memorize sequences over time, promoting independence.

Flexible Timing: Unlike led classes, entry and exit aren’t constrained by set start times.

Tailored Adjustments: Poses are modified to suit individual needs and capabilities.

This format allows a harmonious blend of self-practice with authoritative instruction.

Ideal for both beginners and seasoned yogis, Mysore classes foster a deep, immersive experience.

Embrace this enriching practice to cultivate self-discipline and profound understanding of Ashtanga Yoga.

Traditionally Counted Classes

Traditionally Counted Classes are highly structured, following a precise rhythm and sequence of postures.

In this format, the instructor leads practitioners through a synchronized sequence, counting each breath and movement, ensuring proper pacing and alignment. This meticulous approach is essential in remaining true to the tradition and deepening one’s practice.

Notably, counted classes provide a unified group experience. Each practitioner moves cohesively through the series, creating a sense of connection and mutual energy within the class.

Moreover, these classes refine one’s breath control and concentration, vital components of Ashtanga Yoga. By linking movement to breath with accurate counts, practitioners achieve a state of meditative flow. Regular attendance at traditionally counted classes can significantly enhance the technical precision and mental focus of your practice.

Is Ashtanga yoga for beginners?

Ashtanga yoga, with its dynamic flowing sequences and synchronized breathing, akin to vinyasa, is a brilliant practice for those seeking a disciplined and challenging approach to yoga. Its methodical structure and progressive nature make it a transformative journey for practitioners.

However, beginners might find Ashtanga’s rigorous pace demanding.

Don’t be discouraged—starting Ashtanga yoga requires dedication and perseverance, but modifications and guidance from experienced teachers can make it accessible. Many find the physical and mental benefits immensely rewarding.

While Ashtanga can be intense, its structured format aids in tracking progress, making it an excellent foundation for any yoga practice. If you are consistent, open to instruction, and patient with yourself, Ashtanga yoga can become an integral part of your wellness routine. By integrating breath work, postures, and inner focus, it offers profound benefits for body, mind, and spirit.

Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga offers numerous benefits, a testament to its transformative potential, which reach beyond the physical. Physically, practitioners experience enhanced strength, flexibility, and endurance. Mentally, the practice develops intense focus, discipline, and mindfulness. Spiritually, it fosters a deeper connection to one’s inner self, promoting profound personal growth and introspection. Embracing Ashtanga Yoga can lead to a harmonious balance of body, mind, and spirit, making it a holistic approach to wellness.

Physical Wellness

Ashtanga Yoga is renowned for significantly enhancing physical wellness through a meticulously structured sequence of postures. Practitioners often notice a marked improvement in strength and flexibility.

The demanding nature of this practice requires engagement of multiple muscle groups, leading to a comprehensive full-body workout. Each session involves flowing through a set series of asanas, synchronizing movement with breath.

Consistency in practice can develop lean muscle tone, and improve cardiovascular health. Furthermore, the emphasis on breath control and focused movement fosters better respiratory function, blood circulation, and overall vitality. Ashtanga Yoga truly offers a dynamic and robust path to physical well-being.

Mental Clarity

Ashtanga Yoga is not just about physical strength; it profoundly impacts mental clarity. These aspects of the practice can make your thoughts clearer.

  • Focused breath control enhances cognitive function
  • Structured sequences promote discipline and concentration
  • Mindfulness practices reduce stress and anxiety
  • Meditative aspects foster a calm and balanced mind
  • Regular practice encourages emotional resilience

Practicing Ashtanga strengthens your ability to concentrate and stay present. This heightened mental focus often translates to improved productivity and creativity in daily life.

Spiritual Growth

Ashtanga Yoga’s spiritual growth is rooted in the connection of body, mind, and soul through disciplined practice.

Originating from ancient teachings, it integrates the eight limbs of yoga outlined by Patanjali, which provide a comprehensive framework for spiritual evolution. The components include ethical guidelines, physical postures, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and ultimately, enlightenment.

Students often find the structured nature of Ashtanga Yoga’s sequences helps deepen their introspection and alignment with their true self. This journey is marked by self-discovery and an enhanced sense of inner peace.

Moreover, the consistency and dedication required in Ashtanga Yoga practice create a fertile ground for personal and spiritual growth, echoing the practice’s emphasis on perseverance and self-discipline. Each session becomes a stepping stone towards a more enlightened and connected existence.

Embrace Ashtanga Yoga to deepen spiritual wisdom, fostering profound inner transformation.

Finding the Right Studio

Choosing a studio that resonates with your personal goals in Ashtanga Yoga is vital. Look for experienced instructors, welcoming environments, and spaces dedicated to the discipline, whilst also offering a sense of community.

Studio selection is crucial as instructors can guide your practice authentically and effectively, ensuring precise alignment and deepening your overall experience.
Choosing a Teacher

Finding the right teacher is integral to your Ashtanga Yoga journey. Their guidance, experience, and demeanor profoundly impact your practice, enhancing or hindering your progress.

Qualified instructors adhere to traditional teachings, align with your learning preferences, and offer personalized attention.

Seek out teachers who demonstrate mastery, preferably trained under seasoned experts or direct lineage holders.

Availability of classes should be frequent enough to build a consistent practice, ensuring steady progress.

Teacher-student rapport is essential for growth. Comfortable communication fosters a supportive learning environment essential for spiritual and physical development.

Ultimately, the essence of a teacher’s influence lies in their ability to embody and transmit the authentic spirit of Ashtanga Yoga. Their passion and knowledge can significantly inspire your path.

Community and Support

One of the most fulfilling aspects of Ashtanga Yoga is the vibrant community it fosters. Practitioners from all walks of life come together with a shared passion for this transformative practice.

An engaging community provides a support system, encouraging you through challenging sequences and celebrating milestones. This camaraderie develops a sense of belonging, making the journey more enjoyable and sustainable.

Additionally, communities often organize workshops, retreats, and social events, creating opportunities for deeper connections and continued growth. Such events also offer exposure to various teaching styles and expert knowledge.

Online forums and social media groups extend this camaraderie beyond physical studio walls. They provide platforms for sharing insights, seeking advice, or simply connecting with like-minded Ashtangis globally.

Finding and nurturing these connections can elevate your practice, offering both motivation and a sense of accountability.

Online vs. In-Person

Navigating the landscape of Ashtanga Yoga, should you choose online classes or in-person sessions?

Attending a live Ashtanga yoga class in a studio offers numerous benefits, including personalized guidance from experienced instructors, which helps ensure correct posture and alignment, preventing injuries. The structured and focused environment enhances concentration and learning, while the community atmosphere provides motivation, accountability, and emotional support. Additionally, the opportunity to receive immediate feedback, participate in diverse classes, and draw inspiration from more advanced practitioners enriches the practice, fostering discipline and continuous improvement.

However many people don’t have access to a yoga studio that teaches Ashtanga. Still, others might not be able to afford the cost of in-person classes. In those cases, online yoga classes offer a viable solution.

Joining Omstars will give you access to more than 600 Ashtanga yoga classes catering to practitioners of varying levels and abilities. Omstars has the most comprehensive library of Ashtanga classes online today and is a must-have for any at-home Ashtanga practitioner.

Our live classes offer interactive elements, such as live feedback and personal adjustments, offering a hybrid solution bridging both worlds.

Ultimately, the best choice depends on your lifestyle, learning preferences, and goals in your Ashtanga journey.

Are you looking for more guidance on your Ashtanga yoga journey? Sign up for Omstars to get access to thousands of yoga classes in the comfort of your own home. Click here to start your subscription. 

Photo by Elina Fairytale: