Ashtanga Yoga – A Brief History and Introduction to This Vigorous Yoga Style
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The modern day yogi is inundated with class options. As seen on gym class schedules, “yoga” has quickly become a loose term that encompasses a type of workout with a focus on physical and mental strength, flexibility, mindfulness, and relaxation.
But there are various styles of yoga, each one so different from the next even though the asanas may be generally the same. Among the styles of yoga that is practiced today, Ashtanga yoga is known to be the most rigorous, requiring plenty of discipline, strength, and determination.
The most common styles of yoga classes available today can be broken up into a few categories:
- Vinyasa - A series of asanas, with a focus on the transitions and connections between the poses.
- Hatha - A slower paced movement through the asanas.
- Yin - A practice that focuses on deep tissue stretching, with longer holds of the asanas.
- Restorative - A slow flow, usually with props, that focuses on relaxation and stretching rather than an active workout.
- Ashtanga - A standard set of asanas with a strong focus on breath, moral and ethical guidelines, and internal mental space.
But First, What is Ashtanga Yoga?
If you’re unfamiliar with Ashtanga, it’s easy to overlook this ancient practice. But even if you’re more inclined to undertake one of the other styles you may be more used to, it’s a worthwhile endeavor for any yogi to give an Ashtanga practice a go.
Students choose to get on their mats and practice for a variety of reasons, and usually for more than one. Many classes cater to and are focused on students getting a good workout. Ashtanga yoga gives yogis just that, as it is known for its quick pace and challenging postures. During an Ashtanga practice, students flow through a series of Asanas with quicker transitions and shorter holds than a Hatha class.
If you’d like a comparison, Ashtanga most similarly resembles Vinyasa. However, an Ashtanga series is the same every time, while Vinyasa flows tend to vary each class and is a more “freestyle” experience. Additionally, Ashtanga integrates aspects of traditional yoga that are sometimes left out of a Vinyasa class, such as chanting and Ujjayi breathing. So, you’ll get much more than just a solid physical exercise when you undertake an Ashtanga yoga practice.
The History of Ashtanga Yoga
Traditionally, yoga means to completely know yourself and be at peace in yourself. That true meaning can get a bit lost in the mix of the exercise-centric yoga that’s so prevalent today. Ashtanga, on the other hand, brings modern day yogis back to the practice’s roots.
Translated from Sanskrit, the term “Ashtanga yoga” literally means “the eight limbs of yoga.” The eight limbs were first outlined in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, a text detailing the purpose of a yoga practice and principles that a yogi should strive to live in accordance with.
These limbs make up the eightfold path, a set of guidelines for how to live a better life through yoga. The eight limbs outline not only the importance of the postures practiced in yoga but also moral and ethical guidelines to implement throughout one’s life. In addition to the asanas, Ashtanga yoga places heavy emphasis on the seven other yogic limbs and is very much a spiritual discipline as well as physical.
Ashtanga yoga was developed by K. Pattabhi Jois, who was heavily influenced by Patanjali’s eight limbs when Ashtanga was in its early stages of fruition. Pattabhi was a student of T. Krishnamacharya at the College of the Maharaja in Mysore, India, where he began his studies in 1930. Krishnamacharya’s teachings, and in turn Pattabhi’s, is based on the Yoga Korunta, an ancient text. Legend tells that the Yoga Korunta was written by sage Vamana Risi, who wrote the text as a response to a lost population that he decided to heal through the practice of yoga.
Pattabhi’s Ashtanga yoga involves a set series of postures linked together with breath. Unlike modern day Vinyasa flows, the Ashtanga sequence of postures is always the same, and the practice is traditionally performed without music, mood lighting, and other staples of the western yoga class. By taking away these external factors of the experience, Ashtanga yoga practitioners are able to streamline their attention inward, focusing on the internal aspects of yoga rather than the physical (no disrespect if a heated, pumped up Vinyasa is your preferred practice! These styles serve different purposes for different people). Ashtanga beckons traditional yoga principles more so than some modern styles and will deepen one’s practice to go beyond the physical.
Image credit: Yogaposes8.com
A typical Ashtanga yoga class is comprised of the following:
- Sun Salutations
- Standing postures, or fundamental positions
- Finishing sequence, including Ujjayi breathing and the all important Savasana (one of the most important aspects of a physical yoga practice). Savasana guides practitioners into a state of Samadhi, one of Patanjali’s eight limbs.
Why Everyone Should Try Ashtanga Yoga
The combination of the internally focused aspects of the practice and its physical intensity has caused Ashtanga to develop a reputation that can scare some yogis off from giving the practice a chance. However, if you’re physically capable of participating in a Vinyasa class, rest assured that you’re equally prepared to try your hand at Ashtanga.
Though the basic set of postures is always the same, there are different Ashtanga series - primary, intermediate, and advanced. The series increase in difficulty and build on one another. Definitely start with the primary series, and move on from there once you’ve developed a strong, consistent practice.
Any yogi, novice or expert, should give Ashtanga a try at least once. The practice gives you a chance to explore yoga in a deeper form than the just the asanas flowed through in a Vinyasa class and may guide you to live your life more in accordance with yogic principles. No matter the reason you choose to show up on your mat and practice, anyone can see that that’s a worthwhile cause.