Learning Ashtanga Yoga Fundamentals A Mini Guide With Postures, Poses & Principles


If you want to learn ashtanga yoga (FAST) there’s one thing you need to know:

Traditional Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga is very different form other forms of yoga.

Therefore, it can be easily misunderstood.

The schools like Albuquerque Ashtanga Yoga Shala, under the lineage of Shri K Pattabhi Jois and the fellow students, have tried to kept the traditional ashtanga legacy alive.

But not all are privileged to have access to an experienced yoga teacher at all times. Therefore,  i put down this mini (yet detailed) post to get you started with the first lesson in ashtanga yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga, the eight limbed yoga style, is not just a set of breath synchronized physical exercises but a complete way of life, a rich philosophical way[1].

Beginners complain about its difficulty level, some raise question, that if yoga aims at freeing yourself then why is it itself bound by rules?

Well, all I can say is that you need to understand the principles behind the postures and asanas first, and then embody (apply) them to the discover the true meaning of freedom through consistent study and practice of yoga.

History & Origin

The founder of yoga, as we all know, was Patanjali who compiled Yoga Sutras in 400 BCE. Through the ages, it was passed on according to the sacred tradition, Guru Parampara or disciplic succession.

A sage named Vamana Rishi, who I assume was sane enough to record these sutras into Yoga Korunta or the book of Yoga, and called it the “Ashtanga Yoga“.

So, what happened in the early 1900’s is, that Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari imparted this knowledge to Sri T. Krishnamacharya who later passed it on to his disciple Pattabhi Jois, in 1920s.

Since then (1948), Pattabhi Jois has taught this classical style under the name of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in his research institute.

The Eightfold path

The eight limbs are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi

I know, none of the above said is making sense to you but it will shortly.

1. Yama or the moral rules of conduct

They are restraints actually which are also known as the Great Universal Vows. Universal because they are not limited by any class, creed or time. The five Yama are:

  1. Ahimsa or nonviolence (in thought, speech as well as action) advocating the practice of compassion, patience, and worthiness,
  2. Satya or truthfulness (being in harmony with mind, word, and action),
  3. Asteya or non-stealing (to relieve oneself from envy and covetousness) cultivating a sense of self-sufficiency and completeness so you don’t progress beyond basic cravings,
  4. Brahmacharya or celibacy i.e. avoiding all kinds of sensual pleasures (now that’s a tough call for most of us), and
  5. Aparigraha or non-covetousness and detachment from worldly objects.

While Yama governs how we interact with the outside world, Niyama is mostly about how we interact with ourselves and our internal world.

2. Niyama  or self purification and self-regulation

This limb harnesses the energy generated from cultivation of yama. Niyama are five too:

  1. Shaucha or purity (of body, speech, and intellect),
  2. Santosha or contentment (with what one has earned by honest labor) advocates practice of gratitude, joy, and maintaining calm at all costs as state of mind is independent of external causes,
  3. Tapa or austerity (mental and physical) is the ability to stand thirst, hunger, discomfort, silence, and ritual fasts,
  4. Swadhyaya or self-education from scriptures (Vedas & Upanishadas) and chanting of mantras, and
  5. Ishwar-Pranidhana or meditating on the Divine and dedicating all actions to the Divine, whether performed by intellect, speech, or body.

Benefits of Yama and Niyama: 

The benefits are not something readily visible like that of weight loss or muscle toning, but subtle, like you feeling at peace with yourself at all times, accepting yourself, respecting values of life, and balancing our inner growth with outer restraints.

3. Asana or posture

They are meant for preparing you for meditation, balancing and harmonizing the basic structure of human body. They have five functions:

  1. Conative or the voluntary exercise of organs in action (to release stress, improve agility, and create a flow of vital energy),
  2. Cognitive or directing the concentration within so effects of voluntary actions are realized,
  3. Mental state of pure joy,
  4. Intellectual absorption of mind on a single task, and
  5. Spiritual (fusion of spirit with the Divine).

Now, mastering the entire gamut of asanas is definitely possible but painstaking and time-consuming. Still, holding a few poses daily will do the job and allow your mind and body to relax completely. These postures are standing, forward bending, supine, inverted, abdominal & lumbar, twisting, back bending, and balancing poses.

Benefits of Asanas:

What do you wanna achieve? Ask and you shall receive (be reasonable though). See, a regular practice will make you fit and healthy keeping a check on your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, stress, and all other sorts of levels your body can have. They’ll strengthen you not only physically but mentally so you can face tough times with greater toughness and fortitude.

4. Pranayama or breath control

As everyone explains is not just about controlling your breath but controlling your life force or prana energy. A pranayama comprises of Puraka (inhalation), Rechaka (exhalation), and Kumbhaka (retention of breath for various lengths of time).

The various techniques of Pranayama are

Sahita Kumbhaka (breath retention for a strong and agile mind),

Surya Bhedi (alternate breathing for promoting digestion and perspiration),

Ujjayi (involves travel of breath between nose and heart only to purge away impurities of nerves and thoughts),

Sitali (breath retention for a calm mind),

Bhastrika (alternate breathing for nervous control),

Bhramari (concentrated fixed breathing beneficial to go into a meditative state),

Murchha (Extreme form of breath retention to achieve a near-unconscious state, recommended only for advanced yogis) and

Kewali (breath retention for improved concentration).

Benefits of Pranayama:

As of now you must have been able to make out few of the benefits of Pranayama but you should know that they are more pronounced when practiced alongside the postures.

Similarly, to achieve all that this style has to offer, one must not concentrate on practicing selectively, rather take them all along and if that overwhelms you in some way, you can keep the pace slow.

A word of advice here, some kinds of Pranayama are not considered good for patients of cardiovascular disorders and respiratory ailments, so you must always consult your doctor before trying them blindly.

The benefits of Pranayama include a relaxed calm mind, balanced nervous and respiratory system, improved mental clarity and creative thinking. This limb of Ashtanga Yoga, lays the foundation for internal cleansing by arresting the mind in one direction following the movement of breath.

(Read: Can Pranayama Enhance Longevity?)

5. Pratyahara or withdrawal from senses

Literally, it means taking away food of senses. Now, food in yogic terms is physical food (nourishes body), impressions (nourishes mind) and associations (food for soul). Accordingly there are four techniques of Pratyahara:

  1. Indriya Pratyahara (control of senses),
  2. Prana Pratyahara (control of life force) ,
  3. Karma Pratyahara (control of action) and,
  4. Mano Pratyahara (withdrawal of mind).

Like untrained children our senses have a mind of their own and so our behavior is mostly instinctual. Top it with constant bombardment of bright and shiny stuff that are strategically made that way to lure us into them.

So, if we don’t discipline our senses, they’ll start to dominate our lives (in most cases they already have). Similarly, its important to control our motor actions and desires.

The actual techniques of Pratyahara calls for another long discussion so, reserving it for later, ‘m moving directly to the benefits it offers.

Benefits of Pratyahara: 

According to Ayurveda, inappropriate use of sense organs is the cause of a plethora of mental disorders like hyperactivity, excessive nervous energy, etc[2] and keeping a check on unwholesome impressions through Pratayahara can help alleviate and prevent them. It will also aid in keeping you from making unwholesome choices about physical food we all crave for.

It is essential to practice Pratyahara for achieving the three meditative stages of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.

Our mind is like wet clay, where every new object leaves its impression, its replica. But what happens when your mind becomes baffled by all these and can’t figure out even a single entity that can fetch you joy?

You know things are not as bad as they seem, but you can’t seem to fix your brain. In such circumstances, consider Dharana as your lifeboat. [3]

6. Dharana or concentration

Its more than just concentration.

Imagine yourself climbing a rock and rain starts to fall.

You continue going up but then you slip and are hanging in there on a branch of tree. Your hands are slipping but you don’t give up and with full concentration you wait until aid comes to you.

For some time, you were concentrating on that branch but was that joyful? Definitely not. That concentration was painful but here in Dharana, you experience happiness.

The techniques of Dharana involve:

  1. Dharana on symbol or idol (you become aware of the object),
  2. Chidakash Dharana (concentrating on the space between the eyes, makes you aware about your body and breathing), and
  3. Heart Center Dharana (visualizing a lotus in the center of the heart and concentrating on its beauty, gives you joy).

7. Dhyana or a state of deep meditation

When you practice Dharana, there comes a stage when all three consciousness (object, body and spirit) merge together and you are able to withdraw yourself from any sort of distraction.

Getting experienced in Dharana gradually makes you attain a state of Dhyana like an effortless flow of oil.  So, precisely this is not a technique (unlike other six limbs) but a state of mind. Still, you may find Omkar and Sahasra Chakra Dhyana which are differentiated basically on the type of chants used. And the outcome is a state of complete bliss!

8. Samadhi or stage of total absorption

This is the stage where the practitioner attains his True Self and merges into the object of concentration. It’s a state of true union of the meditator, the object of concentration and the very act of doing it. This is the zenith of Yogic practice where the individual unifies with his creator.

The various levels of Samadhi are: Samprajnata Samadhi, Asamprajnata Samadhi, Savitarka Samadhi, Nirvitarka Samadhi, Savichara Samadhi, Nirvichara Samadhi, Sabija Samadhi, and finally Nirbija Samadhi.

A session of Ashtanga Yoga Routine

1 session= Opening sequence + Main series (any 1 out of 6) + Back bending sequence + Finishing sequence (inverted asanas)

The session ends with Savasana

Now, the opening sequence is composed of 10 Sun Salutations followed by six standing asanas like Trikonasana or the Triangle pose and Pada Hastasana or Hand under foot pose (which looks more like a vertical human suitcase to me).

Anyway, the main series are total six in number, Primary SeriesIntermediate Series, and Advanced Series A, B, C & D [4].

In a typical session, any one of the above could be performed depending upon the level of the practitioner, although they were designed to be practiced over six consecutive days, a different one each day.

Newbies practice the Primary series, after learning the standing sequence as it forms the basis of the entire system.

So, over a period of years or decades you may advance to higher series, but remember the goal of this style is not to learn the more difficult asanas, rather to learn to maintain an internal focus throughout the practice.

Primary series or Yoga Chikitsa

With more than 50 poses ranging from a difficulty level of low to high, the primary series aims to detoxify and align your body.

For a beginner, it is fairly difficult to perform in spite of it being the easiest of all. The term ‘Yoga Chikitsa’ translates to ‘Yoga Therapy’ and it can be of immense value in situations ranging from child-birth to preventing athletic injuries.

People have reported getting relieved from backache, muscle spasms, arthritis, scoliosis and spondylitis [5] with time.

Intermediate series or Nadi Shodhana

Living up to the name, it purifies the nervous system by opening and clearing the energy channels through a series of around 70 poses.

You begin with back bending postures that encourage you to open your heart and not be afraid to drop back. As if it was not all, next you move on to putting your leg(s) behind your head in 8 different ways.

It is believed that this invigorates your spine encouraging blood flow to spaces between vertebral discs and the heart/lung system along with strengthening both the abdominal as well as spinal extensors.

And in yoga terms, it teaches you humility. Probably that’s because when you tuck your head like a turtle, you are blocking distractions gaining opportunities for introspection.

Advanced series or Sthira Bhaga

Divided into four, for easy accessibility, this advanced series, Sthira Bhaga i.e. Divine stability, is designed to harness the strength, agility and concentration gained from the practice of previous sequences for the ultimate reward of a Sublime Serenity.

With every asana you are playing with gravity, thereby achieving higher levels of core strength and humility.

Important aspects – Tristhana

1. Bandha or internal body locks

Basically, while you practice any posture, your muscles or a group of muscles get contracted and while holding you sustain that contraction for a certain period of time decided by Vinyasa or breath. So, what we don’t realize is that this contraction helps us in holding a pose and getting in and out of it. These locks focus energy at certain spots, and later re-direct it to the 72000 nadi or energy channels of the body leaving us fully energized and rejuvenated.

Now, just for your info, there are three kinds of Bandha: 

  1. Mula Bandha (root or anal lock, by tightening muscles around pelvis and perineum, when Mula Bandha is perfect mind control is automatic),
  2. Uddiyana Bandha (abdominal lock, muscles of lower abdominal area are contracted, supports breathing, develops strong core muscles) and finally,
  3. Jalandhara Bandha (throat lock, lowered chin while raising the sternum and the palate, gazing at the tip of the nose).

You don’t actually need to practice them separately because they happen automatically when you practice any asana but yes, without bandh control, asanas will be of no benefit as breathing will not be correct.

That brings us to the next aspect, Vinyasa or coordinated breathing and movement system or how your transitions will happen from one pose to another.

2. Vinyasa or breath synchronized movement

Surya namaskar or sun salutation has nine Vinyasa. Likewise, every asana has a preassigned number of Vinyasa whose purpose is to heat blood and make it less viscous. Accompanied with right movement, blood is forced into minute spaces and vessels fetching toxins away and relieving pain and discomfort.

So you see, with the help of synchronized breathing and movement you can detoxify your internal system and become light, healthy and strong.

3. Drishti or gaze

With posture and breathing done, next we are left with managing gaze or Drishti aspect of Tristhana (union of three places of attention/action). In Ashtanga yoga, more stress is laid on breathing properly and focusing gaze at a single point rather than getting into perfect poses. That’s because it is more about developing a deep state of concentration.

In short, Drishti or gaze can be focused:

  1. at the thumb (Aṅguṣṭha madhyai),
  2. at the point eyebrows or third eye (Bhrūmadhya),
  3. at the tip of the nose (Nāsāgrai),
  4. at the extended palm (Hastagrai),
  5. at any of the sides (Pārśva),
  6. at the sky (Ūrdhva),
  7. at the navel (Nābhicakra), and
  8. at the toes (Pādayoragrai).

Inhale. Shift. Exhale. Shift.

This is a typical class of any yoga.

All this while, mantras or chants in Sanskrit, which fill the room of practice play a crucial part in the process to get you concentrate better and deeper.[6]

Benefits

Ashtanga yoga aims at an overall improvement of quality of life and not just physical well-being of the practitioner. When purification is complete and mind is under control, the Six Poisons surrounding the spiritual heart [kama (desire), krodha (anger), moha (delusion), lobha (greed), matsarya (sloth), and mada (envy)] leave your body one by one and your true universal self is revealed.

Rules

  • Don’t cheat in breathing
  • Practice everyday except Saturday and full moon or new moon
  • Ladies on their moon should not practice (menstruating)
  • Each level is to be fully developed before proceeding to the next, and the sequential order of asanas is to be meticulously followed

While people complain about the strict rules, I don’t believe these will feel like any restrictions when you truly devote yourself to this practice. Some teachers say if you do not follow these, you’re a criminal, but there’s no word like that in Yoga. The eight limbs do not preach what’s right and wrong, rather advocate the importance of being true to yourself because when you understand your body and self, you put yourself on path that connects you to the Divine.

Take your road to truth and let peace be with you!

Related Articles

1. Vinyasa Flow Yoga

2. Pranayama – Beginner’s Guide

References:

[1] Smith, B.R. Adjusting the Quotidian: Ashtanga Yoga as everyday practice. Cultural Studies Association of Australia (CSAA) Conference 2004 (http://caepr.anu.edu.au/Adjusting-Quotidian-Ashtanga-Yoga-everyday-practice.php). ^Back to Top^

[2] Javnbakht, M., Hejazi Kenari, R., & Ghasemi, M. (2009). Effects of yoga on depression and anxiety of women Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 15 (2), 102-104 DOI: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2009.01.003  ^Back to Top^

[3] Woolery A, Myers H, Sternlieb B, Zeltzer L. A yoga intervention for young adults with elevated symptoms of depression. Clinical Trial Research Support, U.S. Gov't. UID: 15055096. ISSN: 1078-6791. ^Back to Top^

[4] John C. Scott, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. Ashtanga Yoga: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide to Dynamic 
Yoga. Publisher: Harmony. ISBN-13: 978-0609807866. ^Back to Top^

[5] Marcia Monroe, Dr. Loren Fishman, B.K.S. Iyengar. Yoga and Scoliosis. ISBN-13: 978-1936303021. Publisher: Demos Health. ^Back to Top^

[6] Leslie Lynn Phillips. Examining Flow States and Motivational Perspectives of Ashtanga Yoga Practitioners. University of Kentucky (http://uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_diss/336/). ^Back to Top^

Last Updated: May 7, 2014
Next Scheduled Update: July 7, 2014


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