Since ancient times yoga guided yogis to focus on much more than just physical practise … Yoga has always been about working and purifying the body while calming the mind.

Today we have plenty of yoga styles to choose from, all derived from the same ancient roots dating back 1 000s of years ago. One of the most interesting is Ashtanga yoga.

It’s intensely physical and perfect for yogis who like a more structured approach.

We touch on its origins to understand how yoga philosophy influenced it and you’ll discover how this form of yoga turned out to be the dynamic, vigorous and challenging form of yoga it is known as today.

It Started With Hatha Yoga

They say, ‘many roads lead to Rome’ and even though all yoga aims to create the same state of bliss, every type takes on a different approach to get to that place of balance and contentment. Satyananda yoga and Sivinanda yoga make use of breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation or chanting, while other yoga forms focus on using our physical bodies to recognise and break blockages we have in our minds.

Ashtanga yoga is a more physical form of yoga.

Ashtanga is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘Eight Limbs’.

These ‘limbs’ are simply the rituals that were established in the first known writings about yoga called Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These eight practices according to Patanjali can bring the individual closer to salvation:

  • Ethical discipline (yama)
  • The rules of conduct (niyama)
  • Physical postures (asanas)
  • Breathwork (pranayama)
  • Withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara)
  • Concentration (dharana)
  • Meditation (dyhana)
  • Absorption (samadhi)

The Hathapradipka (hatha yoga) movement started in the 11th century, and was the first original form of yoga using the physical body as tool for exploration. With a bigger focus on asanas it created 15 yoga postures that are still recognisable in some postures today.

Ancient Hatha was created to purify the mind and body and contained the four main focus areas of gestures (mudras), postures (asanas), breath retention (kumbhaka) and concentration on internal sound (nadanusandhana).

Many yogis had a transformational effect on their students and on the practice of yoga, but very few made as big an impact as Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), the ‘father of yoga’. He was at the forefront of the asana movement and during his time in Mysore, India, he trained Patthabi Jois (1915 – 2009) who popularised a style of vinyasa yoga now popularly known as ashtanga.

Ashtanga flow or vinyasa is when movement or poses are linked to breath.

Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is one of the yoga forms that focuses heavily on the physical practise of the asanas, or yoga poses. There is a belief that the focus on the physical movements will lead to the purification of the mind.

Ashtanga is also one of the toughest forms of yoga to practise and it will therefore be a good thing to do some research and preparation before taking on your first Ashtanga class.

Hand gestures yoga
Mudras are part of the ancient yoga practice - Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

The Practice of Ashtanga

Dynamic, demanding and vigorous, Ashtanga yoga is a discipline that challenges even the most experienced yogis.

Some teachers are quite strict and will only allow their students to progress to the next pose in the sequence once they master the preceding one. This way students gradually build up their overall yoga routine to detoxify the body while building strength and improving flexibility.

Ashtanga yoga has six different series of set asana sequences.

The first series

The primary series is called ‘Yoga Chikitsa’ which translates to yoga therapy. It’s a set of 75 poses that was created to have a cleansing and toning effect on the body and mind. The practice is rooted in breath and each pose is generally held for five breaths before moving onto the next. This focus on breath will assist with perfecting each of the asanas as you delve deeper into the same sequence with each yoga session.

With around 90 minutes to complete the first series it’s a yoga session that’s usually longer than other types of yoga. Some teachers use the Mysore method where the students practise at their own pace and end every session with stillness and meditation for grounding.

Every Ashtanga series has the warmup sun salutation sequence built in and students are encouraged to use the Ujjayi breath, or the victorious breath, to maximise the benefits of the session. This type of breathing is an oceanic sounding breath and the slight constriction of air in the back of the throat causes the body to build greater internal heat.

A warmer body, muscles and joints means yogis can enjoy increased flexibility and detoxification of the body and nervous system.

The second series

The intermediary series is called the ‘channel’ or ‘nerve cleaning’ series and has a greater focus on backbends than the first series. Because Ashtanga is such a challenging form of yoga there are very few, if any, teachers in South Africa that currently teach the second series. Sometimes, even finding a primary series teacher for Ashtanga can be challenging in smaller South African cities. Luckily Johannesburg and Cape Town have some private studios that offer Ashtanga, but you can also get a teacher online through a platform like Superprof and practise at home if you live in a smaller city.

Series three to six

The last four series are rarely practised in the western world and, even in bigger markets like the United States, there are few studios teaching this challenging form. If you become an Ashtanga expert and want to advance your ashtanga routine, it would be best to learn from the gurus in Mysore, India. They offer intensive yoga retreats or teacher training courses.

Yoga breath
Ujjayi breath is like steaming up a window with your breath - Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash

Be Prepared to Benefit

To give you an idea of how challenging Ashtanga is, it was recommended historically that you practise 6 days a week to really improve.

But don’t be discouraged if that is not possible, even a couple of classes a week will help you gradually move to a more mindful study and experience improved physical benefits and fitness.

Ensure you are ready for your first class. Be well-hydrated and remember to take your water bottle and sweat towel. Wear tight fitting comfortable clothing, that won’t get in your way, and arrive with an open and accepting mindset which will help your body ease into the postures.

Here are a couple of other important things to remember when you start to do Ashtanga yoga, or any form of yoga for that matter:

Focus on Breath

All types of yoga recognise the importance of breathing to anchor your thoughts and calm the body down during the yoga exercise series. Breathing systematically through your nose, as proven by science, will calm your nervous system and will be imperative if you want to move into a more meditative ritual. Discipline around the breath also teaches us a very important life skill - to breathe through tough and challenging times.

"The quality of our breath expresses our inner feelings." – TKV Desikachar

It Takes Time

Everything in life that’s worthwhile will take a bit of effort. Your first class might have you thinking you’ll never get close to nailing any poses and you will  never be able to move on in the series.

With continuous practise however, your body will open up as it relaxes into the various asanas. You might even be surprised at how far you could go once your own mind and limitations stop getting in the way.

"Yoga is 99% practise and 1% theory." - Sri Krishna Pattabhi

Listen to Your Body

It is your yoga ritual, your body and thus your responsibility. Ensure you set-up the poses correctly, enter them gracefully or exit an asana the moment you feel a sharp pain or numbness. Because of the set poses there might be some challenges around specific injuries so ensure you have a qualified ashtanga yoga teacher to guide you along the way. Let the process and your body guide you and use the five breaths each time to relax into poses without pushing too hard. Remember the balance between activation and relaxation.

"Simply be present with your own shifting energies and with the unpredictability of life as it unfolds." - Sri Krishna Pattabhi

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

With Ashtanga being a set series, you will have expert yogis and beginners in the same class. Don’t compare yourself to others. Every single person is at a different level and our bodies are unique, each one having its own memory, challenges and limitations. Don’t allow your ego to get in the way if your poses don’t look like the others. Turn your focus inward and connect with your body.

"Comparison is the thief of joy." – Eleanor Roosevelt

Don’t Give Up

Don’t be obsessed about getting it right or about achieving a specific pose. It will be much more enjoyable if you focus on the benefits and the journey itself. The practice of yoga is about experiencing the present moment as it is. You will also very soon realise that our human condition is to constantly try and improve, but yoga will gracefully show you how to accept and embrace the ‘wholesome self’ that already exists within each of us.

"Do not stop trying just because perfection eludes you." – B.K.S Iyengar

Enjoy the Journey and Play

Why do we lose the ability to play as adults? Our fears, memories and minds get in the way of the childlike curiosity that was originally part of our bodies and life. You will relax about yoga the moment you start to see it as an exploration and ‘play time’ and it might open new doors to appreciate the gems that daily life has to offer.

"Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees." - B.K.S. Iyengar

Path to mindfulness
Yoga will be a path to living more mindful - Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

It Might Not Be Easy, But It’ll be Worth It

As you delve into Ashtanga yoga, you’ll realise just how deep the universe of self-discovery can be. Practising yoga will peel off layers from the mind and once you can shift that aside, you’ll move into a blissful meditative state.

Most forms of yoga like Iyengar yoga, Yoga nidra, Kundalini yoga or the more restorative yoga will also help you to reduce stress and energise the mind, body and spirit, but very few styles will physically challenge you the same way that Ashtanga or power yoga will. If this challenge sounds a bit too intense, here you can read about other forms of yoga that might suit you better.

Whatever style you choose, whether you go to a private studio, get an online yoga class or a yoga teacher on Superprof, you’ll certainly benefit from yoga and there are many experienced yoga teachers to help you along the way.

If you are ready for a challenge you can take your body on an energising journey of vitality, strength and flexibility. Build strength like never before and become a happier, more humble and more mindful human being.  All with the help of Ashtanga yoga.

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Writer and qualified yoga instructor, who is passionate about health and well-being.