Ashtanga yoga is a time-tested practice in the vast world of fitness and health. For centuries, this yoga style has been helping people to find strength and balance. This type of yoga goes beyond mere bodily exercises, embodying a synergy of movement, breath, and spirituality.
In this article, we are going to discuss the principles of ashtanga yoga. We will also learn its benefits as well as all the yoga poses involved in this yoga style. By the end, we hope for you to find out if this yoga style is the best choice for you.
What Is Ashtanga?
Ashtanga yoga is a structured yet dynamic style where your breath harmonizes with a series of poses for a rhythmic and fluid movement. In Sanskrit, ashtanga translates to “eight limbs.” It represents the holistic approach to living based on the outline by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
This type of yoga is often regarded as one of the most challenging types, earning it the nickname “military yoga” due to its structured and disciplined nature. It follows specific posture sequences; your ashtanga teacher also expects you to adhere to a consistent routine.
In fact, in this style, mastery of a yoga posture is a prerequisite to progress to the next one. Instructors are very strict about form and alignment during class. There are even some yoga sessions where students do not finish the sequence at all.
Of course, that’s not to say that people fail ashtanga yoga if they don’t finish a sequence. These challenges are integral to the ashtanga practice. The goal is to foster discipline and push individuals to their limits.
Ashtanga involves exploring the interconnectedness of self-discipline, ethical standards, physical poses, and breath control during yoga practice. Through this, you uncover a path that goes beyond the body’s limitations, leading to inner peace and a better overall wellbeing.
The Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga
Even though ashtanga is a structured yoga practice, its aim is for you to feel good inside and out. This yoga style helps you explore your physicality, mental resilience, and spiritual equilibrium.
Let us take a look at its benefits.
Physical strength and flexibility
Ashtanga yoga involves a series of dynamic movements engaging various muscle groups, promoting flexibility through systematic pose progressions.
The continuous flow of the controlled movements helps in building muscle strength and endurance. Furthermore, there are cases when you need to constantly repeat an asana (yoga pose) if the alignment is off. Therefore, you also tone your muscles by consistently pulling off a yoga posture.
At the same time, this yoga style also emphasizes core engagement, with poses like Navasana (boat pose) and Chaturanga Dandasana (plank pose) targeting muscles in the lower back, abdomen, and hip flexors, fostering overall strength.
A clearer mind
Ashtanga yoga emphasizes the harmony of movement and breath, enhancing mindfulness and mental clarity. Synchronizing breathing with asanas requires focused attention. If it is done incorrectly, you have to repeat the asana.
Moreover, controlled and deep breathing not only oxygenates the body but also brings a calming effect to the mind, fostering a sense of presence and awareness.
The guided movements with breath serve as a means to redirect the mind from external distractions, a concept known as “drishti.” Drishti’s purpose is to cultivate focus that is not limited to the yoga mat but in everyday life.
The rhythmic and meditative elements of ashtanga yoga play a significant role in reducing stress. This is because the controlled breathing and intentional movements in this yoga style activate the parasympathetic nervous system. When it is activated, it induces a relaxation response.
Additionally, this yoga type fosters a strong connection between body and mind. People are encouraged to observe bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts without judgment, heightening overall awareness. This heightened awareness facilitates a more conscious response to stressors, empowering you to navigate life’s challenges with greater resilience.
This style of yoga involves the practice of “ujjayi pranayama,” or conscious and controlled breathing. The rhythmic breathing pattern oxygenates the blood and stimulates the lymphatic system, which helps with the elimination of toxins in your body.
Moreover, deep breaths encourage an efficient exchange of gasses in your lungs, supporting your body’s natural detox mechanism.
Ashtanga yoga can also make you sweat, a natural way to release toxins through your skin. The twisting poses within this yoga style act as an internal massage for your organs. It helps detoxify your liver and kidneys.
Lastly, this yoga style encourages you to maintain proper hydration. Well-hydrated cells in your body function more efficiently in eliminating waste, and consistent water intake supports the flushing out of toxins through your urine.
Ashtanga Poses For Yoga Beginners
The ashtanga series has six sequences of yoga poses, with mastery of the primary series being a prerequisite for advancing to the next level. The order progression includes the primary series, followed by the intermediate and advanced series, divided into four parts: Advanced A to Advanced D.
The primary series serves as the foundational step for all students, regardless of their level. Here are some of the yoga poses involved in it:
Standing yoga poses:
- Mountain posture
- Standing forward bend
- Big toe posture
Seated yoga poses
- Seated forward bend
- Upward plank
- Half-bound lotus seated forward bend
Finishing yoga poses
- Shoulder stand
- Plow posture
Closing yoga sequence
- Lotus posture
- Upward lift
Start by standing tall with both your feet together. Inhale as you lengthen your spine and roll your shoulders back and down. Extend your arms alongside your body, and your palms should be facing forward. Find a focal point and breathe deeply as you ground your feet.
Tip: To maintain the mountain yoga pose, do short and deep breaths. Feel the sensation of your feet against the ground to be more stable.
Standing Forward Bend
From your mountain yoga pose, inhale and lift your arms overhead. Exhale as you hinge at your hips, folding forward from your waist. Reach for the floor or grab your shins, maintaining a long spine. For a gentle stretch, slightly bend your knees.
Tip: Deepen the stretch of your spine by slowly inhaling.
Big Toe Pose
To do the big toe pose, lift your chest and exhale while hinging your hips. Slowly reach down to hold your big toes. Exhale as you gently pull yourself toward your thighs. Keep your gaze forward and engage your quadriceps.
Tip: You have to keep your spine straight when doing this yoga pose. It is okay if you bend your knees slightly to have a safe stretch.
Seated Forward Bend
Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Inhale when you lengthen your spine and exhale when you hinge your hips and reach your toes. Hold your ankles while keeping your back straight.
Tip: It’s okay if you can’t reach your ankles or toes. If you want to try anyway, inhale as you stretch your spine.
Also begin by sitting on the floor with legs extended in front. Place your hands behind you, fingers pointing toward your feet. Inhale and press through your hands, lifting your hips upward. Point your toes and straighten your legs, creating a straight line from head to heels.
Tip: Gradually lift your hips so you have a more controlled movement.
Half-Bound Lotus Seated Forward Bend
Starting from your default sitting position that we have discussed above, bend your right knee and bring the foot forward to your left hip. Inhale to stretch your spine, and exhale as you reach toward your left foot.
Hold your left big toe with your right hand and extend your left arm behind your back. Stretch your spine once more and maintain the pose.
Tip: If you cannot reach your toe, try using a strap to be able to feel the stretch in your hamstrings.
To do a headstand, begin by kneeling on the mat, interlocking your fingers. Place your forearms on the ground, creating a triangle with your hands. Position the crown of your head between your hands, cradling the back of your head in your palms.
Next, lift your hips and straighten your legs. Walk your feet toward your face, extending your legs upward, aiming for a straight line.
By the way, we know this particular yoga pose is challenging, so don’t force yourself to master this from the get-go.
Tip: Make sure your neck is properly supported to avoid putting too much pressure on your head.
Start by lying on your back and lifting your legs. Bring your legs over your head and point your toes to the ceiling. Try to align your body in a vertical line.
Tip: Keep your neck in a neutral position to avoid straining. Students typically support their lower backs by keeping their elbows on the yoga mat.
To start this yoga pose, lie on your back, lift your legs, and bring them towards the floor behind you. Use your hands to support your lower back and extend your legs. Keep your feet together, and try to make a straight line from your toes to your shoulders.
Tip: Make sure that your weight is on your upper back and shoulders, not your neck.
Sit in a comfortable position with your legs extended. Bend your right knee, bringing the foot to your left hip crease. Then, bend your left knee, bringing the foot to your right hip crease, creating a crossed-leg position. Place your hands on your knees with palms facing up.
Tip: You can start with a half-lotus yoga posture if it is too challenging. Just place a foot over your opposite thigh. Then, reset the pose and do the other side.
Begin by sitting on the floor with your legs extended. Place your hands beside your hips, fingers pointing forward. Press through your palms, lift your hips off the ground, and aim for a reverse plank position.
Make sure that your neck is relaxed when doing this yoga pose to avoid neck pain!
Tip: Focus on lifting from your hips to have a strong support against the ground.
Ashtanga yoga provides a transformative journey through its structured practice. If you are looking for a yoga type that integrates physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing into its practice, then ashtanga yoga is for you.
While it may be challenging at first, the payoff is undoubtedly worth the effort.
Can beginners practice this yoga style?
Ashtanga yoga might be challenging for some due to its emphasis on form. Its repetitive nature can feel “boring” to some. However, beginners can still give the primary yoga series a try, especially if they think the benefits are for them.
How often should you practice ashtanga yoga?
The essence of this yoga style lies in its structure and consistency. Thus, ideally, you should practice ashtanga yoga three to six times a week.
Is ashtanga only about physical postures?
No, ashtanga encompasses all eight limbs of yoga. It also has ethical principles, meditation, and controlled breathing. All these elements contribute to the holistic approach that ashtanga yoga aims to achieve.