Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga

“I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars. I started listening to the teaching of my soul.”  -Rumi

Traditional (philosophical) Ashtanga Yoga is an eight-limbed system which gives the seeker a blueprint for living a life of vibrant health, strength of mind, Self-understanding, Self-realization, spiritual insight and union with the divine. Together, the eight limbs of this philosophy direct the practitioner toward the goal of yoga –  yoga citta vritti nirodaha – the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind – and a sense of peace, equanimity and happiness that results.

“People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”  – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are:

  1. Yama – moral restraints
    1. Ahimsa – non-harming
    2. Satya – truthfulness
    3. Asteya – non-stealing
    4. Brahmacharya – maintenance of vital energies
    5. Aparigraha – non-covetousness
  2. Niyama – moral observances
    1. Saucha – cleanliness
    2. Santosha – contentment
    3. Tapas – fire of transformation
    4. Svadhyaya – self-study
    5. Ishvara pranidhara – surrender
  3. Asana – yoga postures
  4. Pranayama – breath control
  5. Pratyahara – internal focus
  6. Dharana – concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi – ecstacy

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (the hatha yoga practice)  is a practical way that we can put into practice each of these limbs of yoga. For example, we endeavor to not harm ourselves in practice (ahimsa), to be content with what we can do (santosha), to make a sincere effort at understanding ourselves (svadhyaya) through the tools of hatha yoga (asana, pranayama). Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is Tapas – the rigor and challenge of the practice generates the fire of transformation. We then take the lessons we learn about ourselves as we practice over time, and translate them into all aspects of our lives.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

With foundations in the yamas and niyamas, the movement method of Ashtanga Yoga is meant to be a practice as integral to life as sleep and food – a vital nourishment for the body/mind/spirit that becomes a regular personal ritual of self-care and mindfulness. The method implores us to make a deep commitment to our highest selves and the pursuit of the Self-understanding and the mastery we gain from a consistent, committed relationship with the tools.

Physically, the practice of yoga asana takes our body through a complete range of motion – massaging, releasing, balancing, strengthening, awakening. The design of the asana sequences implores us toward a balance of strength and flexibility of body that translates to a strong & flexible mind. The system teaches us how to recognize and cultivate right effort within ourselves, even when the definition of “right effort” changes day to day and long term through the seasons of our lives. The practice teaches us to skillfully and harmoniously integrate the many aspects of our practice, and ultimately, our lives. Unbridled stretching and flexibility is NOT the goal.

Do not practice to have a “good” practice.
Practice to maintain steadiness within yourself.

-Sharath Jois

As physically challenging as the practice may be, it is mentally even more so. Ashtanga Yoga teaches us to hold the paradox of honoring where you are, respecting your limits and practicing with insight and wisdom while also pushing your boundaries, stretching your limits and discovering new potential within yourself. It teaches you to observe your mind/emotions as you encounter short term and long term challenges (on and off the mat) and to be compassionately aware of the many modes of resistance the mind generates (frustration, fear, self-doubt, anger, etc.) and to ride the waves of body, mind and life without attachment. As you come to understand the fluctuations of consciousness as the universal workings of a human mind, rather than a personal failing, you become more skilled at exercising mastery over your mind and therefore over your experience of this life. Ashtanga Yoga teaches us to diligently approach challenges and goals with patience and persistent effort over time, with presence, discipline, dedication, commitment and non-attachment.

Spiritually, Ashtanga Yoga provides us with a committed opportunity to “enter the flow.” It is a regular, personal ritual of not only physical health care but spiritual connection with source. God, the universe, nature – whatever name you wish to think of it by, we all need methods to connect with mystery, with creativity, with potentiality that elevate our every thought and action from the mundane to the sacred. Like plugging in your iPhone to recharge its batteries so it performs at peak levels, so is stepping on your mat to plug into a source of vitality, connection, awareness, compassion, peace, light love. The more you engage in deliberate cultivation of these qualities, the more you will embody them in all interactions.

Basics of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Method

The Method

  • Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodaha – Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness. Yoga = establishing the mind in the Self, directing the attention away from outside objects and to the indweller.
  • Ashtanga Yoga is a moving meditation within which one becomes absorbed in the union of breath and movement – going beyond the mind and into the mystery, the essence, the timeless truth of being.
  • Four principles make up the foundation of the the method: vinyasa, breath, bandha and drishti.
  • Vinyasa is the precise linking of movement to breath resulting in a rhythmic flowing style of movement that reflects the fundamental rhythms that underlie the intelligence of nature.
  • Ujayii Breathing = technique of breath that generates heat, sound, focus and internal pressure control.
  • Bandha = a connection to our deep physical and metaphorical center that generates focus, strength, support, lightness and control.
  • Drishti = looking place, a tool for concentration and meditation within the movement.
  • Taken together, these techniques make up the method of Ashtanga Yoga and have the effect of drawing one sharply into present moment awareness and out of the drama of the mind (the citta vritti – which is the source of suffering)
  • Our practice helps us to process toxic stress and introduce healthy stress. It is a safe haven, an inner retreat, a place for clearing body and mind. What we find there may not always be happy or easy. Our practice takes us through the full expression of human emotion – from elation to frustration, from happiness to anger, from joy to sadness, from determination to defeat. The practice is to face these fluctuations of emotion and mind with equanimity – to show up and carry on, with acceptance and compassion, regardless of the fluctuations of the mind.
  • The practice is designed to liberate us from the consequences of being us, to bring freedom from our mind-stuff and establish our attention in pure being, the essence that all living beings share – the life force, the prana, the creative intelligence, the universe, God – however your mind labels it.

The Practice

  • The physical system of Ashtanga Yoga is consistent – the consistency of the sequence gives us a road map to follow, eliminating the need to think or decide what posture comes next. This repetition offers a steady and clear vantage point from which to watch yourself grow and change. You don’t have to think about what to do, so you are free to focus on the method – breath, bandha, drishti, vinyasa count, which takes you into that deeply meditative space.
  • Ashtanga Yoga is rigorous – though the amount of time and energy you invest in your practice varies from day to day and over the course of one’s lifetime, in general, the practice is meant to have a rigor to it that challenges our discipline, dedication and desire for self-understanding. Even just the showing up on consistent basis is rigorous. This rigor does not mean that the practice is never gentle, or slow, or restorative. But it IS designed to have you face your habits of mind that hold you back. If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you, so the overall energy of the practice is Tapas – the heat and fire of transformation.
  • Ashtanga Yoga is balanced – it aims to cultivate balance between strength and flexibility, between effort and ease (sthira sukha asanam), between poses that seem doable and poses that seem impossible, it takes the body through the full range of human motion (and sometimes beyond!). This beyond exists to teach us that we are far more limited by our minds, beliefs about ourselves and our habits than anything else.
  • Ashtanga is a practice of vairagya, or non-attachment. It is not for the sake of the asanas themselves that we engage in the yoga. We use the practice as a way to look inside ourselves and engage in a private, intimate relationship with our own body/mind. It is important to have no attachment to which postures one can do or not do. In fact, the postures that challenge and frustrate us the most are the ones where the real learning opportunity exists.

The Sequence

  • Primary Series (aka 1st Series, aka Yoga Chikitsa) focuses on establishing a solid foundation of strength, flexibility, stability, grace and control over both body and mind.
  • Primary Series is where students of Ashtanga begin. Mastering it can take years.
  • Physically, it begins with sun salutations and standing postures (to warm up, gather awareness and attention and create a base of grounding and stability), then transitions to a focus on the pelvic region of the body – forward bends and hip openers make the bulk of the primary series sequence.
  • Forward bends and twists create healthy digestion and a strong “agni” or digestive fire – strengthening our ability to process all that we take in – physically and mentally.
  • Hip openers put us in touch with our first and second chakras – the foundation of a healthy body, healthy emotions, healthy relationships and a solid base from which to expand our intention into the mental and spiritual realms.
  • We close the practice with a grounding set of inversions and meditative postures, along with savasana, for deep stillness.
  • As you gain mastery over primary series, there are other, more advanced sequences, waiting to challenge you. The speed at which this evolution takes place depends on the practitioner.

The Approach

  • Method (breath, bandha, drishti) over technique (sequence, alignment).
  • Regardless of the exact postures practiced, the breath is the key to unlocking the secrets of all yoga techniques. Breathe to look, listen and feel within. Find the place where the breath flows deeply and spontaneously with the least effort. Move from energy, not muscle. Fall in love with your breath and the lyrical way it directs the body in the dance of yoga.
  • Within any posture, attend to your foundation. Attune to the flow of your breath. Establish bandha and drishti. Energize and stabilize with your legs and feet, refine with your spine. Express and expand with your limbs.
  • Work to balance sthira (steadiness) and sukha (ease), or effort and relaxation. All of yoga (and life) is the exploration of the play of opposites (inhale/exhale, day/night, light/shadow, yin/yang, masculine/feminine). Ashtanga is an expression of this universal principle of balance and rhythms of nature.
  • The alignment contained within Samastithi (equal standing pose, aka mountain pose) can be translated to many yoga postures, especially the standing ones. The relationship of the head to the shoulders to the pelvis, the front body to the back body, the soles of the feet to the crown of the head. The balance of grounding and lifting forces. The use of bandhas, breath and drishti. All of yoga is contained within samastithi.

10 Practical Tips for Practice

  1. Start small – develop a short form practice and make it a habit. Then you can grow into the full primary series.
  2. Be consistent – the more you can practice on the same days, at the same time, in a routine, the easier it will be to make it a habit.
  3. Have a dedicated space – sometimes difficult with kids and/or pets, if you can keep a dedicated space that is clear and ready to go, it will enhance your ability to practice.
  4. Reduce distractions as much as possible. Prioritize and sanctify your practice.
  5. Early morning is ideal, but anytime works as long as you can commit and keep your promise to yourself.
  6. Just step on the mat – this is often the hardest part. Just get there. Breathe and move. Be less attached to how much you get done. Just begin. Fall in love with your breath.
  7. Practice on your own, but check in with a teacher and a community – Ashtanga is ultimately a practice of personal responsibility. You have to want what it offers. it helps tremendously to have a support system and is essential to have the guidance of an experienced teacher as you encounter difficulties and challenges or struggle with motivation.
  8. Lower your expectations and go slow. Take the long view. It is ok to learn and move through the sequences slowly. This is meant to be a personal practice for a lifetime. Keep a sense of humor!
  9. 99% Practice, 1% Theory.
  10. Take a spiritual, devotional approach, rather than a purely physical approach. This sustains you when things feel difficult or overwhelming.

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