What is Ashtanga Yoga?
The word ‘yoga’ in the ancient language of Sanskrit means to ‘yoke,’ or unite, the mind, body, and spirit. The West has chosen to focus mainly on the physical exercise aspect, but yoga also offers an opportunity to train the mind, body, and breath, as well as connecting with one’s spirituality. The physical part of the yoga lifestyle is called hatha yoga, which focuses on asanas, or poses. Meditation and chanting are used in some types of yoga.
There are a number of different types of yoga, of which Ashtanga yoga is a popular variety. It is a vigorous, fast-paced form of yoga that helps to build flexibility, strength, stamina and concentration. A person doing Ashtanga yoga moves quickly through a set of predetermined poses while remaining focused on deep breathing. It is a series of poses performed sequentially and beginning with sun salutations.
Based on an ancient text that describes a complex system of linked yoga postures, Ashtanga yoga is the method of yoga taught by Sri Pattabhi Jois. This text was re-discovered by Jois and his guru, Krishnamacharya, in the early 1930’s.
‘Ashtanga’ literally means eight limbs. They are described by Patanjali as: Yama (abstinences), Niyama (observances), Asana (postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (contemplation). These branches support each other. Asana practice must be established for proper practice of pranayama. It is considered that this is a key to the development of the yamas and niyamas. Once these first four externally-oriented ‘limbs’ are firmly established, the last four internally-oriented ‘limbs’ will automatically develop over time.
Within Ashtanga, the length of the inhaling breath should be the same as the length of the exhaling breath. By synchronizing the breathing and movement in the poses, the blood is heated, thereby cleaning and thinning it, allowing it to flow more easily throughout the body. The improved circulation removes toxins and relieves pain in the joints. The sweat then carries the impurities from the body.
Ashtanga is not merely a method of working out, but it offers a philosophy for life and design for living.
What to expect
Ashtanga Yoga classes offer students exercises to stretch and flex the body, develop breath awareness, relaxation and sometimes meditation. There are no age restrictions or restrictions of physical capability, you can take yoga classes to become fit and flexible – you don’t have to be that already. As the class will involve a wide range of movements it’s a good idea to go in light, loose-fitting clothes for the first few sessions ( you can invest special kit later if you want to continue with the classes).
Some of the ‘poses’ will be in a standing position, no shoes are required as you will be working in bare feet. For others will take place at ground level, so you’ll need a soft surface to lie, kneel or stand on. Many yoga classes will provide yoga mats, depending on where they are situated, or you may need to bring your own. Check before your first class.
A number of different activities will take place during the course of the class which is generally just under one hour. Obviously each class varies according to the teacher and the level of the students, but the following will give an idea of the contents of a typical class.
You may begin with a limbering up session: moves and sequences (such as Sun Salutations) to warm up the muscles and joints. This prepares the body and mind for asana (posture) work. These exercises may be referred ‘pawanmuktasana’ (wind/energy-releasing postures).
Then you will be instructed in some ‘asanas’ (yoga postures) which strengthen and tone the body and improve the flow of energy – regulating physical systems of the body and breath, and stilling the mind for meditation.The purpose of asana work is not how far you can contort your body, but how to combine stability (stira) with ease/relaxation (sukha).
Much emphasis will be paid to breathing throughout the class. Simple breathing techniques will develop awareness and relaxation of the breath. The breathwork moves into ‘pranayama’ exercises which teach how to control and move ‘prana’ through the breath. Prana means the life-force energy.
The session is likely to end with a quiet wind-down reflective time, perhaps with meditation.
If you had any physical disability or short–term restriction in movement, be sure to let the yoga instructor know before the class. A skilled teacher will know many ways to adjust and adapt the exercises so that everyone can join in and each one can get the maximum benefit from the class.
Effects and Benefits
Yoga has a wealth of benefits. It can improve flexibility, strength, balance, and stamina. In addition, many people who practice yoga say that it reduces anxiety and stress, improves mental clarity, and even helps them sleep better. The physical benefits of regular Astanga practice include improved circulation, increased oxygenation of the blood, greater strength and flexibility in muscles (especially core muscles) as well as spinal flexibility and improved posture.
Yoga asanas or postures stretch the body, open up the area of the chest (aiding breathing ) and in turn helps to lift pressure off the heart area. The twisting movements, in particular, aid digestion and processes of elimination.
Scientific research is now setting out to ratify the specific benefits of yoga, and areas of research include: multiple sclerosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, back pain, arthritis, asthma, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Many benefits and improvement to the physical state have been claimed for regular yoga practice: increased vitality and strength; managing on-going problems such as diabetes, weight loss, osteoarthritis; reduction of stress and anxiety.
The experience of yoga is to offer total relaxation whereby physical, mental and emotional tensions are released and replaced by a stable nervous system and mental clarity. Yoga practice offers a clear and peaceful mind.
Fascinating Facts about Ashtanga Yoga
- A man who practises yoga is called a yogi or yogin and a woman is known as yogini. Yoga is very beneficial for people with back, heart or breathing problems.
- Yoga is being practiced in USA since late 19th century but it only gained popularity around 1960s.
- From the NHS evidence website http://www.evidence.nhs.uk come some conclusion from Yoga Practice for the Management of Type II Diabetes Mellitus in Adults: A systematic review. The studies’ results show improvement in outcomes among patients with diabetes type II… Short-term benefits for patients with diabetes may be achieved from practicing yoga. Other studies have been done on yoga for chronic lower back pain, yoga for epilepsy, yoga for depression, anxiety, menopausal symptoms.
- It is believed that there may be more people practicing yoga in California than in all of India! An estimated 16 million people in North America practice yoga.
- Some American male professional sports teams have recognized the value of yoga practice and are now integrating yoga into their training regimes. The teams using yoga to train include The Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and The Miami Dolphins.
- The word hatha can mean forceful or willful and can be translated into “ha”, which means “sun” and “tha” meaning “moon”. Hatha yoga is the physical exercises and postures of yoga that allows the free-flow of energy throughout the body, as well as creating balance and inner peace and harmony.
- What do these celebrities have in common Madonna, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Michelle, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sting? They all love yoga.
- “Om”, the word that is repeatedly chanted throughout the postures of yoga, is a mantra; a vibration of the universe around us.
British Wheel of Yoga
The BWY is recognised by Sport England and The Sport and Recreation Alliance (formally the CCPR) as the National Governing Body for Yoga in England. As the NGB for Yoga we also accredit other organisation’s teacher training programmes. The British Wheel of Yoga is a registered charity and is the largest yoga organisation in the country, running for 40 years. It is members-based and organised into 11 regions. We represent the UK at the European Federation of National Yoga Organisations and are a leading member of the European Union of Yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga Research institute Website
This website explains in full the practical and philosophic basis of Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Complete details of the history, and Practice of Ashtanga yoga and information about training courses in the Institute in Mysore, India.
From the introduction to his book Yoga Mala:
‘Mala is a Sanskrit term which means garland. In India, there are many different kind of malas…Pattabhi Jois offers another kind of mala, which is ancient in tradition, as sacred as prayer and as beautiful as flowers. His mala is a garland of yoga, in which each vinyasa is like a sacred bead to be counted and focused on, and each asana is like a fragrant flower strung on the thread of the breath…this garland of yoga, when diligently practiced, adorns our entire being with peace, health, radiance, and, ultimately, Self-knowledge.’
Scottish Yoga Teachers
Yoga Scotland is recognised by SportScotland as the Governing Body for Yoga in Scotland.