Ashtanga vinyasa is one of the most popular and well-known styles of yoga in the West. If you are thinking of starting to practice it here is a guide on the benefits, features, definition and history of Ashtanga yoga.
Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga general description
Beloved for its dynamic practice, Ashtanga vinyasa is one of the most widespread and popular yoga styles in the West. It offers a very intense practice in which you sweat a lot and there are no breaks. Each movement is connected to the breath and to move from one asana to another you perform a small sequence of movements called Vinyasa. During the classes we always perform the same sequence of movements, the classes are therefore all the same, obviously what changes is the progress we make physically and mentally as we practice. The flowing practice of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga aims to achieve a meditative state and awareness through movement
Do not confuse Ashtanga with Ashtanga Vinyasa.
For practicality when referring to this style of yoga it is referred to as Ashtanga yoga, but in reality it should always say Ashtanga vinyasa yoga. The word Ashtanga is composed of two terms in Sanskrit "ashta" eight and "Anga" parts. It therefore means "the eight parts of yoga". This term corresponds to the classification made by Patanjali in the sutras of classical yoga.
What are the eight parts of yoga? Here is the division made by Patanjali:
1 Yama: The external ethical precepts
2 Niyama: The personal ethical precepts
3 Asana: The postures
4 Pranayama: The breathing
5 Pratyahara: The withdrawal of the senses
6 Dharana: Concentration
7 Dhyana: Meditation
8 Samadhi: Union with the Divine
From Patanjali's definition of yoga derive different styles of yoga, not only Ashtanga vinyasa but for example also Iyengar yoga. Ashtanga and Ashtanga vinyasa should not be confused as one thing, but it is in the first case the classification of the eight parts of classical yoga made by Patanjali, in the second case a style of yoga practice that is inspired by this classification. Ashtangha yoga focuses primarily on the third part of yoga, namely the positions, supplementing it with the fourth part, namely the breath.
Do not confuse Ashtanga vinyasa with Vinyasa flow either!
Ashtanga vinyasa should not be confused with another style of yoga: Vinyasa or Vinyasa flow. This yoga style is similar to Ashtanga vinyasa in that it links each change of position with movements, but there is no fixed sequence that is repeated. Vinyasa flow classes are always different, while Ashtanga Vinyasa classes follow a set sequence.
History of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga
This style of yoga was popularized by Krishna Pattabi Jois, a student of the great master Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (B.K.S Iyengar, creator of the Iyengar style was also a student of this great master). Krishna Pattabi Jois established the Ashtanga Vinyasa research institute in Mysore in 1948, making this Indian city the capital of yoga. The teaching style of Ashtanga vinyasa in fact is also called Mysore style. Ashtanga vinyasa has inspired many dynamic yoga styles that have developed in the West such as power yoga.
The key principles of ashtanga vinyasa
There are a few terms that you become familiar with in this style of yoga. Here is a small vocabulary of the key concepts of Ashtanga vinyasa practice.
Vinyasa: means breath in movement. In Ashtanga vinyasa the breath is closely synchronized with the movement. For every movement I do an inhalation or exhalation is connected. We also refer to the term Vinyasa as the sequence that connects the transition from one asana to another.
Tristhana: the three points of attention (or action) which are: the gaze (Drishiti), the posture of the body (asana), the breath (pranayama). Focusing my action simultaneously on these three points I can purify and strengthen the body, nervous system and mind.
Drishiti: the points of visual concentration, where the gaze goes to rest, are nine (Nose, between the eyebrows, Navel, Thumb, Hands, Feet, top, Right and Left)
Asana: the postures that are performed in the series
Pranayama, The Breath: Pranayama (breath control) is practiced in Ashtanga vinyasa. There are many techniques to control the breath, the one most used in Ashtanga vinyasa is called Ujjayi.
Ujjayi Breath: means "victorious breath" is a type of noisy breathing in which you hold the air longer in the throat and nose, a slow breathing that calms the mind and gives more energy to the body.
Bandha: means to join, lock, lace together and translates into contracting a certain part of the body during asana or breathing to activate that area both physically and energetically.
There are three bandhas (Mula bandha, Uddhyana bandha, Jalandhara bandha) plus a fourth bandha which consists in activating all three bandhas together called Maha Bandha.
- Mula Bandha: located in the pelvic floor acting on the Muladhara root chakra, in Ashtanga yoga is activated during Ujjayi breathing and in many asanas
- Uddhyana Bandha: located in the diaphragm area, acts on the Third chakra Manipura, the Solar plexus.
- Jalandhara Bandha: located in the throat area, acts on the Fifth chakra, Visuddha.
BENEFITS OF ASHTANGA VINYASA
The benefits of this yoga practice are many, in general there is an enhancement of mental and physical well-being. Doing yoga we are better in our body-mind protecting and strengthening organs and systems that stressful life and the hectic pace put under pressure.
The main benefits are:
- Improved quality of sleep
- Improved posture (relief of posture-related pains such as back pain, neck pain...)
- Increases joint flexibility
- Improves coordination of movements
- Improved muscle strength
- Helps tone the body
- Stabilization of psycho-emotional balance
- Strengthening of the cardiovascular system
- Controlling states of anxiety and stress
- Spiritual well-being
- Improves mental concentration
- Stimulates creativity
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves energy management
- Recharges good mood
- Aids digestion
What does an Ashtanga Vinyasa class look like?
Ashtanga vinyasa is also referred to as the moving meditation style because there are never any breaks. Classes begin with a chant dedicated to Patanjali:
auṁ vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde sandarśita svātma sukhāva bodhe
niḥ-śreyase jaṅgali-kāyamāne saṁsāra hālāhala mohaśāṁtyai
ābāhu puruṣākāraṁ śaṁkhacakrāsi dhāriṇam sahasra śirasaṁ śvetaṁ
praṇamāmi patañjalim auṁ.
OM, I bow and honor the Lotus Feet of the plurality of Masters, who awaken understanding in the joy of pure Being, who are complete absorption in joy, healers of the jungle, removing the delusion caused by the poison of Samsara. I bow before the Sage Patanjali, who has a thousand bright white heads and who, assuming a human form, holds in his arms a conch (divine sound), a wheel and a sword I bow OM.
Then proceed to perform five repetitions of the sun salutation A and five repetitions of the sun salutation B. Then proceed to the execution of the sequence. In Ashtanga vinyasa there are actually six fixed series.
- The first series Yoga Chikitsa
- The intermediate series Nadi Sodhana
- The advanced series Stira Bhagah Sampta which has four variations (a,b,c,d)
In Ashtanga vinyasa classes we practice mainly the first series, the passage to the following series implies a constancy and a deepening of yoga practice very demanding typical of those who decide to become teachers or otherwise devote much of their time and energy to yoga.
All sequences close with Shavasana the resting position, most important for absorbing the benefits of the practice, and the lesson concludes with a chanted mantra of wishing for peace:
auṁ svasti-prajā-bhyaḥ pari-pāla-yaṁtāṁ nyāyena mārgeṇa mahīṁ mahīśāḥ go-brāhmaṇebhyaḥ śubham-astu nityaṁ lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino-bhavaṁtu auṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ
OM, may all mankind be happy. May exceptional people with noble souls rule by protecting the earth in every way through the path of righteous virtue. May there be perpetual joy for those who know the real nature of things. May all the creatures of the world be happy. Peace, Peace, Peace OM
Now that you know the structure of Ashtanga vinyasa all you have to do is put on a comfortable pant and t-shirt and grab a good yoga mat!
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