Ashtanga Yoga Practice: 10 Powerful Insights for You

Ashtanga Yoga Practice
Ashtanga Yoga Practice

Dive deep into the transformative world of ashtanga yoga practice with this comprehensive guide. From its historical roots to its profound benefits, discover why this ancient art remains relevant in our modern world.

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”

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– The Bhagavad Gita

In a world where the next big thing is always right around the corner, the age-old discipline of “ashtanga yoga practice” offers not just another fleeting trend but a transformative journey for those who dare to tread its path. You might’ve already encountered titles like “21 Things to Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga…” or “Ashtanga Yoga IS Hard—A Beginner’s Guide.” But if you’re truly ready to dive deep and explore this yoga system’s profound depth, let’s unravel its intricacies together.

Ashtanga Yoga Practice: A Historical Treasure

Unraveling the Roots

To truly appreciate the power and depth of “ashtanga yoga practice,” it’s essential to dive into its storied past. Derived from Sanskrit, “Ashtanga” means “eight limbs,” representing the eightfold path laid out in the revered text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This path outlines steps or disciplines – including ethical guidelines, personal observances, posture, breathing, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditative absorption, and enlightenment – essential to master to attain spiritual enlightenment.

Historically, Ashtanga Yoga, as we recognize it today, traces its lineage to an ancient manuscript called the Yoga Korunta, believed to be over 2,500 years old. This text, written by the sage Vamana Rishi, was imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century by his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari, and subsequently passed on to Pattabhi Jois during his studies with Krishnamacharya, beginning in 1927.

📌 Fact: T. Krishnamacharya, often deemed the “father of modern yoga,” played a pivotal role in reviving and promoting yoga in the 20th century. His contributions are not only limited to Ashtanga but also other styles like Vinyasa and Iyengar Yoga.

The contemporary form of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, emphasizing the synchronized breath with a progressive series of postures, was developed by Pattabhi Jois, making Mysore, India, the global epicenter for this practice. This method purifies and detoxifies the body and mind, allowing practitioners to move towards a state of steadiness and peace.

It’s More Than Just Physical Flexibility

The Interplay of Mind, Body, and Spirit

Sure, those contorted postures and graceful transitions might seem like the ultimate goals in Ashtanga yoga, especially when they dominate social media feeds. But beneath the surface of these physical feats lies a rich tapestry of mental, emotional, and spiritual disciplines.

The physical practice, or ‘asana,’ is just one of the eight limbs. While achieving challenging postures can be immensely rewarding, the primary purpose of these poses is to prepare the body for prolonged meditation. Asanas help in detoxifying the body, calming the nervous system, and sharpening focus.

📌 Fact: Did you know that the word “asana” simply translates to “seat” in Sanskrit? Historically, the primary purpose of asanas was to cultivate the strength and endurance needed to sit in meditation for extended periods.

Beyond the mat, Ashtanga yoga calls for a profound inner transformation. Through the ethical disciplines (Yamas) like non-violence, truthfulness, and non-stealing, and personal observances (Niyamas) like cleanliness, contentment, and self-study, it fosters an environment of self-awareness, respect for others, and universal compassion.

Understanding the Ashtanga Series

Ashtanga yoga is a meticulously designed sequence that serves a unique purpose. Let’s break down the importance and nuances of these series:

  • Primary Series: Often referred to as Yoga Chikitsa, which translates to “yoga therapy,” the primary series is all about healing and realigning the body. The focus is on detoxifying organs, muscles, and joints while strengthening the core. The poses in this sequence range from forward bends to twists, ensuring a holistic stretch and tone for the entire body. Additionally, the primary series sets a solid foundation for the sequences that follow. For most, this series is a journey in itself that might take years to master, but its benefits are manifold, from physical stamina to mental resilience.
  • Intermediate Series: Known as Nadi Shodhana, meaning “nerve cleansing,” the intermediate series delves deeper into the body’s energy channels. This sequence introduces more challenging poses, including backbends and inversions. Beyond the physical challenge, the intermediate series aims to awaken and purify the nervous system, channeling energy (or prana) more efficiently.
  • Advanced Series: Divided into four subsets (A, B, C, D), the advanced series, called Sthira Bhaga (or “divine stability”), pushes practitioners to their limits, challenging them with intricate asanas. But it’s not just about physical prowess. The advanced series also demands a deeper mental and spiritual commitment. Each subset builds on the previous, cultivating a mastery that only a few achieve but many aspire towards.

Remember, the goal isn’t to rush through these series but to immerse oneself fully, understanding the purpose and benefit of each pose.

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Embracing Consistency in Ashtanga

Why is consistency so heralded in the ashtanga tradition? It’s simple: The magic of ashtanga yoga unravels over time.

  • Muscle Memory: By practicing consistently, you allow your muscles to remember the poses. Each session builds upon the last, ensuring steady progression.
  • Deepening Mental Focus: Just as our muscles need repetition, our minds benefit from the repeated act of focusing, meditating, and reflecting, all of which become more profound with regular practice.
  • Evolving Emotional Resilience: Ever noticed how the first time you held a challenging pose, it felt unbearable, but over time, it became more manageable? That’s emotional resilience at work. With consistent practice, you train your mind to stay calm amidst discomfort, a skill that translates beyond the mat.
  • Spiritual Exploration: The repetitive nature of consistent practice becomes a form of meditation, allowing practitioners to delve deeper into their spiritual self with each session.
  • Creating a Ritual: By committing to a regular practice, you create a sacred time for yourself—a ritual that nurtures your body, calms your mind, and feeds your soul.

Breathing is Fundamental: The Power of Ujjayi Breath

The breath is the life force, the bridge that connects our physical and mental realms. In ashtanga yoga practice, the Ujjayi breath—a rhythmic, oceanic-sounding breath—is the cornerstone. Here’s why:

  • Synchronicity with Movement: The Ujjayi breath is synchronized with each movement, creating a fluid rhythm in the practice. Every inhalation and exhalation corresponds to a specific movement, be it entering into or exiting a posture. This synchronized dance of breath and movement is often referred to as “vinyasa.”
  • Heat Production: The friction caused by the Ujjayi breath creates internal heat, which warms the body from the inside. This internal warmth aids in the detoxification process, helping to purify the blood and remove toxins through sweat.
  • Mental Focus: Listening to the sound of your breath can be incredibly meditative. It acts as an auditory anchor, pulling the mind away from external distractions and helping it stay present in the practice. Over time, this enhanced focus can spill over into everyday life, improving concentration and mindfulness.
  • Regulates the Nervous System: The deep and rhythmic nature of the Ujjayi breath can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and stress reduction. It’s a counterbalance to our often hectic, “fight-or-flight” dominated lifestyles.
  • Enhanced Oxygen Flow: By fully utilizing the lung capacity and drawing the breath from the diaphragm, Ujjayi breath ensures optimal oxygenation of the blood, nourishing the body’s cells and promoting overall vitality.

Remember, in the world of Ashtanga yoga, breathing isn’t just a background process—it’s a dynamic player in the symphony of practice.

Every Asana Tells a Story: Beyond the Physical Postures

At first glance, asanas (yoga poses) in the Ashtanga sequence might seem like mere physical contortions, a test of one’s flexibility and strength. However, delve deeper, and each asana unfolds a narrative—of discipline, awareness, and transformation.

  • Preparation and Counterpose: The Ashtanga sequence is meticulously designed. Every pose prepares the body and mind for the next, ensuring a balanced flow. For instance, forward bends often follow backbends as a counterpose, helping to neutralize the spine and calm the nervous system.
  • Energetic Alignments: Beyond muscular engagements, each asana works on specific energy channels or ‘nadis.’ By holding and mastering a pose, you’re not just improving muscle tone but also regulating your body’s energetic flow. This can lead to improved mood, better digestion, and heightened awareness.
  • Mental Fortitude and Patience: Some asanas can be challenging, pushing you to your limits. But with regular practice, as you inch closer to mastering them, they teach patience, resilience, and the beauty of perseverance.
  • Reflections of Daily Life: Asanas are more than just poses; they’re reflections of our daily life. The balance required in ‘Tree Pose’ (Vrikshasana) mirrors the balance needed in our daily hustle. The strength demanded by ‘Warrior Pose’ (Virabhadrasana) is reminiscent of the inner warrior we summon in challenging times.
  • Therapeutic Benefits: Many asanas have therapeutic benefits. For example, ‘Legs-Up-The-Wall’ (Viparita Karani) can alleviate headaches, while ‘Cobra Pose’ (Bhujangasana) can provide relief from backaches.

Your Body, Your Rules: The Personalized Ashtanga Journey

Every individual embarking on the Ashtanga yoga practice journey comes with a unique set of strengths, challenges, experiences, and aspirations. The beauty of Ashtanga lies in its adaptability to cater to each person’s specific needs.

📌 Personal Pacing: The tempo at which you move through the series should be in harmony with your body’s signals. While there’s an innate structure to Ashtanga sequences, it’s not a rigid path. It’s crucial to honor where your body is on any given day, rather than force it into postures it’s not ready for.

🌟 Customized Variations: Not every pose will be accessible immediately. It’s perfectly acceptable—and often encouraged—to take on modified versions of postures. These modifications can ensure you gain the benefits of the pose without compromising safety or alignment.

😅 Embracing Imperfection: The journey of Ashtanga yoga is filled with ups and downs. There will be days when you’ll effortlessly glide into a pose and others when even the simplest asana seems challenging. Instead of getting disheartened, use these moments as opportunities to practice patience and self-compassion.

💡 Lesson to Remember: The essence of your Ashtanga journey isn’t about achieving perfection in every pose. It’s about cultivating an intimate understanding of your body and its infinite wisdom.

The Influence of the Moon: Cosmic Rhythms and Your Practice

The cyclical phases of the moon have always held mystical significance in many cultures and traditions. In the realm of ashtanga yoga, this cosmic dance plays a tangible role in guiding the rhythm of the practice.

🌙 Moon’s Energy & Human Physiology: Ancient yogic wisdom suggests that the gravitational pull of the moon affects the water content in the human body, much like its effect on the tides of the ocean. During full moon and new moon days, this influence is at its peak, potentially making us feel more energetic or, conversely, more introspective.

🧘 Balancing Energies: On new moon days, the energy tends to be grounding, making it a time for reflection and introspection. Conversely, full moon days bring an influx of dynamic energy, sometimes making practitioners feel more “wired” or emotional. Recognizing these subtle energy shifts can offer deeper insights into one’s practice and state of mind.

📅 Rest & Renew: Traditional Ashtanga practitioners take a break from their physical practice on moon days. This break isn’t just a nod to tradition; it offers the body a chance to rest, rejuvenate, and assimilate the benefits of the regular practice.

Harmonizing with Nature: By aligning the Ashtanga practice with the moon’s cycles, yogis are essentially syncing with the natural rhythms of the universe. This alignment fosters a profound sense of connection, not only to one’s inner self but to the cosmos at large.

A Lifelong Journey

Ah, the allure of instant gratification! In a world of 5-minute crafts and 30-day challenges, diving into the profound depths of Ashtanga might feel, well, counterintuitive. But ashtanga isn’t just another tick on your bucket list or a summer fling—it’s a profound, lifelong relationship with yourself.

Embarking on the journey of Ashtanga yoga means committing to a lifelong process of learning, unlearning, and relearning. It’s about observing the ebb and flow of your thoughts, understanding the whispers of your body, and nurturing the silent cries of your spirit.

Over the years, you might find that Ashtanga acts as a mirror, reflecting not just the physical suppleness of your body but the intricate tapestry of emotions, aspirations, fears, and dreams that make you, well, you.

The beauty of this journey is its unpredictability. Some days, you might find yourself effortlessly gliding through the sequences, while on others, even the simplest asana might feel like climbing Mount Everest without an oxygen mask. But it’s in these oscillations, these peaks and valleys, that the magic truly happens.

Remember that guy Pattabhi Jois? He famously said, “Practice, and all is coming.” He didn’t say “practice for a year” or “practice until you nail that handstand.” He simply emphasized the act of practicing, of showing up, of being present—day after day, year after year. Because, in the end, it’s not about mastering an asana but about mastering the art of embracing the journey itself.

Community is Key

Picture this: It’s 5:30 am. The world is enveloped in the soft embrace of dawn. As you roll out your mat, thousands of miles away, someone in Tokyo, San Francisco, or Nairobi is doing the same. There’s a silent rhythm, a global heartbeat, that pulses through the veins of Ashtanga practitioners worldwide. This is the magic of the Ashtanga community.

Stepping into the world of Ashtanga means stepping into a vibrant, global family—a family that laughs, cries, celebrates, and supports. Whether you’re practising in the bustling lanes of Mysore, India, or the serene shalas of California, the language of Ashtanga remains universal.

In this community, wisdom is generously shared, milestones are collectively celebrated, and setbacks are communally overcome. It’s not just about the individuals but about the collective spirit, the shared passion, and the united journey.

But the beauty doesn’t stop at shared sequences or synchronized breathing. The Ashtanga community thrives on ‘satsangs’—gatherings where practitioners share experiences, insights, and wisdom. These gatherings, whether physical or virtual, offer an invaluable reservoir of knowledge, motivation, and camaraderie.

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Insightful Conclusion

In our rapidly changing world, where fleeting trends often overshadow time-tested wisdom, the ancient art of ashtanga yoga offers a grounding force. It’s a reminder that in the quest for external achievements, our inner growth and harmony are paramount. Are you ready to begin?

FAQs About Ashtanga Yoga Practice

Q1. What is the best time to practice ashtanga yoga?

A: Traditionally, ashtanga is practiced early in the morning, but the best time is when you can be consistent. Listen to your body and choose a time that works best for you.

Q2. Do I need to be vegetarian or vegan for ashtanga yoga practice?

A: While many practitioners adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, it’s not mandatory. However, a balanced and mindful diet can enhance your practice and overall well-being.

Q3. How long does it take to master the Primary Series?

A: It varies for every individual. For some, it might take a year or two, while others might need longer. The key is consistency and dedication.

Q4. I’m not flexible. Is ashtanga yoga for me?

A: Absolutely! Flexibility is a result of the practice, not a prerequisite.

Q5. How do I find a qualified ashtanga teacher?

A: Research is essential. Look for certified teachers, attend workshops, or visit recognized ashtanga schools or shalas.

Q6. Is it normal to feel sore after the practice?

A: Initially, some soreness is normal as your body adjusts. But persistent pain might indicate that you’re pushing too hard or not aligning correctly.

Q7. Can pregnant women practice ashtanga yoga?

A: Many women continue their practice during pregnancy, but it’s essential to consult with your doctor and a knowledgeable instructor.

Q8. How is ashtanga different from vinyasa or hatha yoga?

A: While all these forms have similarities, ashtanga follows a specific sequence of postures and emphasizes consistency, while vinyasa can be more varied.

Q9. Do I need any special equipment?

A: Just a good-quality yoga mat and an open mind!

Q10. Can seniors practice ashtanga yoga?

A: Yes! Ashtanga can be modified to accommodate practitioners of all ages. Remember, it’s about the journey, not just the asanas.

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