What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a dynamic form of yoga. It differs from hatha yoga by the practice of vinyasa. Vinyasa literally means system of synchronized movements and breathing. And these movements are those that link one position with the other. Each posture is meticulously designed with a certain number of movements and breathing so that an advanced student will link the postures faithfully following the rhythm of breaths and movements.
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The sequence of postures will always be the same and the student will add postures as his practice progresses. Apart from the vinyasa system, other elements will be decisive for the practice: Ujjayi breathing (pranayama), bands (energetic closures), dristi (looks) help the practitioner to concentrate and increase energy throughout the practice.
Ujjayi Breathing is obtained by gently contracting the glottis (a small muscle at the level of the trachea) that causes a slow, regular, breathing sound. It is an essential element throughout the practice. When listening to the sound of our breathing, our mind calms down and relaxes.
The Bands are muscle contractions that cause a control of the energy. Mula Banda, at the level of the coccyx, consists of contracting the anal sphincters and Uddyana Banda is an abdominal contraction. There is also Jalandara Banda at the height of the throat that is practiced during some pranayamas (breathing exercises). By making the bands we are increasing our concentration and controlling the energy.
The Dristi (“look” in Sanskrit) consists of totally focusing the gaze during the entire duration of the posture. Each posture has its dristi and this total concentration of the gaze leads us to meditation. It also increases our ability to concentrate and tones our eye muscles being very beneficial for some eyesight problems.
Through these three elements, ujjayi breathing, the bands or control of the energy centers and the dristi or concentration through the gaze we will increase our capacity for concentration throughout the practice and we will learn to control our energy. We realize, through practice, that if we are not very concentrated it is very difficult to make the positions.
Ashtanga Yoga practiced with correct breathing purifies the physical, mental and emotional body. Through the body we access our emotional blocks by becoming aware of them and we also become aware of our mental processes by learning to observe them from detachment, without identifying with them.
The First Series (of Asanas) of Ashtanga is also called Yoga Chikitsa which means yoga therapy. Performing this practice assiduously not only heals the physical body but also the spirit. It allows to develop and intensify concentration, controlling and purifying thought. Patanjali, the great sage who structured and gathered all the knowledge of yoga in the Yoga Sutras talks about this close relationship between yoga and mind: “yogaha citta vritti nirodaha”, with yoga the fluctuations of the mind cease.
From then on we are no longer dominated by dilemmas and conflicts. Yoga leads us to a more alert, serene and conscious state of mind. We stop being victims of our mental and emotional processes to cultivate a greater control of our mind. By winning dominion we also gain freedom.
Ashtanga Yoga – The eight steps
Patanjali, the great yogi and sage who lived between 500 and 200 years before Christ, compiled the knowledge of yoga in some sutras. In this text, Patanjali defines ashtanga yoga as the path to the self-realization of being.
Ashtanga in Sanskrit means eight branches or steps and yoga has many meanings but the two most important are: union and path. Yoga leads to the union of body, mind and spirit. When we internally connect with our deepest essence we get the duality to vanish and we connect with the self. It is that sense of unity that allows us to enter into connection. The second meaning refers to the path to reach that union.
To start on the path of ashtanga yoga involves practicing the eight branches.
1.- Yama: moral codes
2.- Niyama: personal purification
3.- Asana: postures or physical practice
4.- Pranayama: control of prana through breathing
5 .- Pratyahara: retract the senses of external objects to initiate internalization.
6.- Dharana: mental concentration
7.- Dhyana: meditation
8.- Samadhi: contemplation or total union of the being with God
The yamas and niyamas are considered as the pillars or the basis of this personal realization but many times they are impossible to perform for a Westerner if he has not followed a philosophical or religious education since he was a child.
Therefore, Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois recommends beginning with the practice of asanas to purify the body and the mind, to acquire mental clarity.
The yamas can be divided into:
Satya (telling the truth)
Asteya (not stealing)
The Niyamas refer more to a personal purification:
Saucha (purification of the body)
Swadhyaya (study of philosophical texts)
In ashtanga yoga there are 3 sets of asanas. The first series Chikitsa Yoga, detoxifies the physical body, aligns the spine and purifies the body. The middle series (nadi shodhana) purifies the nervous system by unlocking the energy channels (nadis) and causing the energy to flow freely through the shushumna nadi (spine) and the advanced series Sthira Bhaga (subdivided into ABCD) works the force and the resistance.
Anyway, from the first day of practice we can feel how the practice of asanas influences our nervous system, our mental strength (concentration) and our state of consciousness. Our breathing lengthens and deepens, our concentration increases and little by little we acquire a state of inner peace not previously experienced. The other five steps of ashtanga yoga gradually appear over time.
Patience is a very important element in the practice of yoga. It is more important to have started the path than to be more or less close to the goal because the ambition to progress distances us from the goal or the realization of being. We could say that the goal (if there is any goal) would be to be aware of the present moment that we live in day to day. The obsession to progress in the practice of asanas takes us away from the essence of yoga because it tenses the body. I have seen many people have injuries for wanting to move too fast. Therefore, it seems important to me that a beginner has it in mind from the beginning.
The body is slow and you have to respect its rhythm. Knowing and respecting the body is more difficult than it seems. You only know him when you transcend the physical body and accede to the pranic energy; Only then, with humility, do you learn to respect it.
That is why I believe that patience and humility are perhaps the most important qualities in the path of yoga.
Pattabhi Jois always says “do your practice and all is coming” that can be translated as “practice that everything will come”. He advises practicing with constancy and perseverance and the results come in 100% of cases.
Indeed, all the people I have met who have started ashtanga have told me the same thing: “My life has changed since I started this practice”.