There are many yoga forms that you can practice such as Hatha yoga, Iyengar yoga, Kundalini yoga and other forms. However, out of the many yogic styles, Ashtanga yoga has the penchant for being the most athletic form. Ashtanga yoga was developed by K.Pattabhi Jois in the year 1948 in Mysore. A typical Ashtanga yoga routine requires focus, flexibility and fitness to create a sweaty yet calming form of moving meditation.
If you are contemplating beginning an Ashtanga yoga practice, then this blog will help you truly understand the various nuances of this 8-limbed yoga along with its benefits for the body and mind. Let's take a look.
What is Ashtanga yoga?
Just like power yoga or Vinyasa, Ashtanga yoga is a kind of flowing yoga wherein one pose eases into the next pose which together resembles a flowing sequence. However, what’s unique about Ashtanga yoga is that you perform the same asanas in the same order with rhythmic breath control every single time. On the contrary, Vinyasa yoga is flexible where you can do various poses in different orders.
Ashtanga yoga is made up of 6 series namely the Primary series, the Intermediate series and the four Advanced series. As mentioned above, each of these series has a set order of poses. Each of these 6 series begins with Sun Salutations (Suryanamaskars) followed by standing sequences.
The Primary series comprises roughly 90 minutes where each movement on your part includes a cyclic inhale and exhale along with Drishti or a visual focal point. For instance, as you begin moving into a forward fold, you will need to fully exhale while bending. During this entire movement, you will need to look past your nose and hold the pose for approximately 5 breaths as you then move into the next pose.
This combination of intense flowing movements along with focus enables you to calm your mind and improve your mood.
Most people take years to perfect the Primary series of these 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga practice which can be difficult to learn and perform.
However, there are various yoga schools across India besides the famed city of Mysore such as Ashtanga yoga teacher training in Kerala and Ashtanga yoga teacher training in Rishikesh where this challenging 8-limbed yoga is taught and aced with elan.
You should continue practicing 6 days a week at a studio or at home even if you are unable to perform the entire set of Primary series at first.
The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga yoga includes 8 steps towards perfecting yoga as mentioned in the scriptures of Patanjali Sutras. Sage Patanjali expounded yogic science in a systematic fashion through his very famous Patanjali Yoga Sutras. These Sutras are aligned in four chapters. The first chapter deals with an elucidation of Samadhi or an enlightened state of consciousness. In the other chapters, the Sage explains the different steps and methods to achieve this elusive state including the potential challenges that one might face in the process. These steps are today known to us as the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga. It's worthwhile to note that although the word Ashtanga yoga was not coined by Maharishi Patanjali, it later denoted the eight-limbed yoga as mentioned in his Sutra scriptures. These are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.
Now let's discuss the eight steps as described in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Even as we take you through each of these steps, you need to understand that these are not strict secluded steps. One series merges into another. Moreover, the yoga gurus can manoeuvre the students in their own novel styles. It is not mandatory to begin the foremost Yama practice although it's beneficial and advisable. We would advise you to gain expertise in one stage before you move on to the next stage. However, there are no rules as such pertaining to going only through the mandated stages. For instance, you may begin with a meditation session and then learn the asanas. Most yoga gurus do a combination of these methods and align their teachings to adapt to their students’ needs.
Now let's delve into each of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga in some more detail:
Yoga corresponds with human evolution. This ancient philosophy advises on synchronizing and harmonizing the external as well as internal life forces vis-a-vis the society at large. The foremost two steps of Yama and Niyama are specifically directed towards achieving this delicate harmony. However, these are most often misinterpreted as dos and don’ts. However, in hindsight, these are actually necessary for leading a balanced life. It enables the creation of a peaceful and harmonious community and society at large.
The five Yamas are- Satya or truthfulness, Ahimsa or the practice of non-violence, Asteya or abstaining from stealing, Aparigraha or not accumulating beyond one’s means and needs and following Brahmacharya which essentially translates into controlling your senses and living a balanced sexual life. However, it can also mean observing celibacy for monks and other renunciants of worldly desires. As per the Yama, these contribute to the social code of conduct.
There are all five Niyamas that contribute to the above-mentioned personal code of conduct. These are Saucha which means physical hygiene and mental purity, Santosa which translates into satisfaction, Tapas or self-discipline, Swadhaya translates into self-study of one’s own mind and delving into the innate reality while Iswara Pranidhana means wholeheartedly accepting all situations in life and surrendering to the almighty’s will.
The next step in the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga practice is called Asana or the practice of poses. The Patanjali Sutras define asana as ‘Sthiram Sukham Asanam’ which translates into a pose that is comfortable and steady. Asana practice is important for achieving higher practices in yoga. These can include meditative poses that include Sukhasana, Padmasana and other meditative poses. Alternatively, asanas can also include postures that build strength, resilience and balance. Besides the spiritual benefits, these asanas are also practised to gain multiple physical benefits.
This fourth stage in the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga practice regulates the breath. As per yoga the mind and breath have an innate close relationship. So, if you gain mastery over control of breath, you can easily control the mind and vice-versa. Pranayama entails a calm and steady mind. The bio-energy or Prana flows through each one of us through the Nadi or pranic pathways. The regular practice of Pranayama helps to cleanse these nadis and eliminate all impurities called Nadi Shuddhi. This directly influences the mind and the physical body. The health of the individuals improves and a sense of well-being prevails. Pranayama further prepares one for meditative practices. Pranayama ensures a calmer mind thus preparing it for meditation. Pranayama leads to Pratyahara which translates into the withdrawal of senses from outside influences.
Pratyahara as part of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga helps to look inward and prepare the mind for meditation purposes. In this stage, the mind, although withdrawn from other senses, still fully remains aware of the inner workings of the mind and the body. Pratyahara signifies a stage that lies between looking outwards and inwards in the mind. This stage lies somewhere in between these realms. In Pratyahara, the mind can now delve into its deepest realities as it gets free from external distractions.
This sixth stage in the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga deals with focus and concentration. The word Samapatti or absorption is the stage where if the mind is made to absorb by focussing on an object, an idea or a point, then the Dharana stage is achieved.
Extended periods of Dharana take us to the next stage of Ashtanga yoga called the Dhyana. In layman’s language, this translates into meditation. In this stage, the mind focuses on one object, an idea or a point sans any distraction for long periods of time. Meditative states should continue unhindered without a break.
Samadhi is the last stage of Ashtanga yoga. This is the state of superconscious awareness. When one treads on a path of meditation or Dhyana, a point is reached when one loses the sense of self-consciousness. This begets the Samadhi state wherein the meditator, the meditative process and the object of meditation all merge into one entity. Samadhi resembles a multitude of experiences and states. As per Yoga Sutras, there are different types of Samadhi states and one has to transcend these varied Samadhi states to reach the ‘Dharma Megha Samadhi’ or the pinnacle of illumination. This can then lead to Kaivalya or a state wherein the practitioner is freed from all body and mind limitations.
Join the Ashtanga yoga teacher training in Rishikesh to learn the intricacies of this 8-limbed Ashtanga yoga practice.
Five poses of Ashtanga yoga that you can try
The below-enlisted poses are a crucial part of the Ashtanga primary series which typically is a 90-minute flow sequence. As you practice, flow from one posture to the next posture. Exhale while bending into them and hold each pose for five breaths. Employ the tips to make the postures easier if you are a beginner in Ashtanga yoga.
1. Forward bend
Place your feet in parallel to each other with your hips wide apart as you stand in this pose. Bend from your hips and place your hands on the floor beside your feet. Your eyes should be focused on the tip of your nose.
Modification tip: If you are not able to touch the floor, then place your hands on your shins or yoga blocks as you try to reach the floor in this not-so-easy stretch.
2. Extended triangle
Place your feet about 4 feet apart while standing while your right foot should be turned outwards and left foot inwards. Extend your arms into a T shape and bend your hips towards the right while trying to touch your right toe. Now, focus on your left arm’s fingertips.
Modification tip: If you are unable to reach your toe, then place your hand on the calf, yoga block or outer thigh.
3. Extended side angle
Stand and place your feet about 4 metres apart with your right foot turned outwards and left foot slightly inwards. Then bend your right knee to an angle of 90%. Bend towards your right and put your right hand outwards of your right foot or on the right thigh. Your left arm should be swung over your head, aligned with your body. Your eyes should be focused on the raised hand’s fingertips.
Modification tip: You can place a yoga block under your resting hand while you lunge.
4. Wide-Legged Forward Fold
While standing, your feet should be placed parallel to each other at a distance of 4 feet from each other. Bend forward from your hips. Your hands should then go behind your back with the facility to interlock your fingers. While keeping your back straight, continue to bend forward until your head points toward the floor. Your clasped hands sound, hang over your head and focus your eyes on your nose tip.
Modification tip: Rest your head on a pile of books or yoga stack to ease the stretch.
5. Intense side stretch
While standing, place your right foot about 3 feet in front of your left leg with a distance of hip-width apart. Then you need to bend your hips onto your front leg. Your back should be as straight as possible and reach towards the floor on either side of the right foot with the help of both hands. Your eyes should be focused on your front foot and toes.
Modification tip: If you find reaching the floor difficult then place yoga blocks under each hand.
Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga
- Regular practice of Ashtanga yoga improves self-esteem and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression while calming the mind.
- Strengthens the muscles, especially in the leg area.
- Promotes mindful eating wherein you pay close attention to hunger cues which helps you to decide when and what to eat.
- Eases chronic back pain
- Improves muscle tone and increases flexibility
- Improves cardiovascular health by reducing body fat.
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves focus and enhances creativity.
- Promotes weight loss
- Improves agility
The eight-limbed Ashtanga yoga is an intricate yoga that needs proper guidance and training. So, if you are keen to master this style of yoga, join the Ashtanga yoga teacher training in Kerala or yoga teacher training in Rishikesh to become a well-rounded Ashtanga yoga instructor.