What is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?

 

Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is a traditional, highly active and dynamic form of yoga. When practiced correctly, it demands a high degree of focus and concentration; generates an internal heat that cleanses and purifies; creates a strong, supple body; and brings clarity to the mind. And those that practice it passionately find the Ashtanga Vinyasa system delivers rapid progress and tangible results.

Traditionally practiced in the morning 6-days a week, the effect of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is similar to that of re-booting your computer. You remove all the clutter you have gathered during the previous day and begin clearing out the accumulated rubbish that you have built up throughout your life. After practice you are ready to face the world and all its challenges, refreshed and renewed.

“Yoga is for internal cleansing, not external exercising. Yoga means true self-knowledge.”

How does it work?

Our bodies contain a true record of who we are. They reflect the choices we have made in life – the way we carry ourselves (our stature is a product of the muscles we’ve elected to use, those that we haven’t and how our bones have developed to reflect this). Our bodies contain our scars (physical and emotional) and are irrefutable. In comparison our minds are completely untrustworthy. They don’t have to be grounded and are free to be playful, imaginative, erratic and inconsistent.

By adopting a physical practice we are able to side-step the ‘monkey’ mind and concentrate our work on the ‘fabric’ of who we are. We use the crucible of the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system to break down and release accumulated toxins and blockages, and allow the authentic Self to emerge.

Vina Vinyasa Yogena asanadih na karayet
‘Oh Yogi, do not practice asana without vinyasa’. Vamana Rishi Yoga Korunta

Origins

Originally attributed to the seer Vamana, Ashtanga Vinyasa is said to have been created so that individuals could experience the benefits of yoga without having to live in a cave in the Himalayas. From the outset this style of yoga is meant for ordinary people who engage with the world and carry on regular lives (work, relationships, families), not to set them on a path of renunciation and navel-gazing.

Largely lost and forgotten, Ashtanga Vinyasa was re-energized and brought back to life in the late 20th century by Sri K Pattabhi Jois under the direction of his teacher Sri T Krishnamacharya. It is testimony to Vamana’s founding principle that these teachers were householders with families, and their descendants (Manju & Saraswati Jois and R Sharath) continue that tradition today. All of the senior teachers at Infinite Yoga (Dana Rae Paré, Trevor Monk & Troy Taylor) have had the privilege of being direct students of Sri K Pattabhi Jois and/or his grandson R Sharath.

Key Concepts

The title Ashtanga Vinyasa comes from two key yoga principles: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, widely regarded as the founding principles of yoga, where the term Ashtanga identifies the ‘eight fundamental limbs’ of yoga; and Vinyasa, which literally means ‘correct placement’ or the harmonious and intelligent sequencing of postures, but is also frequently interpreted as combining movement with breath and used as short-hand for the transition between postures.

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga uniquely combines three fundamental elements together during practice. These require the student to maintain a high degree of focus and concentration throughout – one of the key principles that helps clarify the mind. Known as the Tristhana of Ashtanga, these elements are breath & bandhas (ujjayi breath, moola and uddiyana bandha); asana (the postures) and drishti or gaze point.

“Breathing is very important. Without breathing, the spiritual mind and body are not coming. There is a method to breathing. That is Vinyasa.”

Breath

The science of breathing has been known by yogi’s for millennium and is accepted as a powerful tool by many – including performers and those in public speaking. It is the simplest way that we bring energy and the life force into our bodies and it exhibits incredible calming and stress relieving qualities. It is generally regarded as the first and last act of independent life. However, for most of us breathing remains a subconscious act and is given little attention.

Being continuously aware of the breath is the first step that begins the process of increasing your conscious awareness of your Self. The entire Ashtanga Vinyasa practice is driven by the rhythm of the breath and ujjayi (victorious) breathing is effectively its heartbeat.

The ujjayi technique is designed to lengthen the breath to ensure that air is consistently moving in or out of the lungs. It makes a sound, an audible cue to remind you of the presence of your breath – to make the unconscious act, conscious. The breath is continuous in its quality and consistency throughout – from the entire exhale (easy) to the inhale (much harder). Although it takes many years to perfect ujjayi, its effects are immediate, dramatically enhancing the quality of the practice.

“When the breath control is correct, mind control is possible.”

Bandhas (internal locks)

Although mankind has been standing on two feet for ages, our anatomy and physiology is much better suited to us being on all fours.

The discs between the lower vertebras of the spine (typically L4 & L5) become compressed and begin to weaken in our early 20’s resulting in reports of back pain in people from their late 20’s on. A deteriorating back reduces natural flexibility and often creates restrictions in the flow of energy through the spinal column. The spine is more suited to being horizontal with support at the both ends.

As the effects of gravity compress the internal organs on top of each in the abdominal cavity they become constricted and work less efficiently over time. If the body was maintained in a horizontal position, gravity would not have such a damaging effect.

The anal and pelvic floor muscles are designed primarily for retention and elimination. However, these muscles – and especially the sphincter muscles, become overworked due to the effects of gravity. This frequently results in prolapse (piles) and other complications. Again, mounting the torso horizontally would significantly reduce the pressure in these areas.

Rather than insisting you walk around on your hands and knees, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga employs bandhas (or internal locks) to help overcome the effects of standing. The two primary bandhas are moola bandha and uddiyana bandha.

Moola means root and this technique focuses on contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor – the perineum. These infrequently-used muscles are initially hard to detect and isolate, but once engaged give lift to the entire body. Like ujjayi breathing, this technique takes years to learn the subtleties and perfect, but even the most basic expression brings results.

Uddiyana means upward flying and the application of this bandha strengthens and tones the abdominal (core) area of the body. Easier to demonstrate and experience than moola bandha, the core is engaged by drawing the abdomen IN an inch or two below the navel and then performing an internal lift UP through the center of the body. This action engages the core, protects the back and aids healthy alignment.

Asana

The Ashtanga Vinyasa system consists of six defined series: Primary (first); Intermediate (second); and Advanced A, B, C & D (third, fourth, fifth, sixth). Each series contains sun-salutes, standing poses, seated poses, backbends and finishing poses. The main difference between the series lies in the seated poses, though there are some subtle changes in standing and backbends. Typically each series takes 1hr 30 mins to complete.

At Infinite Yoga we teach Primary and Intermediate series as traditional practices, although we may incorporate postures from the Advanced series into our Improv classes. We refer students forward when they are ready to move into Advanced series.

Drishti

The drishti or gaze point is defined for every posture. Examples include the nose (nasagrai), the brow (broomadhya), to the side (parsva) etc. and their purpose is to keep the mind focused on a single object – not wandering around the room. Observing and maintaining drishti throughout brings a meditative quality to the practice.

“Do your practice and all is coming”

Practice

Infinite Yoga offers both led and Mysore formats for traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga classes as well as IY Specialty classes that are designed to enhance and inform the traditional practice.

In led classes the teacher directs the class and all students perform the postures at the same time, to the teacher’s count. In these classes the onus is on the teacher to present the sequence and postures while the student’s responsibility is to participate and become familiar with the practice.

Mysore is entirely different. It is a self-practice where the onus moves to the student to memorize the series and then perform it at his or her own pace and breath. The role of the teacher is to observe, assist and adjust the student to make sure they are following the sequence correctly and help them in more challenging postures. Mysore is the traditional way that Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is taught in India. Learn more about Mysore here.

Learn more about Infinite Yoga’s roots here

“Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.”

Enough theory!

All quotes from Sri K Pattabhi Jois unless otherwise attributed.