Let’s see what’s true about Ashtanga yoga
It’s still curious to me that after more than two decades of Ashtanga practice and teaching, the people who often seem most certain about what exactly the Ashtanga yoga practice is, are people who haven’t actually practiced Ashtanga yoga. Instead, their conceptions of what makes up Ashtanga are often informed by what they see on social media or read in other media channels like mainstream yoga magazines. And similarly, the articles in those magazines that reference Ashtanga, especially those “compare and contrast styles of yoga” articles, are also frequently written by people who haven’t actually practiced Ashtanga.
As I travel and teach, the effect of this that I see is a lot of incomplete ideas, sometimes completely false, and almost always lacking nuance, which are spread and reinforced about Ashtanga yoga. That potentially turns people away from exploring a practice that can be beneficial in so many ways. So, in this article, I want to address some of those myths and rumors directly. I also share my perspective on how I understand Ashtanga at this point in my evolution in the practice. Read on to dig more deeply into this subtle, complex, and impactful yoga practice.
What’s in this article?
- Historical overview
- Philosophy and practices generally
- The Ashtanga sequences: primary, intermediate, and advanced
- Methods of learning and teaching the Ashtanga practice
- Overall intentions of the practice as I see them
- Unfolding the Ashtanga practice
- Ashtanga rumors, and why you shouldn’t believe them
- Myth: Ashtanga is the same as “vinyāsa yoga”
- Myth: Ashtanga yoga is just about doing the asanas in a particular order
- Myth: You can’t modify the postures or use props in Ashtanga
- Myth: there’s too much forward bending, or Ashtanga isn’t balanced
- Myth: Ashtanga has a really rigid sequence and you can’t make any changes to it or it’s not Ashtanga
- Myth: Ashtanga is hard
- Myth: Ashtanga is injurious
The style of flowing yoga asana practice known as Ashtanga Yoga, sometimes called Ashtanga Vinyāsa Yoga, originated with Krishnamacharya’s idea of vinyāsa krama. The vinyāsa krama series were thoughtful sequences of postures linked to a prescribed breathing pattern. In 1927, Pattabhi Jois began studying yoga with Krishnamacharya and he continued studying with him until 1952. Pattabhi Jois likely learned many of these sequences from Krishnamacharya during the 25 years that he studied with him. Some of the sequences recorded in Krishnamacharya’s documents look very much like what became the primary and intermediate sequences of Ashtanga yoga.
When Pattabhi Jois first taught it was often along the lines of what we might now think of as yoga therapy. He prescribed postures and sequences tailored to treat the different medical conditions of members of the community. When the first Westerners arrived in Mysore, India, and met Pattabhi Jois, he taught what I imagine to be vinyāsa krama sequences that he learned from Krishnamacharya that were for healthy-ish people. He called the yoga he was teaching “Ashtanga Yoga” or “Patanjali Yoga.”
The first use of the name Ashtanga Yoga was by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. He referred to an eight-limbed yoga path called Ashtanga Yoga. “Asta” means eight, and “anga” means limb. The eight-limbed path described a broad overview of the path to recognizing a union with an ever-present consciousness. By using that name for the yoga he taught, Pattabhi Jois suggested that what he taught was a part of that broader yoga path.
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Philosophy and practices generally
The underlying philosophy of the Ashtanga Yoga practice that Pattabhi Jois taught is the tristhāna. And here we dive into some of the complexity of the practice. Lineage practices like Ashtanga Yoga are in the best cases, living, evolving practices. So individual practitioners and teachers often interpret even something that is foundational to the philosophy of Ashtanga differently. Tristhāna has more than one Sanskrit definition, but the most relevant one here is “three dwelling places.” You could think of that as three places for your mind to dwell or three objects of concentration.
But, practitioners debate a bit about specifically what those objects of concentration are. Some consider the tristhāna to be breath, bandha, and drishti. Others think that breath and bandha are really one thing as they are intimately interrelated. So they say that the tristhāna is breath/bandha, drishti, and asana. Still others say that the tristhāna really has four parts. However you define it, the core elements of the Ashtanga practice are breathing, posture, drishti, and bandhas. All of these elements of Ashtanga work synergistically to create the experiences and the effects of the practice.
How we name the breathing technique in Ashtanga yoga is debated a bit as well. It’s referred to as ujjayi breathing by some, modified ujjayi breathing by others, and simply “free breathing with sound” by others still. The method taught is fairly similar across teachers, however. Our intention is to create a steady rhythm with the breath by breathing through the nose with the mouth closed and by pacing the inhales and exhales at the same length. A slight expansion of the glottis in the back of our throat creates a sound a bit like ocean waves.
The effort of doing the breathing technique gives us something to pay attention to. And, the sound we create gives us an auditory place to hold our attention. The steady rhythm created by our breath affects our nervous system. We can affect our parasympathetic/sympathetic balance by adjusting how fast, slow, or full we breathe during practice. Our breath is interrelated with bandha as a way to control and direct breath, and ultimately prana. And our breath is interrelated with the postures through the vinyāsa synchrony and the idea of the ideal vinyāsa count.
Bandhas are a way to direct prana, or energy. We have physical techniques within the practice that help create the context for an experience of bandha. I think it’s important to distinguish the techniques that we use to cultivate an experience of bandha, from what bandhas actually are. Bandhas are not muscles! There is no “bandha muscle” that you can find in your body, squeeze, and miraculously create lift or grounding.
However, we move around in a physical body. So there are areas of our core musculature that it is useful to hold our attention on to begin a relationship with the concept of bandhas. Maintaining a gentle engagement of our pubococcygeal muscles (PC muscles), and pelvic floor muscles generally, helps stimulate the energetic spot and a feeling of mula bandha, and grounding. Similarly, drawing our attention deep into our abdomen where psoas major connects our spine to our legs helps stimulate the energetic spot and a feeling of uddiyana bandha, or lift.
Usually defined as a “gazing place”, drishti is an assigned place to hold our eyes within each pose and each transition in and out of a pose. There are nine “official” drishtis within the Ashtanga practice: nose, third eye, navel, hand, toes, far left or right, thumbs, or up to the sky. The technique of focusing our visual field throughout our practice can help us dial in our attention. Initially, we might find that the drishti simply helps us draw our attention back to our own mat instead of being distracted by what else is going on around us as we practice. But, as we dive deeper into practice, we might notice that drishti supports drawing our focus more deeply than that. It can lead to a more internal experience of practice and help bridge the connection between asana practice and another of the eight limbs of Ashtanga, pratyahara.
And then of course we have the postures, which are organized in sequences linked by breath. The sequences are established in an order. We establish a foundation in primary series, called yoga chikitsa. We explore further depth in the intermediate series, called nodi shodana. And, we find additional challenges in the four advanced sequences, collectively called sthira bhaga.
The word vinyāsa is composed of vi and nyāsa, and can be translated in many different ways. The component “vi” means: to go, move, the act of going, or motion. And, “nyasa” means placing, putting down or upon, or planting. So you could combine those to mean something like the motion or act of placing or planting.
In Ashtanga Vinyāsa Yoga we use that word in several different ways. Most generally, vinyāsa describes the intention to match our flowing movement to our breath. The benefit of this intention is that we place the breath at the center of our practice. We are looking to see how we need to adapt our movement to match our breath, not the other way around. Ashtanga is the original “vinyāsa” or flowing style of practice that other contemporary classes are rooted in, such as vinyāsa, flow, vinyāsa-flow, etc.
We also use a particular count to describe the specific choreography of each of the Ashtanga sequences. Each movement into and out of a pose is assigned either an inhale or an exhale. The result is an ideal total number of counts to enter or exit a pose. We refer to that as the vinyāsa count. Finally, we also use the word vinyāsa to refer to a specific flowing transition that we use between postures and which is based on the movements of a sun salutation. We refer to this series of movements, jump back, chaturanga, upward dog, downward dog, and then jump through, as a “vinyāsa.”
The Ashtanga sequences: primary, intermediate, and advanced
Ashtanga is probably best known for its sequences of postures. So let’s talk about the poses. Ashtanga uses a set series of asanas. However, it is important to understand that each sequence is a frame within which knowledgeable practitioners and teachers structure the practice. The order of postures is not set in concrete. I’ve directly observed both Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois omitting postures and modifying poses for students when it makes sense to do so.
Benefits of a set series
So why use a set series? It prevents us as practitioners from just hanging out where we’re already comfortable. Left to our own devices we tend to gravitate towards the things that come easier and focus less on the things that challenge us. With a set series, we potentially have the experience of challenging our own beliefs of what is possible. With consistent, intentional, and sensible practice, many challenging postures are more accessible than we imagine them to be. When we work toward a posture that we’re not even sure is possible for us, we challenge our own preconceived ideas.
Downsides of a set sequence
The potential downside to working with a structure is that we sometimes hold too tightly to the idea that the sequence is linear. We might get the idea that there is somewhere to “get to.” While effort is required on our part if we’re actually engaged in practice, as the Yoga Sutras point out, yoga asana is also a balance of effort and ease. Too much striving is not yoga. Our goal is simply the experience of putting forth effort and noticing the effects without judgment. Additionally, we could make an anatomical argument that the lack of variety in movement with a set sequence could create imbalances in the long term. This is why no one should do only primary series for too long. (Ten years is way too long to do only primary series!)
Within the basic structure of Ashtanga is a vast amount of adaptability. Your specific intentions for your practice will evolve and change as your practice changes over the years. The intentions you need may be different than somebody else. From an anatomical perspective, are you bendy and need to spend more time building strength and support? Or, are you tighter and need to spend more time establishing a greater range of motion? A structure provides us with an order for our intentions so that the poses evolve and progress. The poses exist in relationship to one another, both within a single sequence and from one sequence to another. A set structure allows us to take time to deeply explore and uncover those relationships as our practice evolves.
Methods of learning and teaching the Ashtanga practice
Learning the practice
Among contemporary yoga styles, Ashtanga yoga is unique in the ways that we teach and practice it. Practitioners typically learn the practice either in a Mysore-style or a led-style class. In the earliest days of Ashtanga’s transition from Mysore, India to the West, practitioners learned only through Mysore-style classes. These were small classes, taught in a one-room-schoolhouse style of learning. Each student did their individually-tailored practice in a group environment. The name, Mysore-style, was called after the city where Pattabhi Jois lived and where he taught the first Westerners.
In Mysore-style classes a teacher taught each individual student a short portion of the practice. In some cases that was nothing more than sun salutations in their first class. As the student showed steadiness in the assigned section of the series and committed it to memory, the teacher added a little more to their sequence until they had memorized the whole of the primary series. When a student showed steadiness in the whole of the primary series, then the teacher might begin adding the postures from the intermediate series, one pose at a time.
When Pattabhi Jois visited the United States after the first Western Ashtanga students had themselves taught many more people, there were larger crowds interested in attending his classes. So, during those visits, Pattabhi Jois taught the first “led primary series” classes. In these classes, which were intended for students who already had some steadiness in the primary series, he called out the name of the postures and the prescribed breathing (inhale or exhale) and the groups followed along with his count.
Maintaining a practice
Part of the culture of Ashtanga that has been passed along from the early Western students, and from Pattabhi and Sharath Jois, is the encouragement to practice consistently. Ideally, that is six days per week. As many students of Ashtanga don’t live near one of the studios hosting an Ashtanga program, most Ashtanga practitioners do much of their yoga practice at home. In this way, Ashtangis take ownership of their practice and get the benefits of doing their practice consistently. While this can make a commitment to Ashtanga seem daunting, it does not make the Ashtanga practice hard, only time-consuming.
Overall intentions of the practice as I see them
The main philosophical intention as I see it in Ashtanga yoga is to use the tools of breath and movement to establish a base of awareness that we can build more subtle practices on. The initial emphasis in Ashtanga is on asana and pranayama in the sense that we are cultivating a relationship with our body and control over our breathing. This potentially leads to developing greater sustained concentration (the beginnings of dharana) and cultivating a more inward focus, rather than having our attention dragged around by external stimulus (the beginnings of pratyahara).
What that looks like in the practice is placing an emphasis on the breathing techniques. This is yoga, not a workout at the gym, so we are seeking balance. That balance is something that comes up on multiple levels. We’re looking to balance the length of our inhales and exhales at the level of the breath. Additionally, we’re looking for a balance between applying some effort in practice and finding sufficient ease that we are not overdoing it. We’re also seeking efficiency of movement together with our breath and a balance between strength and flexibility.
The postures within the Ashtanga sequences, particularly the primary and intermediate sequences, are often arranged in a way that supports developing flexibility first and then layering strength on top of that. From a kinesiological point of view, this makes sense. It’s easier to increase flexibility first and maintain the postures emphasizing lengthening while adding postures that emphasize strengthening, than going the other way around. But, whichever path we take to get there, our intention is to balance our body’s strength and flexibility.
Unfolding the Ashtanga practice
When we begin an Ashtanga practice, regardless of which series of postures we’re going to do, we start with sun salutations. Sun salutations give us a chance to warm the body and move our body in most directions. This is an opportunity for us to check in with ourselves at the beginning of each practice. Because we start the same way each day, we can compare, and that gives us information about where we are on our personal spectrum of alert to low energy and open to tight. We can use these familiar movements to set our rhythm of breathing. Then we can check back in with our breath as we move into standing and seated postures during our practice. And philosophically, we are bowing to the sun, beginning our practice by acknowledging something outside ourselves as the source of life on our little planet.
Fundamental standing asanas
When we complete our sun salutations we next arrive at a series of standing asanas. There are eleven postures that together make up the fundamental standing asanas. They are padangusthasana, pada hastasana, utthita trikonasana, parvritta trikonasana, utthita parsvokanasana, parvritta parsvokanasana, prasaritta padottanasana A, B, C, and D, and parsvottanasana. These postures help us build the foundation of strength that we’ll use in other postures. They help us establish a connection with the feet as our foundation and help us develop a basis of proprioception. They also begin to lengthen tissues around our pelvis.
Yoga chikitsa: the primary series
The name of the primary series is yoga chikitsa, which loosely means “yoga therapy.” This sequence works to establish the foundation of both movement and stability that everything else (like intermediate series as well as potentially learning pranayama practices or taking on a seated meditation practice) will rest on top of and develop from. Is this “physical therapy” in the Western sense of the word? No, it’s not a complete therapeutic sequence (not even when combined with the intermediate sequence). But neither was it intended to be. Asana according to Patanjali was preparation for meditation practice, which could explain the emphasis on external hip rotation in this sequence as it would be needed to maintain a full lotus for long periods of meditation.
The primary series of Ashtanga yoga actually begins with a short series of standing postures. Although people sometimes mean the sequence of seated postures when they casually talk about primary series, this sequence actually starts with utthita hasta padangusthasana, the standing leg raise. That’s followed by ardha baddha padmottanasana (standing half-bound lotus), utkatasana, and then warriors one and two. From there we move to the floor to move through a series of seated postures emphasizing forward bending, external hip rotation, and some twisting.
In this series, we work toward freedom of movement at the pelvis. Anatomically that means an emphasis on external hip rotation, but we’re also interested in cultivating ease of internal hip rotation and anterior/posterior pelvic tilt. Anatomically, primary series is all about the pelvis! From the perspective of subtle anatomy, the first three chakras are found in the area of the pelvis, so it makes sense to start there. Due to the repetition of many forward bends in primary series, we are also lengthening the tissues all along the back line of the body in this sequence. This includes the hamstrings which tend to get a lot of attention. But, it’s not limited to them.
Energetically, the primary series tends to have a grounding or rooting quality. We emphasize this by repeating many seated forward bends that compress or fold the front of the body. We also emphasize making proprioceptive connections by binding our body to itself (e.g. holding our toes with our fingers or binding our arm around our knee) and by connecting firmly to the ground.
What about transitions between postures? How important are they? The transitions between the postures, called vinyāsas, or sometimes the “jump-through, jump back,” have multiple functions within the practice. They challenge us to maintain our focus continuously throughout the practice because there is no place where we take a break, so to speak, once we begin our practice for the day. The ideal is that the transitions hold our concentration and move us smoothly between one posture and the next.
From an anatomical perspective, we can use the transitions between postures to develop different intentions that are foundational to other postures. They offer us an opportunity to explore different ways of approaching and refining fundamental patterns, like leaning into the hands or engaging core muscles, for example. Additionally, the transitions give us an opportunity to “reset” the body with a partial backbend (upward dog) and a partial forward bend (downward dog). If we do a “full vinyasa” (come all the way to standing between postures) then we do an even greater level of resetting the body.
Nadi Shodana: the intermediate (second) series
The name of the intermediate, or second, series of Ashtanga yoga loosely means “nerve cleansing.” In this sequence, the focus shifts from the back of the body to the front. The series begins with a twist and a deep forward bend, and then dives into a sequence of progressively deeper backbending postures. Following that is an arm balance, two twisting postures, and then a series of leg-behind-head poses. The sequence continues with a series of arm-balancing postures.
Anatomically, there are several intentions we could consider in this sequence. We’re working toward greater freedom of movement in the spine. Energetically, the upper chakras are found here. So, we’re moving up the chain relevant to the primary series. We’re working to lengthen tissues along the front of the body and we’re working to stabilize our shoulder girdle. More subtly, our challenge to refine our breath control goes up in the intermediate series because we’re breathing and lengthening tissues used in breathing at the same time. Additionally, the poses can offer more challenge mentally, which can also challenge our ability to maintain a calm, even breath. We also play in this series, especially the latter part of it, with resisting gravity and taking our proprioception upside down.
For most practitioners, the primary series and some, if not all of the intermediate series, are enough postures for a lifetime of practice. For the few practitioners with the enthusiasm, time, and physical abilities to add more physical challenge, there are four advanced sequences in the Ashtanga yoga practice. Those are advanced A, B, C, and D, also called third, fourth, fifth, and sixth series. The advanced sequences collectively are called sthira bhaga, which loosely means “strength and grace.” Perhaps tongue-in-cheek Pattabhi Jois reportedly said that advanced practice was “for demonstration only.”
The four advanced sequences in Ashtanga yoga combine fundamental patterns from the primary and intermediate series into increasingly more challenging combinations. These sequences emphasize deep ranges of motion in all directions, often combined with incredibly difficult arm-balancing shapes. Practitioners who are working on some part of the advanced sequences have the opportunity to continue working with their mental and emotional edges, probing the depths of their patience and humility, and remembering what it’s like to struggle as a student if they are a teacher.
Ashtanga rumors, and why you shouldn’t believe them
There is a lot of mythology surrounding the Ashtanga practice. For more on myths about Ashtanga, you can read my articles, Yin Yoga And The Myth That Ashtanga Is Yang, Aging And The Ashtanga Practice, Myth: Everyone Should Do The Full Expression Of Poses Before Adding A New Pose, and Myth: Everyone Should Do Dropbacks Before Starting Second Series. But let’s talk about a few of the most pervasive myths surrounding Ashtanga.
Myth: Ashtanga is the same as “vinyāsa yoga”
Ashtanga works with specific tools called the tristhāna (breath technique, postural sequences, drishti, and bandhas) to intend a direction with effects on the nervous system. It has a structure, with the tools of breath technique, drishti, and working within a postural frame as the heart of the practice (tristhāna). Structure means you bump up against things that challenge you in some way. You don’t get to avoid the things that challenge you. Instead, the opposite happens. You cultivate a deep intimacy with the poses you experience every day. In that space is where change and personal growth happen. The term “vinyāsa yoga” is vague and can mean many things depending on who is teaching. It grew out of Ashtanga yoga which is a specific structure.
Myth: Ashtanga yoga is just about doing the asanas in a particular order
In my mind, the heart of the Ashtanga practice is the tristhāna. It’s most fundamentally a breathing and concentration practice using movement as the vehicle. And at the same time, the sequence is also meaningful. It’s not random. When all of the tools of the Ashtanga practice are used together, each of the sequences has a particular effect on the nervous system.
One way of looking at it is that the postures are there to challenge the practitioner’s ability to maintain a calm mind and nervous system. It’s one thing to be able to maintain a steady, even breath while simply sitting comfortably on a cushion. But, it’s something else to continue maintaining that steady, even breath throughout a simple sequence of movements. It’s another level to continue that steady, even breath through a complex and challenging sequence of movements. So, Ashtanga is about doing the asanas in a particular order while also maintaining tristhāna throughout the practice.
Myth: You can’t modify the postures or use props in Ashtanga
What’s actually true is that because of the Mysore-style format of learning the practice in small group settings, students get far more individual attention and tailored suggestions to support their practice than in most other forms of yoga practice, which tend to be taught in large, led classes. Large, led classes don’t easily support one-on-one guidance for individuals in their practice.
Myth: there’s too much forward bending, or Ashtanga isn’t balanced
This looks at Ashtanga through a lens assuming that all asana has the goal of physical therapy and therefore the primary series is criticized as being “not physically balanced.” I understand the intent of the Ashtanga sequences to be more about the effects that they have on the nervous system than a physical therapy purpose. The overall effect of the primary series, once a practitioner has put in some time to learn it, is generally a feeling of grounding. In contrast, the overall effect of the intermediate sequence tends to be uplifting, or energizing.
Myth: Ashtanga has a really rigid sequence and you can’t make any changes to it or it’s not Ashtanga
I understand Ashtanga yoga to be a set of tools, techniques, or approaches to the yoga path. None of them exist outside of the people who apply them. So, we have a choice about what kind of Ashtanga practice we do as practitioners, and what kind of Ashtanga practice we teach. We can make Ashtanga yoga rigid and hard, but we don’t have to. Ashtanga yoga does work with set sequences. But if we dig deep enough to understand the intent underneath the postures and the order in which they’re arranged, then we can hold the idea of a set sequence more lightly.
If we focus on the intention of the poses and their order then we also know when it’s appropriate to modify a posture or something about the order of postures. The time to make a change is whenever the standard posture or order of postures doesn’t do a good job of achieving the intent for a particular person in a particular moment. So if that is our approach, then Ashtanga is not rigid at all. It’s a set of tools that can be used to create different experiences in the body-mind which can depend on why we are doing the practice and what we are using it for. Those reasons will likely change multiple times over the life of your practice if you stay with it over many years. So it’s my perspective that Ashtanga is actually a very adaptable and versatile practice.
Myth: Ashtanga is hard
What’s true is that the Ashtanga practice tools are built on an assumption of putting in consistent effort. That’s what the word practice means, right? If you have practiced anything else like a musical instrument, or an athletic skill, then you already know that learning something requires time and consistency. Mastery of a new skill requires repetition, an increasingly deep understanding of what you are learning, and a long time span. So if you want to see change in your Ashtanga practice, then you have to practice, which seems kind of obvious when we say it like that. Does that make Ashtanga hard? No, I think it makes it equivalent to anything else worth learning.
As practitioners, we have a choice to meet the Ashtanga practice where we are. That may be as someone who is out of shape, older, stiff, or simply a busy person with a lot of other life responsibilities. The practice can be adapted to any of those things. It just may look different than the same practice tools applied to someone who is more athletic, younger, or has more time or desire to practice more intensely. No, Ashtanga isn’t only for “athletic types” or “type-A” people. And, if you want to use your yoga practice to expend excess energy, there is also an opportunity to do that. What’s actually true is that you can tailor the Ashtanga practice to support you and meet you each day exactly where you are.
Myth: Ashtanga is injurious
Do people get hurt more often in Ashtanga than in other styles? Not necessarily. Ashtanga does have the possibility of working through deeper ranges of motion than many other styles of yoga if you’re seeking that. The closer you work to the edges of range of motion, the more the possibility arises of going too far. And, going to extreme ranges of motion is a choice. You don’t have to do postures to their extreme. Good teachers teach the practice in a way that makes it accessible to all bodies.