Yoga Hero: All of Yoga Podcast – Episode 9

Styles of Yoga Ashtanga Yoga

9: Styles of Yoga – Ashtanga

There are many styles of yoga – ashtanga is just one of these. In this podcast episode, we look at what Ashtanga yoga is, the benefits of Ashtanga yoga and some bits and bobs to bear in mind, and then we’ll let you know how you can practice Ashtanga with us at Yoga Hero if you’d like to.

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Styles of Yoga – Ashtanga – Transcript

Ashtanga yoga is two things; 1) a set of principles and guidelines to live by. Ashto means eight, and anga means limb, so it’s referred to as the eight limbed path of yoga. 2) Ashtanga is a style of physical yoga; and this is what we’ll talk about today. Navigating your way through the different styles of yoga can be a bit of a minefield, so we’ll break down what Ashtanga yoga is, the benefits of Ashtanga yoga and some bits and bobs to bear in mind, and then we’ll let you know how you can practice Ashtanga with us at Yoga Hero if you’d like to.

Ok let’s go!

What is Ashtanga yoga?

The main thing that differentiates the style of Ashtanga yoga is that it is a set sequence. Your flow classes, yin classes, iyengar classes and so on, comprises a set of asanas – yoga postures – that the teacher has created, whereas Ashtanga is a set sequence, actually a series of six set sequences, that get progressively more physically challenging.

Ashtanga yoga was made famous, for want of a better word, by Sri Pattabhi Jois, who has been shamed in recent years, so while his name is strongly associated with Ashtanga, there’s no more to say about that here.

The nature of Ashtanga yoga being a set sequence is really interesting. It allows the practitioner to move focus away from the sequence; away from wondering how long to stay in a pose or what to do next but to instead notice how each pose, each breath, each section of the sequence feels.

David Swenson says, in his book ‘Ashtanga: The practice manual’ – “Each practice is a journey. Endeavour to move with awareness and enjoy the experience. Allow it to unfold as a flower opens. There is no benefit in hurrying (i’ll just say that again because I love it) there’s no benefit in hurrying. Yoga grows with time.”
Accompanying the set sequences, Ashtanga strongly includes a focus on the breath; so much so that poses are held for a certain number of breaths, and the breaths are often counted by the teacher, and the way that transitions between poses are executed is in a set way, with certain parts of the transition done on an inhale, and others on an exhale.

This strong connection between the breath and movement demands a lot of focus, which basically just means that you struggle to plan your to do list and draft the reply email to Fred at work and wonder what to have for tea. You HAVE to be focused on the sequence, and so everything else takes a back seat, which is really good for your brain, and for your reducing your stress levels.

Another important component of Ashtanga is bandha. Meaning lock, or bind, a bandha is a lock of energy; used to move energy a certain way in the body. There’s three bandhas which I’ll break down here, and if this is something you’re interested in, that could be a sign that Ashtanga yoga is a great style of yoga for you to practice. There’s mulabandha, an energy lock around the area of the pelvic floor to send energy upwards, to vital organs and in to the head. There’s uddiyana bandha, an energy lock in the abdomen, to create structure and strength in the torso. And finally jalandhara bandha, the throat lock; used infrequently but to great benefit.

The last main component of Ashtanga is Drishti  – the gaze point, which is a set place to rest your focus in each pose. Within the eight limbs of yoga that I mentioned right at the beginning of the episode; the fifth limb is pratyahara; which means withdrawing the attention away from the senses; to be able to further focus on the internal environment; on how the body is feeling and what’s going on in the mind. Rather than closing the eyes, which might be a health and safety disaster in many of the poses, instead, we rest the gaze on a set point, on the drishti, to keep the mind focused rather than wandering about with wandering eyes.

In terms of what to bare in mind… Ashtanga can be quite strict. The practice has quite strict alignment principles which are achievable by those who practice in a traditional way; a full sequence, so between 90 minutes to 2 hours, 6 days a week, but these alignment principles often aren’t achievable by a standard human body, and trying to contort to these arbitrary principles may cause more harm than good. Choose a teacher who is compassionate and adaptable, not  married to alignment above all else. If you’re looking for an Ashtanga teacher, you could simply email or call them and ask, are you happy modifying for different abilities and body types and see what they say.  in your gut, you’ll know if this teacher is right for you or not.

Ashtanga can also be addictive… not clinically addictive, or at least, not that I’m aware of, but the desire to move to the next pose, to a deeper version of that, to the next sequence, can ignite an ambition and drive that overrides compassion for energy levels and injury. Be careful. Watch what your mind is saying. What’s the intention behind that pose or that sequence? DO you need a break? Do you need to practice something else for a little while?

And finally, Ashtanga, for most people, is very physically challenging. While a knowledgeable and compassionate teacher can help make modifications and variations to suit you, in the main, if you go to an ashtanga class, expect a challenge!

In terms of practicing Ashtanga yoga with Yoga hero, we do have a weekly class, which is great to attend to learn the sequence and build on that each week.
We also have an Ashtanga 101 workshop coming up in April – this is for anyone who’s interested but has never tried yoga, or never tried Ashtanga, or for those who have been to Ashtanga before but would love to revisit the basics. We also run monthly Ashtanga full primary series workshops, which is the first of the six sequences.

All these offerings are taught by Jess, who when asked about ashtanga, said:

“To me, ashtanga holds a real sense of homecoming. I first started practicing ashtanga in California. At that point, I was brand new to yoga and I didn’t know what the different styles meant, it just happened to be the local class. So I went along! The class was dynamic and the sequence just kept coming! But I fell in love immediately. Initially it was the challenge of the asana that hooked me.

Being in a hot sweaty room (Californian summertime with the heating on!) trying to put my body into different shapes. Seeing the other people in the room so clearly dedicated to this practice was so inspiring and just drew me in further. So I kept turning up and kept trying to make sense of it all. Pretty quickly I realised these asanas were much more a tool for the mind than the body, and that’s really where my yoga journey started.

Today it’s the familiar nature of the set sequence that keeps me coming back. Everyday the sequence remains the same yet everyday the experience is different. An opportunity to learn more about your body and so so much more about your mind, thought process and relationship with yourself. Now wherever I am, when I hear the opening mantra, it transports me back to that first class, stepping on the mat no clue what was in store, but with so much curiosity, only now with a real feeling of being home, wherever I am in the world.”

So, lovely yogis, that’s our insight into Ashtanga Yoga!

All of Yoga Episode List

Episode 1 – Yoga Nidra for Deep Sleep

Episode 2 – Ujjayi breath – the what, the why and the how

Episode 3 – What is Yoga?

Episode 4 – The thing about thoughts

Episode 5 – Self love – the what, why and how

Episode 6 – Yoga teacher training – the what, why and how

Episode 7 – Micro rest, midi rest and maxi rest

Episode 8 – Ways to deepen and advance your yoga practice

Episode 9 – Styles of Yoga – Ashtanga

Episode 10 – Forgiveness

Episode 11 – Styles of Yoga – Yin

Episode 12 – The four types of people and the four ways to treat them

Episode 13 – Align your intentions and actions

Episode 14 – How to prepare for your first yoga class

Episode 15 – Tips for developing a regular yoga practice

Episode 16 –  Start Yoga in September

Episode 17: Styles of yoga – Restorative Yoga

Episode 18: Beautiful guided Savasana

Episode 19: Control the controllables

Episode 20: How to stop overthinking, according to yoga

Episode 21: Morning Yoga Nidra for a great day!