The Ashtanga Yoga method distinguishes itself from other types of yoga through the emphasis of yoga as a full lifestyle commitment towards inner peace, representing far more than just a physical practice.
The foundation of the Ashtanga practice is created by three points of attention: yoga poses, yogic breathing techniques, and a specific gazing point for each movement.
The power of Ashtanga Yoga is the power to transform your body, to move the mind into a state of unity and clarity, and perhaps more than anything else, is the strength and steadiness it takes to stay the course of whatever you set your mind on, from the beginning until the end.
In this article, we will go through all the important aspects of the Ashtanga style to better learn and understand the structure, philosophy, history, meaning, and purpose behind this specific style of yoga practice.
ASHTANGA YOGA: STRUCTURE
The Ashtanga Yoga practice is made up of six series of postures.
The first Ashtanga series, called the Primary Series, known in Sanskrit as yoga chikitsa, is the beginning series into the Ashtanga practice.
The Primary Series (see picture above) contains all the necessary tools for experiencing the true power of yoga, including Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutation), forward bends, twists, backbends, powerful lifting, headstands, and many other movements that ignite the inner fire.
The Second, or Intermediate, Series of Ashtanga Yoga, known in Sanskrit as nadi shodhana, is a set of even deeper backbends, hip openers, and strength poses, practitioners work on to purify the nervous system.
The Advanced Series is divided into four different series:
Advanced A (Third Series),
Advanced B (Fourth Series),
Advanced C (Fifth Series),
Advanced D (Sixth Series).
These are available to those that have already mastered the first two series and are advanced enough to take on extreme levels of difficulty.
Each series of postures is increasingly more difficult than its predecessor. You are expected to practice the same sequence of postures every day and not move on until you made sufficient progress to start learning the following series.
The specific nature of the Ashtanga method is that you repeat the postures in the same order every time. When you repeat a series of postures over and over again, you move away from an intellectual understanding of the poses to a kinesthetic intelligence that connects movements to a place deep within.
Traditionally, Ashtanga practitioners are expected to practice the same sequence six days a week. The six-day requirement is meant to develop the mental, spiritual, and devotional determination needed to progress along the internal path of yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga students are also expected to memorize the sequence and practice without being led by the teacher. The role of the teacher is to guide as well as provide adjustments or assist in postures.
See below: a demonstration from 1993, led by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, of the Primary Series, performed by six advanced and experienced practitioners: Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Eddie Stern, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, and Karen Haberman.
ASHTANGA YOGA: TWO WAYS
Ashtanga Led classes are the type of Ashtanga classes where all students practice at the same rhythm and pace as one another, being guided by the teacher through Sanskrit count.
All students practicing the same Ashtanga Series, so ultimately the same postures and sequences. You can see an example of a led class in the video above this section.
In a Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga class, students are practicing at their own pace. You are supposed to memorize the whole sequence of postures and practice freely without any guidance. Every student practices their own individual Ashtanga Series.
In a Mysore-style class, you roll out your mat and start your practice. You don’t have to start at the same time as anyone else. Everyone will practice at their own pace based on their breathing span, and it will vary in length and content. You are under no pressure to keep up with the class.
The role of the teacher is to provide verbal instructions and physical adjustments when necessary.
ASHTANGA YOGA: PRACTICE ONLINE
Omstars is one of the only Ashtanga-focused yoga platforms out there.
Featuring world-renowned certified Ashtanga Yoga teachers like Kino Macgregor and David Robson, Omstars provides its users with not only Ashtanga Yoga classes suitable for all levels, but also frequently comes up with new courses, designed to elevate your practice.
Join today and start or continue your Ashtanga Yoga journey under the guidance of the world’s best Ashtanga Yoga teachers— all in the comfort of your own home!
On AloMoves, Laruga Glaser and Deepika Mehta have prepared you the ultimate online Ashtanga Yoga beginner-courses.
The classes ease your way into the Ashtanga Yoga journey and are especially helpful for complete beginners, who have almost or no experience in the Ashtanga Yoga practice.
Get your AloMoves membership now and immediately start to immerse in the numerous benefits that this practice provides!
ASHTANGA YOGA: DRISHTI
Drishti means “insight” or “vision”, and its purpose is to direct the gaze to a focal point of attention and influence both what you see and your way of seeing.
In Ashtanga Yoga, each pose has a specific gazing point.
The place where you are directed to focus your eyes plays an important role in the spiritual development of your practice.
A gaze directed at one of the drishtis infuses a deep inner practice, whereas a gaze directed at many fluctuating external points stimulates an unsteady, unfocused mind.
Kino Macgregor, international Ashtanga Yoga teacher on the importance of drishti—
“When I first started practicing, I failed to fully grasp the importance of drishti or a single gazing point. I felt that if I was able to maintain a pose, that was enough.
I remember being in the yoga shala in Mysore and allowing my mind to wander so I could see what was going on around me. I was interested in what my teacher was doing with other students, what poses other students were doing at different levels of proficiency, what kind of clothes people were wearing, what type of yoga mats were most popular, and who was waiting in line to practice next. I focused least on the inner body. It was the epitome of an untrained mind.
Each time I returned to Mysore, my teacher would strongly remind me of the importance of drishti by reiterating that it is the key to the mind training of yoga.
It took me at least four trips to India before I really understood that no drishti means a weak mind, and a weak mind means no yoga is happening. I did not have a naturally strong mind, but the diligent practice of drishti helped me connect with a one-pointedness of perception that exceeds anything I thought I could accomplish.”
Drishti is an essential tool for finding balance while physically moving. You cannot find balance while your eyes are darting around the room.
In essence, if the student’s eyes are wandering, then so is the mind. If the student’s eyes are focusing on a single point of attention, then the mind too remains calm and attentive.
Laruga Glaser assisting a student (nasagrai drishti)
There are 9 drishtis in Ashtanga Yoga:
- Broomadhya drishti (gazing between the eyebrows)
opens the third eye chakra and encourages energy to rise up the spine toward the center of the head where the seat of spiritual knowingness resides.
- Antara drishti (gazing upward)
helps continue the mindful movement of energy up the spine so that the life force can rise and awaken spiritual centers within the brain.
- Nasagrai drishti (nose gazing)
slightly closes the eyes, thereby limiting the amount of optical stimulation received from the external environment and encouraging the power of sight to be directed inward.
- Nabi chakra drishti (navel gazing)
stimulates the solar plexus chakra, helps direct the mind toward the inner body.
- Hastagrai drishti (gazing toward the fingers or toes)
plays an important role in maintaining a sense of balance while performing the physical postures.
- Angustha ma dyai drishti (gazing toward the thumb)
extends the energy of the pose outward from the center and stimulates the meridian points in the thumb, which are traditionally thought to be symbolic of fire, similar to that of purification.
- Parsva drishti (gazing to the left or right)
focuses the mind on a more subtle flow of energy in the body and helps perfect the physical posture.
ASHTANGA YOGA: THE BREATH
Yoga tells you to breathe, literally, right into the fear, pain, anxiety, or anything else that comes up. When you learn to breathe freely while attempting difficult postures, you are slowly learning to deal with similar situations and feelings outside the yoga practice.
Nasal breathing deepens the state of relaxation, whereas open-mouth breathing sends a signal of distress and panic to the brain.
✓ nasal breathing
X open-mouth breathing
The Ujjayi Breath
Ashtanga Yoga uses a breathing method based on the Ujjayi Pranayama.
Each breath has four distinct components: the inhalation, the space between the inhalation and exhalation, the exhalation, and the space between the exhalation and inhalation. It is important to give a certain pause between the breaths so that you float effortlessly for a moment between the inhalation and the exhalation.
For a better understanding of the Ujjayi breathing method and a more detailed guidance on how to incorporate it into your yoga practice, I invite you to watch the video below.
ASHTANGA YOGA: GETTING STARTED
Ashtanga Yoga introduces you to a practice that will bring you strength, flexibility, and inner peace. As you begin this journey, you will get to know the true power of yoga and slowly transform your mind into a peaceful place.
Ashtanga Yoga is a physically demanding style. Although you might think that the beginner should start by practicing the full Primary Series, you’d be surprised by the intensity and difficulty of going through such a class as a beginner.
It is recommended that you start with just the Sun Salutations in the beginning part of your Ashtanga journey. As days pass, you can gradually learn the remaining poses of the Primary Series and introduce them one by one into your daily practice.
Another option for the intermediate yoga practitioners who are interested in the Ashtanga style is to start with the Half Primary Series.
Start each practice session by consciously dedicating yourself to the practice and the inner journey. You may find that lighting a yoga candle helps create a sense of sacred space, which all yoga practice really deserves. If possible, dedicate a specific space in your home entirely to your yoga practice.
Ideally, you will practice Ashtanga Yoga in the morning, on an empty stomach. It is recommended that you do not drink water during practice.
Use a yoga mat that feels right for you. Buy a personal yoga mat, rather than renting one at a yoga center. Your mat will accumulate your spiritual energy. We wholeheartedly recommend the Manduka mats. They are incredibly durable and will not break down quickly, creating a safe environment for you to practice in. Check them out here!
After practicing at home for a while, you will find it beneficial to seek the guidance of a teacher who can adjust your practice to your unique abilities and needs.
ASHTANGA YOGA: MANTRAS
The Ashtanga Yoga practice always starts and ends with a specific mantra. A mantra is a word or a formula chanted or sung as an incantation or a prayer.
Ashtanga Yoga Opening Mantra
The Ashtanga Opening Mantra is a direct message of gratitude offered to all the previous yoga practitioners who have enabled this ancient practice to survive through thousands of years so that we will experience its benefits today. The mantra prepares the mind, body, and emotions for the upcoming Ashtanga sequence, as well as cleanses the energy of the space we have chosen to practice yoga in.
Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde
Sandarshita Svatma Sukava Bodhe
Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane
Samsara Halahala Mohashantyai
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam
Opening Mantra Pronunciation
I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed,
Beyond better, acting like the Jungle physician,
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara.
Taking the form of a man to the shoulders,
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword,
One thousand heads white,
To Patanjali, I salute.
Ashtanga Yoga Closing Mantra
The Ashtanga Closing Mantra brings the practice to a peaceful end, expresses gratitude for the present moment, and unconditional acceptance of what is real about this moment.
Svasthi Praja Bhyaha Pari Pala Yantam
Nya Yena Margena Mahim Mahishaha
Go Brahmanebhyaha Shubamastu Nityam
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi
Closing Mantra Pronunciation
May all be well with mankind.
May the leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path.
May there be goodness for those who know the earth to be sacred.
May all the worlds be happy.
Om peace, peace, perfect peace
ASHTANGA YOGA: MOON DAYS
It’s part of the traditional approach for Ashtanga yogis to take rest during the new and full moons. Practicing yoga over time creates a delicate sensitivity to energetic movements and influences.Observing moon days is one way to recognize and honor the rhythms of nature so we can live in greater harmony with it.
The full moon provides energy and heat but can increase the tendency of losing connection to the earth. The new moon is a moving force that makes us feel calm and grounded, but the tendency can be towards heaviness and lethargy.
ASHTANGA YOGA: HISTORY
Ashtanga Yoga, or Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, as we know it today, was developed, popularized, and brought to the West by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.
Krishnamacharya is known as the source of most of the yoga that is popularly taught in all areas of the world today, him being the guru of the yoga gurus.
Following lineage in yoga is much like tracing a family tree. You learn from a teacher who is a student of a master, and that master was once a student of another master. The origins of yoga follow an unbroken line from teacher to student through a nearly five-thousand-year journey in Indian history.
Jois continued his education in yoga and Sanskrit studies at the Mysore University; he has founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore in 1948, and has written the famous yoga book “YOGA MALA“.
His book “YOGA MALA” outlines the philosophy and ethical principles of the Ashtanga method and of yoga in general. He explains important concepts and terms of yoga and precisely describes the poses of the first Ashtanga Series.
With decades of experience teaching, Jois’s diligence in maintaining the Ashtanga Yoga method as he had learned it from his teacher, allowed thousands, if not millions— of people to benefit from the transformative quality of this practice.
Jois died when he was 93 years old, after dedicating his life to teaching and sharing the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Without his steady perseverance, yoga as we know it today simply would not be.
“DO YOUR PRACTICE AND ALL IS COMING”
— Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009)
ASHTANGA YOGA: PHILOSPHY
The Sanskrit word Ashtanga literally means “eight limbs”, which refers to the eight limbs of yoga, as defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
He gathered all aspects of yoga from much older traditions into this format, defining yoga in eight components. These are dating back to approximately 1700 years ago, and they offer guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life.
The eight limbs of yoga are defined by Patanjali as:
- Yamas (moral codes)
- Niyamas (self-purification and study)
- Asanas (poses)
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (sense control)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (total peace)
The knowledge of the Yoga Sutras is ideal for the dedicated student of yoga. The book analyzes yoga philosophy. Check out the Yoga Sutras book on Amazon here.
When this integrated approach to spiritual development is in place, the inner fire of purification is ignited and literally burns through unhealthy habits, physical toxins, and emotional hang-ups.
ASHTANGA YOGA: FAMOUS TEACHERS
Kino Macgregor is a renowned international Ashtanga Yoga teacher.
After only seven months of practicing the Ashtanga Yoga style in New York, Kino traveled all the way to India to learn from Pattabhi Jois himself. With true dedication and love for the method, Kino went on to visit India every year to deepen her practice and learn more about it along the way.
At 29 years of age, she became one of the youngest people to receive the certification from Pattabhi Jois, to teach Ashtanga Yoga.
Laruga found yoga in her adolescent years. Through the ups and the downs, she developed a consistent practice, which ultimately led her to quit her corporate job and dedicate her life to teaching yoga.
Along the way, Laruga studied the Ashtanga method in India under the guidance of the late Pattabhi Jois and his grandson Sharath Jois.
Today, she is one of the few yogis that have received the certification to teach Ashtanga. She now leads an Ashtanga Yoga Mysore program in Stockholm and teaches workshops and retreats internationally.
Deepika Mehta is an Indian certified Ashtanga Yoga teacher, famous in India and around the world for sharing the practice of yoga.
More than twenty years ago, a near-death experience and a devastating spinal cord injury had the doctors tell her that she would never be able to walk again.
Deepika dove herself deep into years of education and practice, seeking alternative healing techniques. By 2002, she had discovered the Ashtanga method, which has improved her conditions and went on to change the whole course of her life, as she took on the challenge of becoming a yoga teacher.
Deepika is a lover of movement. She combines yoga with dance and expresses herself through these two beautiful practices. Today, she lives in India, and has recently given birth to her first child.
This article does use information from the book The Power of Ashtanga Yoga I by Kino Macgregor. On this note, we would like to thank her for being a source of inspiration and we do not mean to take anything away from the hard work she has put into writing it. We wholeheartedly recommend the book if you’re interested in learning even more about this style of yoga.
What is Ashtanga Yoga? I challenge you- to find out yourself. Namasté!
Would love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below!