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What Is Ashtanga Yoga: Build Strength and Improve Focus With This Practice

My Yoga Teacher

Posted on Jun 8, 2021 fitness

What Is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga yoga is a modern evolution of a traditional yoga practice that focuses on a structured series of poses involving intense movement, flexibility, and discipline.

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Ashtanga yoga is an intensive physical and mental practice where practitioners are asked to push through emotional baggage and other mental blocks to bring about mental awareness and mindfulness as well as physical improvements.

The practice of Ashtanga was popularized by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois during the 20th century. It's a challenging practice that focuses on increasing strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance using a combination of weight-bearing postures as well as Surya Namaskara A and B (sun salutations). Surya Namaskara A and B are a dynamic, fast-moving series of postures that are completed between each of the static poses in this practice.

Three Principles of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga is rooted in the concept of tristhana. This concept encourages practitioners of this type of yoga to focus on introspection. This means that, despite the dynamic poses and difficult weight-bearing postures, Ashtanga is intended to be meditative.

There are three pillars of tristhana:

Pranayama

Pranayama, or breath, is the foundation of Ashtanga. The breathing method Ujjayi, or "ocean breath," that's used in Ashtanga is intended to energize the body and increase concentration. This pranayama has been credited with improving oxygen levels.

Advanced Ashtanga practitioners can expect to learn additional pranayama techniques.

Asana

The asanas used in Ashtanga are a mix of standing and seated postures interspersed with Surya Namaskara. The order of asanas in Ashtanga is prescribed, it doesn't change from session to session. Through these asanas, you'll activate three primary lock points in the body, known as bandhas:

  • Mula bandha, located at the base of the spine
  • Uddiyana bandha, located slightly below the belly button
  • Jalandhara bandha, located near the throat

Drishti

A specific drishti, or focal point, is used in each asana. This refers to where you fix your gaze during practice and creates a focused and meditative practice.

History of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga was created by Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, an Indian yoga teacher and scholar. The classical form of this practice was introduced in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Jois adapted Patanjali's concepts, combining those concepts with modern Vinyasa yoga in 1948.

Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga

As with all yoga, there are several benefits associated with practicing Ashtanga. Here are some of the benefits you'll discover with regular practice:

Better Balance

Ashtanga yoga includes a lot of inversions and arm balances, using the breath to bring balance. Over time, practitioners build the balance and strength to maintain their posture throughout the practice. This has been linked to better balance and postural stability in a group of visually impaired adults (PLOS One, 2015). It's also been linked to a lower risk of falls in people with neuromuscular diseases and older adults (American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 2019).

Increase Flexibility and Range of Motion

Ashtanga yoga will also increase flexibility and range of motion through poses that stretch and lengthen your muscles, release tension, and lubricate the joints.

Build Muscle and Increase Strength

Poses in ashtanga yoga use your bodyweight to build muscle and increase strength. In a December 2015 study from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, it was discovered that Ashtanga yoga increased lean body mass.

Improved Mental Health

Ashtanga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing your body to rest and decreasing stress and anxiety. This, in turn, can help improve your mood and increase happiness, as well as calming the mind.

According to a 2017 review in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, yoga has been linked to decreased feelings of anxiety and depression. Plus, practicing yoga has been credited with decreased stress markers like heart rate, cortisol levels, and blood pressure (Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2015).

What To Expect in an Ashtanga Yoga Class

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If you're new to Ashtanga, here's what you can expect from a typical class:

  • Repetition. The moves of Ashtanga are prescribed and don't change from session to session.
  • Fast pace. Classes usually start with several sun salutations. Then, there are vinyasas (think mini-sun salutations) between the seated postures.
  • Breathing. Ujjayi breathing is a staple of Ashtanga, so classes are generally filled with the sounds of yourself and other practitioners doing this hissing pranayama.
  • Lots of forward bends. The Primary series includes a lot of them.
  • Form corrections. In an in-person Ashtanga class, this usually means form corrections through physical touch by the teacher. With myYogaTeacher, those corrections will be given audibly.

Practice Ashtanga Yoga Safely With myYogaTeacher

Ashtanga is perfect for the lovers of routine among us since the practice includes a set sequence of poses. There are six different Ashtanga series: Primary, Intermediate, and four Advanced series. Each series builds on the last, leading you through increasingly difficult asanas.

The Primary series in Ashtanga will probably be the most familiar to most yogis. It includes poses that you'll find in a standard Vinyasa yoga class, though in an Ashtanga class, the flow will always be the same. The Primary series is intended to focus the mind as well as purify and tone the body.

The Intermediate series begins in the same way as the Primary series but includes headstand variations, more backbends, and challenging twists. This series is intended to purify the nerves.

The Advanced series are, of course, the most challenging. You'll need to wait for these until your teacher has deemed it safe for you to proceed. And, just so we're clear, Ashtanga yoga is challenging right from the Primary series.

You can practice Ashtanga yoga with myYogaTeacher several times each week. We even offer a class called the Beginner's Guide to Sun Salutations that can be a nice way to ease into Ashtanga if you've never tried it before.

Want to join us? We'd love to offer you a free two-week trial of myYogaTeacher! With the two-week free trial, you'll get access to not only our Ashtanga classes but 35+ live online classes every single day. All classes are led by experienced and talented Indian yoga teachers who are well-versed in multiple styles of yoga and able to offer in-the-moment form corrections to keep you safe and your practice flowing.

Ashtanga is a dynamic and strenuous yoga practice. Proper form and technique are important to keep you safe and improve the effectiveness of this practice. If you have any health concerns, please consult with your doctor before practicing. And remember, poses can always be modified to your unique needs.

Ashtanga not really your thing (yet)? We've got you covered. myYogaTeacher has classes that are perfect for any yoga, beginner to advanced. Even if you're interested in breathing and meditation alone, you'll find the right class and teacher for you on our platform. Sign up for a free two-week trial to check us out!

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