10 Things to know about Ashtanga Yoga

1. Yoga is a 24 hour a day practice:

Ashtanga is a term that means “eight-limbs,” which first appeared in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a text composed around 300 AD. At this point in history, there was no discussion of specific yoga postures (asanas).  Asana was defined in terms of internal awareness (Sutras 2.46-2.48).

“Relaxed but alert, allowing for meditation on the infinite (ananta) to arise spontaneously and unceasingly… Unbothered by qualitative judgements such as good or bad, pleasure and pain.”

The other eight limbs of Ashtanga include compassion, ethics, contemplation, breath/subtle energy (pranayama), mental focus and meditative insight (samadhi). Together the eight limbs form a full toolbox to wake us up, so we can see beyond our habitual trappings and get a clearer perspective while permitting others to do the same.

2. Moving Meditation and Energy Efficiency

A practice built only on asana has similarities to other forms of exercise.  There are at least a few defining factors that separate a healthy Ashtanga Vinyasa practice from aerobics: mainly the emphasis on breathing with smooth sound and meditative focal points (drishti) for the eyes to rest in each posture. This asks that you seek the relaxation even within your strongest efforts, and prioritize focus on the breath to ensure you are working intelligently.

In Vinyasa practice, we learn to link each movement with its complementary breath cycle. After some months or years of practice, a new stage of proficiency is developed where movements may be linked with their opposite breath cycles – this is how core stability is developed, also called valves or bandhas. Too much emphasis on core in the beginning can be a major obstacle to meditative awareness and opening the body, just as being too lackadaisical about things makes progress impossible. Within asana practice there is a blending of opposing forces related to posture and breathing, both of which are endlessly subtle and become imperceptible even to a trained eye.

Many older yoga texts composed by great masters describe a state of inward and outward stillness where it is no longer possible to tell if someone is inhaling or exhaling, because the breath has become so slow and subtle. This can serve as a reminder that techniques are just tools to guide the journey—at some point, all techniques can be abandoned.

3. The Sequence isn’t Perfect – But Practice makes it better.

We all have a unique life history, different strengths and weaknesses.  Some of us may find the traditional series to be perfectly balanced, others may find it helpful to practice therapeutic exercises before or after practice.

Most of us can expect to modify postures quite a lot, and the tradition encourages that. Some teachers may even suggest you add postures to your first series practice that appear in the second series (such as backbends), to counter-balance.  Your teacher may ask that you modify postures in ways that are completely new to you to wake up a body awareness that will serve you elsewhere in the practice. It’s important to find one you can trust.

4. Find an experienced teacher who has a daily Ashtanga Vinyasa practice that you can trust and see regularly:

Whatever you do, don’t learn from a video or a book!  There are many qualified teachers out there, despite how difficult it is to become fully certified by the Jois family in Mysore, India. It probably takes at least 5 years of daily Ashtanga practice and regular teaching (at least two classes per week) to become a proficient teacher of this intricate style, so be sure to ask those questions of your teachers.

5. Origins of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Practice:

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a brand name given to a sequence of movements of mysterious origin. It’s hundreds of years old, but the scriptural evidence was eaten by ants, some say. Others point to evidence that Krishanamacharya, the godfather of modern yoga, invented the practice around the 1930s, mixing ideas from traditional yoga philosophies with inspirations from the Danish gymnasts who shared a practice gym provided by the Maharaj of Mysore, one of India’s royal families who upheld a deep appreciation for fitness systems practised around the world.  

6. Less is more:  

Fewer postures practiced on a semi-daily basis, even if only for 20 minutes each day, is better than trying to do a full hour practice once or twice a week. The big emphasis is on memorizing the beginning of the practice, which starts with sun salutations, then growing the number of asanas in your practice over time (if desired). Your own breath and energy rhythms (prana) become the guiding force, rather than some external authority figure like a yoga instructor. Though it can be awkward at first, this method tends to result in a deep appreciation for the subtleties. Plus, if you get bored, you can direct the theme of your practice. Maybe you focus intensely on alignment one day. Another you focus more on the drishti and breathing. Another day you can focus more on vinyasa, linking the breath and movement the ways its traditionally prescribed without taking any extra breaths or adding unnecessary movements. Then after being so studious, treat yourself to an experimental day where you try on new alignment patterns or zone on certain postures you find challenging.

It also helps to apply less intensity of effort within the asana practice. Practice in a way that you really enjoy it, every time. For most of us this means showing up regularly, and experimenting within the formulas of “ease vs effort” to avoid over-stretching and overly-tensing the abdominal core.  

7. The Balance of Push and Pull

Muscle imbalances can arise from too much strengthening around a joint in familiar ways without sufficient counter balances. One popular example cited in the Ashtanga Primary series is too many push exercises for the shoulder (ie: plank, floating through to sitting) and not enough pull (ie: cobra, pull-ups, resistance exercises like rowing).  This may not be an issue in the first decade of practice, but many dedicated students find a little resistance training can go a long way.  Resistance bands are inexpensive and simple ways to train the rotator cuff. You don’t even need  to invest in a pull-up bar, there’s plenty of them at kids playgrounds.

8. Progress is an inside job.

Sure, there’s physical gains in terms of strength and flexibility, but at some point you’ll plateau—then what?  Your ability to consistently practice the eight-limbs of yoga (ethics, meditation, self-study) is probably a more reliable measure of whether the asana practice is serving you well.  We all know yoga isn’t about making an asana of yourself, but how quickly we forget when presented a sequence of progressively challenging postures.

9. Correlation does not equal Causation:

A common mistake people make (especially yoga teachers) is assigning blame to a particular movement in the practice. Some asanas may aggravate your injury now, but as the old saying in academic research goes, “correlation does not equal causation.”  Unless you wear a lab-coat to work and study fresh human specimens running on treadmills, you’ll be hard-pressed to establish any link.

Rather than looking for a movement or practice to blame, our energy is better invested in everyday mindfulness. How do we use these bodies during everyday activities?  Do you bend your knees to tie your shoes or pick-up your kids?  Do you always use the same arm to open a door?  When walking up the stairs, do you always lead with your right leg? What kind of shoes do you wear?  Even sleeping is an asana, just not a particularly good one.

When we become conscious of our movement patterns in daily life, postures that we thought were impossible or dangerous may become accessible, comfortable and easy to do without even warming up.

10. You should probably just keep practicing.

It's natural that you’ll have days where you don’t want to practice – and it’s usually a good idea to do it anyway.

You never really know where the edge is until you’ve gone too far. Repetitive stress injuries don’t show up the first time you do a chaturanga, it can take thousands or millions of repetitions of familiar movements before things start to derail. Practice when you’re injured and you’ll be forced to modify more than you would otherwise. This can open up new depths of alignment patterns, similar to how a good personal trainer doesn’t push clients to lift heavy weight, but will usually take some weight off the bar to develop better form.

~ OM ~