Often defined as “breath-synchronized movement,” Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, or Ashtanga yoga, is a discipline that utilizes a predefined series of poses and breathing techniques to illuminate the power of inhaling and exhaling. The goal is to synch continuous movement with continuous breathing—generally, upward movements correspond to inhalations while downward movements correspond to exhalations.The literal translation of the Sanskrit term vinyasa is “to place in a special way.[i]. The sequence is often described as flowing and dance-like, hence the nickname Flow yoga. In practicing the method, yogis hope to achieve internal cleansing [ii].Ashtanga directly translates to “eight-limbed yoga,” as delineated in the Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali, it consists of the following eight practices:
- Yama: ethical practices:nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-covetousness
- Niyama: spiritual observances:cleanliness, contentment, heat, self-study and surrender to God
- Asana: body postures
- Pranayama: breath control
- Pratyahara: sensory transcendence
- Dharana: concentration
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: state of ecstasy[iii]
Originally taught by Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta, Ashtanga is an ancient yogic discipline that was revealed to Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century. Krishnamacharya, “the father of modern yoga,” attempted to amend the ancient system of yoga into a more contemporary practice. As a result, he is often considered the founder of the method, despite its prehistoric roots.
The Yoga Korunta allegedly encompassed thorough instruction on the asana and pranayama practiced in Vinyasa yoga; and it is this wisdom that the yogi imparted to his student, K. Pattabhi Jois. Jois began studying under Krishnamacharya at the age of 12, establishing the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute by the time he was 33 years old. While his teacher introduced him to the method, Jois is largely responsible for its widespread popularity.
Similar to hot yoga, one of the most significant aspects of Ashtanga is heat. However, the former generates heat via classroom temperature, while the latter generates heat via physical activity; in short, Vinyasa is a vigorous practice. The physically-challenging series of postures increases body temperature, causing the body to sweat. Since the body expels toxins via perspiration, the practice is known for its detoxifying effects.
Yoga augments strength by building lean muscle throughout the body; and Ashtanga poses are particularly conducive to this process as each group of muscles receives equal attention. The flow of movement and breath work also increases oxygen absorption, stimulating muscular relaxation and increased flexibility. Practicing yoga may even balance the metabolic system, resulting in improved weight loss and sleep.
There are numerous psychological benefits to practicing this discipline as well. Particularly, its emphasis on continual inhalation and exhalation calms the central nervous system, relieving the mind of stress and anxiety.
- Be prepared! Bring a towel, yoga mat and water bottle to stay clean and hydrated.
- Wear moderate, tight-fitted clothing. Loose shirts tend to fall off when you’re in an inverted pose.
- Practice regularly! The more you practice physically-challenging yoga disciplines, the more strength and balance you build.
- Lowitz, Leza, and Reema Datta. Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant, and Meditation. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge, 2005. Print.
- “The Practice.” Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Institute. http://kpjayi.org/the-practice. Accessed Sept. 20, 2013.
- Carrico, Mara. Yoga Journal’s Yoga Basics: The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Yoga for a Lifetime of Health and Fitness. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. Print.