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Ashtanga Yoga: Everything You Need To Know

Ashtanga Yoga is a physically demanding form of yoga that involves memorising a set series of sequences. Whether you’re a keen yogi or a complete beginner, this article covers all you need to know about this popular practice! 

This article covers:

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What Is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga involves performing a sequence of postures- known as asanas, in a specific order. These asanas are linked together by breath and movement, which is known as vinyasa. 

Ashtanga Yoga is therefore one of the most highly structured of the 24 types of yoga, as well as one of the most energetic!

An Ashtanga Yoga practice consists of 6 ‘series’. Every series begins with Sun Salutations, which is a set sequence including postures such as plank pose and downward dog. This is then followed by a standing sequence, and every series ends with the same finishing sequence.

The only elements that differ for each series is the group of asanas that are performed, as well as the main focus of the series.

Beginners start with the primary series, then move on to the secondary or intermediate, followed by 4 levels of the advanced series:

Primary 

This series works to clear obstacles in the energy channels within the body, known as Nadis. It is also known as Yoga Chikitsa, meaning ‘yoga therapy’. 

As well as bringing focus to the mind, the poses are designed to loosen tight muscles and to help you to begin building strength. This series begins with forward bends, then twists and hip openers.

If you’re a beginner yogi and just starting out with this primary sequence, check out our list of the best yoga kits for beginners to get you started! 

Secondary/Intermediate

This series is also known as Nadi Shodhana, meaning ‘nerve cleansing’. The main focus here is backbend asanas, which aim to maintain the suppleness of the spine. Some of the earlier asanas are incorporated but are intensified, and headstand variations are also practiced here.

Advanced Series

The advanced series consists of four levels and aims to build on what has been learnt during the primary and secondary series. 

If you consider yourself an advanced yogi, you might enjoy rocket yoga, which is a very physically-demanding form of yoga similar to this advanced Ashtanga series. 

3 Principles Of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga is rooted in the concept of tristhana, which encourages practitioners to focus on introspection. This makes the practice a form of moving mediation, so not only is it great for the body, but Ashtanga Yoga is also great for the mind!

The 3 principles of Ashtanga yoga are:

  • Pranayama- Literally meaning ‘vital life force’ in Sanskrit, pranayama is all about the breath and is the foundation of yogic practice. The practice of pranayama is thought to awaken your inner life force, by improving oxygen levels and increasing body heat. Check out OriGyms’ guide to pranayama for more information about its meaning, benefits and how to do it! 
  • Asana- As we have already explored, asanas are seated and standing postures that you perform during Ashtanga yoga. Asanas are designed to activate the 3 primary bandhas (or lock points), in the body. These are the Mula bandha in the base of the spine, the Uddiyana slightly below the belly button, and the Jalandhara near the throat.
  • Drishti- The Ashtanga yoga definition for this term is derived from the Sanskrit word dharana, meaning ‘concentration’, and refers to where you fix your gaze during yogic practice. This concept is designed to bring mindfulness into Ashtanga yoga, which helps to improve self-awareness and focus as you move and breathe. 

8 Limbs Of Yoga

The Ashtanga Yoga definition is translated as ‘eight-limbed yoga’ in Sanskrit, which forms the basis of the practice as we know it today.

As outlined in the Yoga Sutras- the authoritative text which defines the philosophy and practice of yoga, this is an eight-part path which, if followed, leads to self-awakening and helps you live a meaningful life.

The Eight Limbs of yoga are:

  • Yama- Moral codes
  • Niyama- Behaviours
  • Asana- Practice of physical postures
  • Pranayama- Practice of breathing techniques
  • Pratyahara- Sense control and withdrawal of senses
  • Dharana- Concentration
  • Dhyana- Meditation
  • Samadhi- Fusion of mind and body

What Is The History Of Ashtanga Yoga?

Now that you know what Ashtanga yoga is, you may be interested to learn a little about its history!

The practice of Ashtanga yoga that we know today is a modern form of classical Indian yoga, which was introduced by yoga teacher and scholar Sri Pattabhi Jois during the 20th Century.

However, the history of Ashtanga yoga can be traced back even further than this - the term was first used by ancient Indian sage Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras. 

Pattabhi Jois was taught under Krishnamacharya, who is the grandfather of modern-day yoga. Krishnamacharya taught a sequence of asanas, which were adapted to suit each individual student. The students would practice this sequence each day at their own pace, whilst receiving guidance from their teacher.

As their strength and flexibility improved, Krishnamacharya would introduce more challenging asanas to their sequences, and would eventually set new sequences with even more challenging postures.

Pattabhi Jois adopted this system of Ashtanga yoga to develop the Mysore-style class, which will be explored later in this article. He also gave names to the different sequences introduced by Krishnamacharya, which we know as the primary, secondary, and advanced series today.

Want to know more about the history of yoga? Pick up one of these best yoga books to expand your knowledge further! 

What is the Difference Between Vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga?

The terms Vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga are often used interchangeably. However, they are actually two different styles of yoga and challenge the body in different ways! 

Vinyasa is often described as freestyle yoga, where flowing movements are coordinated with deep, focused breathing. Vinyasa should also not be confused with hatha yoga! We explain the difference between hatha and vinyasa yoga here

Although most of the postures in vinyasa are the same as in Ashtanga Yoga, teachers of Vinyasa are able to take more creative licence when building sequences. For example, the order of and pace between poses can be varied.

To really feel the benefits of Ashtanga yoga for the body, Pattabhi Jois specified that it should be practiced 6 days a week, whereas Vinyasa has no guidelines surrounding regular practice.

If you practice yoga for fun or for stress relief, then you may find Vinyasa more appealing. However, if you are looking for a transformative experience for the mind and body, Ashtanga Yoga may be for you.

This is because Ashtanga Yoga is a much more intense experience, with less distraction around you. For instance, there is no background music, which allows you to focus on your breath and inner self more deeply.

If you like channelling in this kind of deep focus, we recommend reading our guide to kundalini yoga, which is a similarly intense practice! 

Furthermore, although there are several physical health benefits of Ashtanga Yoga for the body, only one of the eight limbs are about physical postures. The other 7 are about living life in a pure manner, as well as focusing on breathing and meditation.

As such, which style of yoga you choose ultimately depends on what you hope to gain from the practice. Many keen yogis even choose to practice both!

Ashtanga Yoga Benefits

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced yogi, there are many benefits of Ashtanga yoga for weight loss, as well as for strength gain and mental health. 

So, let’s explore the health benefits of ashtanga yoga for the body and mind!

#1 Improves Mental Wellbeing

Studies such as this one have shown that participating in regular Ashtanga yoga can alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

At first, Ashtanga yoga can be a complex practice for beginners, as it requires extreme focus on foot or hand placement, in order to ensure that postures are performed correctly.

However, once students have learnt these postures, they can instead turn their focus to another of the eight limbs of Ashtanga: the breath. Ashtanga Yoga uses a breathing technique called ujjayi breathing, which encourages an audible inhale and exhale through the nose. 

When practiced correctly, alongside holding the asanas, this technique helps to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is responsible for the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is part of the autonomic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation and regeneration within the body.

The PNS inhibits the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is the result of the stress hormone cortisol being released into the bloodstream.

When ujjayi breathing is employed correctly, the practice of Ashtanga yoga therefore becomes a form of meditation, which can help you to manage stress and anxiety. This allows you to work through the pain of suppressed emotions and overcome them, which can help to relieve the trauma related to depression and anxiety.

These mental health benefits of Ashtanga yoga make it a great practice for anyone looking to improve their everyday wellbeing, as well as their outlook on life!

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#2 Helps to Clear the Mind

As well as improving mental wellbeing, the technique of ujjayi breathing employed during Ashtanga yoga gives students a focal point within the body, which helps to clear and still the mind.

When your mind is calm, you are less likely to become stressed about the future or dwell on the past and can instead turn your attention to the present moment. This means that you can focus better on your practice, so your technique is likely to improve much more quickly!

Being able to maintain a clear and calm mindset during Ashtanga yoga also has benefits for everyday life. For instance, in the long term this will aid your decision-making skills and you will also find it much easier to concentrate on tasks that need completing.

Clearing the mind space of any negative emotions or trauma also means that you have more room for creativity. In fact, many students of Ashtanga yoga claim to have come up with some of their best ideas whilst practicing!

If you really want to calm your mind, why not check out one of these UK yoga retreats and truly escape from reality! 

#3 Improves Cardiovascular Health and Fitness

Although it involves holding poses, Ashtanga is a vigorous style of yoga, as the constant vinyasas in between each asana keep your heart rate up throughout the practice.

This helps to strengthen the heart and lungs, so that they are able to deliver oxygen more efficiently to the working muscles around the body.

The focus on breathing during Ashtanga yoga also benefits your cardiovascular system as it forces your body to work harder in order to handle the extra oxygen that it is receiving. This improves heart function, lowers blood pressure, and strengthens blood vessels over time.

In the long term, having a strong cardiovascular system means that your exercise endurance levels will increase. This means that you’ll be able to practice your Ashtanga yoga sequences for longer without becoming fatigued, giving you more time to perfect those postures! 

Improving your cardio will also help you in other aspects of fitness, such as running

#4 Aids Weight Management

If you’re hoping to lose a few pounds as well as improve your general health and fitness, you’ll be happy to learn that there are also many benefits of Ashtanga yoga for weight loss!

For instance, as well as increasing your heart rate, Ashtanga yoga recruits several muscles at once in order to hold the postures successfully. These muscles require a lot of energy to work efficiently, meaning that your body burns lots of calories.

When combined with other lifestyle factors, such as a balanced diet which helps you to maintain a caloric deficit, this can contribute to weight loss.

Maintaining a healthy weight is essential for avoiding and reducing the effects of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

If you’re looking to lose weight, check out OriGym’s list of the best paleo snacks and start making some healthy swaps in your diet! 

#5 Builds Strength

Ashtanga yoga is one of the most physically demanding forms of yoga, as many of the asanas require you to hold your body weight with just one hand or whilst balancing on one leg.

This requires a great deal of both upper and lower body strength. One of the benefits of Ashtanga yoga is that as you progress through the series, your strength will therefore increase as you improve.

As you practice the postures repeatedly, your muscles will learn to adapt and overcome the continual resistance being applied to them, which will force them to strengthen and grow.

Ashtanga Yoga also challenges the body as the postures and movements require stability, which involves engaging your core

Your core muscles will become stronger as you continue to activate them during your yoga sessions. Over time, having a strong core improves balance and means you are less likely to become injured. Having a strong core can also help to improve posture, putting less stress on the spine and reducing lower back pain.

#6 Increases Resilience

As well as physical strength, Ashtanga yoga benefits your mental strength. This is because learning the difficult postures that make up the Ashtanga sequences requires resilience and dedication.

This form of yoga also pushes you beyond your mental boundaries and teaches you the value of perseverance; you’ll never master each series if you give up the first time that you fail! 

Controlling the breath whilst learning these postures also increases your ability to focus, improving your concentration skills and making you stronger both physically and mentally.

Not only are these skills great for improving your yoga abilities, but are also great functional skills for everyday life, which will help you to keep working towards achieving your dreams!

#7 Improves Flexibility

Ashtanga yoga benefits not only strength, but also mobility and flexibility!

During Ashtanga yoga, postures are held for approximately 5 breaths. This ensures that the muscles and connective tissues are subjected to a deep stretch, which helps to improve flexibility.

There are a whole host of benefits to flexibility training. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the more flexible your muscles are, the better foundation you have for increasing your strength, meaning that you will be able to better perform each posture the more that you practice!

In the long term, consistent practice of these postures and the vinyasas in between will help to improve your range of motion (ROM), which again helps build strength in the muscles. Plus, having a good ROM also puts you at a lower risk of becoming injured whilst practicing, as well as in everyday life. 

#8 May Help Bone Formation

As we grow older, we become more at risk of developing osteoporosis, a condition that weakens bones and makes them more susceptible to breaks. This occurs when the creation of new bone cannot keep up with the loss of old bone.

One of the benefits of Ashtanga yoga for the body, as highlighted by a 2015 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, is that it can aid bone formation, which helps to tackle the effects of osteoporosis. 

The study found that 2 sessions of Ashtanga yoga practiced over an 8-month period, had a small positive effect on bone formation in middle aged, pre-menopausal women. This is an age group who are particularly at risk of developing osteoporosis, due to the drop in oestrogen levels that occurs after the menopause.

Naturally, weight-bearing exercise that builds muscle strength also helps to increase bone strength, as the stress that it puts onto the bones stimulates extra deposits of calcium, and forces bone-forming cells into action.

However, the study also suggested that this area requires further research; future yoga interventions should focus on trials of a longer duration and of greater frequency, to see if there are genuine improvements in bone mineral density over time. 

#9 Reduces Risk of Injury

All of the physical health benefits of Ashtanga yoga that we have explored so far help towards reducing your risk of suffering an injury, both whilst practicing yoga and when carrying out day-to-day activities.

For instance, practicing Ashtanga increases muscle and bone strength, which helps you to avoid injuries that can occur as a result of joints and muscles being overused or overloaded.

Ashtanga yoga also helps to strengthen the connective tissues, including tendons and ligaments, which increases their ability to withstand sprains and strains. 

However, it is important to take notice of your form whilst practicing asanas, as incorrect technique can lead to injury. 

For instance, a study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy found that 68% of Ashtanga yoga practitioners have suffered from at least one injury lasting longer than one month, and most injuries occurred in the hamstrings, knees, or lower back.

If you’re hoping to experience the full benefits of Ashtanga yoga, you should also ensure to take sufficient rest after sessions. This will allow proper time for recovery and prevents overuse injuries, which can occur after practicing more physically demanding forms of yoga.

As well as practicing with correct form, yoga equipment and props can also help you avoid injury. For example, using a yoga strap can help you take your poses further, safely!  

 

How To Get Started With Ashtanga Yoga

Now that you know the definition of Ashtanga yoga, as well as the benefits it can have on your mind and body, you may be wondering how to get started. 

We’ve put together a guide to tell you the best way to do this, so keep reading if you want to experience the health benefits of Ashtanga Yoga for yourself!

#1 Choose a Class

There are two types of Ashtanga yoga classes: teacher-led, or Mysore.

If you are a complete beginner, we would recommend that you attend a teacher-led class to begin with. 

In a led Ashtanga yoga class, the yoga teacher guides you through the sequences, and all participants practice together. This gives you the opportunity to become familiar with the primary sequence and the postures that you will need to perform.

Once you’ve gained some experience, you could then try a Mysore class.

In terms of Ashtanga yoga history, Mysore is the traditional way to practice, and is named after the Indian city in which it was founded. 

During a Mysore-style class, the teacher is there to offer support, but doesn’t guide you through the sequence. Instead, you memorise the sequence and then practice at your own pace amongst other students. The teacher only helps with physical adjustments to poses, whilst travelling the room to check on form and technique.

Mysore classes often take place over 3 to 4 hours, but you can arrive at any time during the session to practice your sequence.

#2 Practice

Whether you’re an experienced yogi or a beginner, the key to experiencing the health benefits of Ashtanga Yoga for the body is to practice!

Even if you can’t attend an in-person yoga class, there are plenty of yoga DVDs to help you practice at home! 

As well as memorising the sequence of postures, you need to be able to perform each one using the correct technique. This is because improper form, such as misalignment of the spine, or bad positioning of the feet, can all lessen the effectiveness of the poses and could even lead to injury.

If you have a pre-existing health condition or any concerns, consult your doctor or yoga teacher before practicing, as poses can often be modified based on your individual needs.

#3 Study

You may know the Ashtanga yoga definition and its history, but you can always learn more about it!

Other than taking part in a class, one of the best ways to do this is to pick up some texts which detail the Ashtanga yoga method and learn more about how the practice works.

Once you understand some of the deeper elements and intentions of the practice, it will become much more enjoyable!

A book that we would recommend starting with is Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, which explains all of the important terms and concepts of Ashtanga yoga.

Of course, the best way to really immerse yourself in the practice is to become a yoga teacher! Wondering if you’re up for the job? Check out OriGym’s guide to what makes a good yoga teacher here.  

#4 Move at Your Own Pace

As an intense, advanced style of yoga, don’t be discouraged if you struggle to experience the benefits of Ashtanga yoga at first! The key thing to remember is to not compare yourself to others, as everyone is on their own journey. 

It’s important to keep practicing and focus on mindfulness, and your skills will improve day by day. You’ll also begin to feel the health benefits of Ashtanga yoga for weight loss, as well as for physical and mental strength once you become more experienced!

If you’re struggling as a beginner, instead of starting with the full primary series, you could just start by learning the sun salutations. Once you have established the basics, you can then move on to include the standing poses in your practice and then the seated poses, until you have built up the whole of the primary series.

However, don’t push yourself too far, too fast, as this could lead to injury. Remember, it’s important to nail the basics of Ashtanga yoga first!

If you find that the pace of a live in-person class is too fast, there are a range of free yoga apps to help you practice at your own pace from the comfort of your own home! 

FAQs

When Should I Move on to the Next Ashtanga Yoga Series?

Before moving on to the next series, you should have a firm grip of the primary series and be able to move through it without stopping and whilst maintaining a steady breath. 

You should also not need to refer to external resources to get you through the practice, such as a book or a yoga Youtube video.

However, you do not need to have completely mastered the primary series completely to move on; rather than being able to do every pose to its full expression, you should have good knowledge on how to approach and perform the poses. There is always room for more learning in Ashtanga yoga practice, otherwise you risk shutting yourself off from the possibility of growth!

If you’re still unsure, it’s best to ask your yoga teacher, as they will be able to assess if and when you are ready to move on. 

When Should I Practice Ashtanga Yoga?

Traditionally, Pattabhi Jois recommended students to practice Ashtanga Yoga 6 times a week- even as beginners, only taking 1 day off per week to allow for rest.

However, in the modern world it’s not always possible to fit this many sessions into our busy lives, so the best advice that we can give is to simply practice as much as you can. Ashtanga yoga should also be practiced at the same time each day, if possible. 

Although there are pros and cons for both morning and evening practice, the best time to practice is ultimately a matter of personal preference. Pushing yourself to practice at a time you’re not comfortable with will only make your practice less effective, and you will be less likely to experience the benefits of Ashtanga yoga on the body.

Traditionally, Ashtanga yoga is practiced early in the morning because sunrise is related to the expansion of prana, or life energy, whilst sunset is the opposite. This is why most yoga holidays and retreats will start each day with an early sunrise practice. 

Yogis  see this morning as a chance to be more spiritually active, meaning that you are likely to be more productive at this time. Your mind is also much calmer in the morning, as you are refreshed and can practice straight from sleep.

However, practicing Ashtanga yoga in the evening is recommended for those who are more active at night. Even if you are more active in the day, you are less likely to become distracted if practicing at night, as you will have completed all of your tasks for the day and will therefore be more focused. 

Who is Ashtanga Yoga Good For?

Whatever your experience, fitness level, or body type, Ashtanga yoga is accessible to everyone. However, it is certainly not recommended for the faint hearted! 

This is because the sequences consist of many physically demanding poses and require a great deal of discipline to keep practicing! It can often take a long time to see progress, so it also requires resilience and dedication to keep improving.

However, if you are self-motivated, you thrive on structure, or are looking to build strength and mental endurance, then Ashtanga is definitely the type of yoga for you!

Before You Go!

We hope that you now have all you need to know about Ashtanga yoga. There are clearly a whole host of benefits to the practice, so why not give it a go next time you take to the yoga mat? 

If fitness is your passion, why not make it your career by taking a personal training course with OriGym? Enquire today or download our free prospectus to browse our full range of courses. 

References

  • Josée L. Jarry, Felicia M. Chang, and Loreana La Civita, ‘Ashtanga Yoga for Psychological Well-being: Initial Effectiveness Study’, in Mindfulness, (2017, Vol.8), pp.1269-1279
  • SoJung Kim et.al., ‘Effects of an 8-month Ashtanga-Based Yoga Intervention on Bone Metabolism in Middle-Aged Premenopausal Women: A Randomized Controlled Study’, in Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, (Dec 2015, Vol.14, Issue 4), pp.756-768
  • Jani Mikkonen, Palle Pedersen, Peter W. McCarthy, ‘A Survey of Musculoskeletal Injury Among Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Practitioners’, in International Journal of Yoga Therapy, (Nov. 2007, Vol.18, Issue 1)

Written by Rebecca Felton

Content Writer & Fitness Enthusiast

Graduating from the University of Liverpool with a first-class degree in English, Rebecca’s combined passions for fitness and writing are what brought her to OriGym. Rebecca is a keen gym-goer and specifically enjoys lifting weights. Outside of fitness and writing, Rebecca enjoys cooking, reading, and watching the football.

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