From the ashrams of India to the studio down the street, yoga has been gaining popularity in every corner of the world. As with any evolving art, different schools of practice, or subsets, emerge. Different cultures and philosophies affect yoga and an ancient art becomes contemporary and reflective of the modern way of life.
Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, or also known as Ashtanga Yoga, was popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois. A yoga guru and practitioner from the age of 12, Jois founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in India in 1948. Ashtanga yoga was first recorded by Vamana Rishi in the ancient manuscript Yoga Korunta which also contains lists and groups of asana, original teachings, and philosophy.
Ashtanga is the Sanskrit word for ‘eight-limbed’ and as written in the Yoga Sutras, the path to revealing the Universal Self through internal purification consists of eight spiritual practices (or limbs): yama (moral codes –consideration for others, right communication, refraining from coveting, moderation, and non-greed), niyama (self-purification and study – purity, contentment, respect to higher intelligence, and the removal of impurities), asana (alert but relaxed practice of posture), pranayama (regulated breath control), pratyahara (sense control and relaxation through inward focus), dharana (concentration – the ability to direct the mind), dhyana (meditation – the unbroken flow of thought toward an object or point of concentration), and samadhi (absorption into the Universal, or Illumination).
These eight limbs are broken down into the external and the internal cleansing limbs: yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama are the external cleansing practices that one can do to reveal the Universal Self. These practices are correctable, that is, they can be worked on until perfected. The internal cleansing limbs: pratyahara, dharana, dyhana, are not correctable. The Ashtanga yoga method can protect the practitioner’s mind from dangerous corruption if the internal cleansing practices are done incorrectly.
Vinyasa refers to the aligning of both movement and breath. Doing this creates a flow between different postures. Focusing on the time it takes to inhale and exhale and then holding postures for a determined number of breaths emphasize the transition between asana and then body alignment once in the desired position. Other forms of yoga, such as hatha, focus primarily on perfect body alignment in asana and not on the breathing and movement between each posture.
The vinyasa, or flow between asana, can often be seen in multiple-pose movements such as Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara) which is a collection of 12 flowing movements. Transitioning from Plank pose to Low Plank pose and Upward-facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) to Downward-facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) within the Sun Salutation, for example, are vinyasa because they are flowing transitions.
Ashtanga Yoga uses a specific style of breathing called ujjayi. This is a relaxed style of breathing from the diaphragm. Known for the ocean sound which resonates in the throat, inhaling and exhaling steadily in alignment with the asana creates a calming, mental focal point for concentration and relaxation. Combining vinyasa with ujjayi is said to create internal heat with causes increased circulation and sweating. This purifies the body and has led to the Western generic name ‘Power Yoga’ that many studios and students use today.
To complement ujjayi, Ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice incorporates bandha, or muscle locking/ contraction. This helps to focus energy in the body and is closely tied with breathing. The sustained contraction of a group of muscles also helps the practitioner hold a position and move smoothly in and out of it. The three bandha are: mula bandha (root lock, tightening muscles around the pelvis and perineum), uddiyana bandha (contraction of the muscles in the lower abdomen area, bringing the navel to the base of the spine), and jalandhara bandha (throat lock, lowering the chin while raising the sternum and bringing the gaze to the tip of the nose).
Many of the asana incorporate focused gaze for concentration. Drishti in Sanskrit, these gazes help develop the internal cleansing practices of Ashtanga’s eight limbs. The most popular drishti of nine is Urdhva, gazing to the sky, or upwards. It is used in the Warrior Angle pose, Balancing Half-Moon pose and Prayer pose. The remaining eight are: Angustha Madhyai (gazing to the thumb, used in Warrior I pose), Bhrumadhya (gazing to the third eye, or between the eyebrows, used in Fish pose and Upward Fold pose), Nasagrai (gazing at the tip of the nose, or at a point ten centimeters from the tip, used in the Upward-face Dog and Standing Forward Fold poses), Hastagrai (gazing to the palm, or extended hand, used in Triangle pose and Warrior II pose), Parsva (gazing to the left or right side, used in seated spinal twists), Nabhichakra (gazing to the navel used in Downward-facing Dog pose), and Padayoragrai (gazing to the toes, and used in poses like Cat-Cow).
An Ashtanga class is completely predefined, and rarely strays from the classic Ashtanga sequencing. Each class has four main parts: an opening sequence, one of six main series of poses, a back-bending sequence, and a finishing sequence of inverted asana. In the opening sequence, practitioners begin with Sun Salutations and several standing asana. The six series of Ashtanaga yoga form a basis of the entire system of asana. They are the Primary series (Yoga Chikitsa), Intermediate series (Nadi Shodhana), and Advanced series A, B, C, or D (Sthira Bhaga). The series allow new yoga practitioners to work through the basic asana to the very difficult ones consecutively, mastering the asana and pranayama (breathing techniques) along the way. The class will always end with savasana, or corpse pose.
Lasting an hour to two hours, a typical Ashtanga class emphasizes self-guided yoga practice. Classes can go at the practitioner’s own pace and should be held daily. Many classes offered in Western yoga studios are devoted to a specific series, yet the more traditional style of teaching Ashtanga yoga is called Mysore style. Named for the city in India where Ashtanga was thought to have originated, Mysore is supervised self practice where students work to maintain internal focus while advancing to more difficult asana during practice. To stay true to the Ashtanga yoga style, many yoga studios and schools have started offering weekly or monthly Mysore classes for Ashtanga devotees who may conduct their individual classes on their mats and be properly supervised by an instructor.