Are you looking for a little structure in your yoga practice? Many styles of yoga have a free-form quality to it, but there are also types of yoga that are more structured and routined. Ashtanga Yoga is one of those yoga styles.
In Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, "Ashtanga" means "Eight Limbs." It embodies the lessons that are written in the ancient text, "The Yoga Sutras." Patanjali, an Indian sage, wrote the Yoga Sutras and describes the eight limbs (or eight practices) that one can master in order to "transcend suffering and recognize our true nature."
breath while moving
These practices were eventually developed into a style of yoga flow by Pattabhi Jois who is considered the father of modern-day yoga. Many of the yoga styles we practice today are derived from this technique. He developed a sequence of asanas (or yoga postures) that flow together in a smooth pattern. The focus of the sequential body work is breath while moving through challenging yoga postures to build strength, flexibility, concentration, awareness, connection, and more. These concepts capture the lessons of the original Eight Limbs from the Yoga Sutras.
Ashtanga Yoga is considered a classic way of practicing yoga. It is divided into several series; as one "masters" the first series, they "graduate" to the next. If you're new to Ashtanga, a good place to start is the Primary Series. It is designed to remove the physical and emotional obstacles that lie stagnant in the body. These barriers block the individual from reaching their full potential. Considered a type of "yoga therapy," The Primary Series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Practice releases those mental and bodily binds.
Although there are many dynamic and challenging postures in the series, the idea is to engage in a regular (preferably daily) practice in order to master the sequence and poses. As mentioned, Ashtanga Yoga is highly structured; the same pattern of poses are performed the same each time. This allows the practitioner to recognize improvement over time. At first, you may experience the vinyasa flow as too hard, challenging, and tiring. But if you are able to endure the demands of this style of practice, you will make great and effective changes in the way to live your life and treat others.
The whole Primary Series is too long to describe here, but it begins with a familiar vinyasa flow called the Sun Salutation. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga opens with Sun Salutation Series A that is performed 5 times followed by Series B that is also performed 5 times. This brings attention and awareness to the body and is a way to warm up before proceeding through the rest of the practice.
Sun Salutation Series A
Start by standing tall at the top of your yoga mat in Mountain Pose. With your feet relatively close together, your toes will touch while your heels will be separated. Allow your arms to hang down by your side with your palms facing forward. Hold in stillness to gain control of your breath. This will prepare your mind and body for your structured practice.
Inhale to extend your arms overhead. Exhale and fold forward; you will hinge at your hips with a slight bend in your knees until you touch your toes. Inhale to lengthen through your spine and gaze forward. Exhale to bend your knees and hop both feet back into a high push up position then immediately bend your elbows to lower your way down to the mat as if you are completing a push up.
Inhale to press your hands into the mat to lift only your upper body to look forward. Open your chest and gaze forward. Your legs will remain long behind you with your toes pointed. You will be in a back bend position called Upward Facing Dog. Exhale to then lift your hips into the air moving into Downward Facing Dog. Your body will form an inverted V-shape with your hips lifting upward. Your hands will press firmly into the ground. You will be on your tip toes with your knees slightly bent. Hold this posture for 5 breaths.
Next, hop or step both feet forward to your hands and re-extend your spine. This is Half Forward Fold. Then fold again to touch your toes: Standing Forward Fold. (You may have a rounded sensation in your spine and your forehead will be drawing down toward your shins.) Inhale fully to stand all the way up and extend your arms into the air. This is Extended Mountain Pose. As you exhale, bring your arms down by your side, returning to Mountain Pose. This whole sequence is the Sun Salutation Series A; you will repeat this sequence 5 times before moving to Series B.
You will find that this is a dynamic flow that brings energy to the entire body. If you are a beginner, continue to practice this series so your body gets accustomed to the rhythms and cycle of movements. Even without advancing to the next series, this is a wonderful workout and introduction to the Ashtanga Yoga practice.