Ashtanga Yoga is a method for bringing the mind under control
Ashtanga Yoga is a method for calming and focusing the mind. This was desirable in all times, but nowadays it is probably even more important than ever before. Without deliberate effort, the human mind tends to wander around unsteadily, always searching for attractions it can attach itself to. And in the world of today, there are ever more attractions, rendering it increasingly difficult to stay focused. Ashtanga Yoga may help by offering a number of very efficient methods to train the mind to resist this temptation. In addition, Ashtanga Yoga is also a very effective method for training the body. Due to its physically demanding postures and flow, it quickly builds strength and stamina. Due to the various postures, almost every part of the body is trained.
In fact, since body and mind are interconnected in many ways, the presumption in Ashtanga Yoga is that one cannot balance the one without also balancing the other. If one is plagued by physical pain due to an unhealthy body, it is difficult to detach the mind from occupying itself with the pain. If, on the other hand, the mind is always pondering, constantly indulging in various distractions, a few of the many consequences may be bad sleep and headaches, hindering the physical performance of the body.
Ashtanga Yoga takes into account body as well as mind and aims at bringing both into a balanced state. It is a physically demanding practice, which can be mentally demanding as well. However, it is important to stress that it can be practiced by anyone, and anyone should be able to profit from its methods.
In recent times, the history of Ashtanga Yoga was mostly influenced by two of the most important Yoga teachers of the last century: Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989) and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915 – 2009). While Krichnamacharya laid the foundation for elaborating the method known today, it was his student Pattabhi Jois who created the form which is being practiced today. He is honorably called Guruji (respectful title of a spiritual teacher) by many of his students.
The eight-limbed Yoga
Ashtanga Yoga is no new way of Yoga; it is in fact deeply rooted in the eight-limbed Yoga (astau means eight, anga means limb) as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali about 2000 years ago. In the sutras, Patanjali describes the eight limbs of Yoga, which are necessary to realize the state of Yoga, defined in the sutras as a state in which the fluctuations of the mind cease (Yoga citta vrtti nirodha):
- Yama: Behavior with respect to ones environment
- Niyama: Behavior with respect to oneself
- Asana: Body postures
- Pranayama: Breath control
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana: Concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation
- Samadhi: A state transcending even meditation
Practicing Ashtanga yoga means practicing all of the eight limbs. It is important to understand each and every limb, as they all are interconnected and lead to the final limb Samadhi, the realization of higher consciousness.
While none of the limbs alone is sufficient to realize the state mentioned above, according to Guruji, Asana practice should be the starting point, since one cannot seriously study the other limbs without a stable foundation in Asana. This is why he put so much effort into devising the system which is being practiced today.
Yama and Niyama are the ethical practices that help one develop a yogic lifestyle.
So how does Ashtanga Yoga offer support in calming the mind? It utilizes a three-fold approach called Tristana:
The first aspect of Tristana is Ujjayi breathing. Correct, controlled breathing is of great importance in Ashtanga Yoga. It is not something to be done unconsciously along the practice, but it forms the very heart of the practice. It is the breathing which determines the rhythm of the practice. The movements should always follow the breathing; first comes the breathing, then the movements. Therefore, in a sense the breathing creates the practice.
The second aspect of Tristana are the Drishtis, the gazing points. Focussing on a single viewing point helps to not getting distracted by other things happening in ones field of vision.
The third aspect of Tristana are the Bandhas, energy locks within the body preventing energy from flowing out of the body unused. Without properly activating the bandhas, many asanas are simply impossible to attain. They create stability and lightness.
Since the Asana sequence is fixed, one does not need to think about which posture to perform next. There is a natural flow between postures, linked by Vinyasa and after practicing this method for some time, there will be less and less thinking about the practice and more and more being absorbed by the practice. This is when the meditative aspect of the practice manifests itself.
Another characteristic of Ashtanga Yoga is Vinyasa, which is a breathing and movement system. Postures are not performed separately and independently, but are linked by Vinyasa. Its purpose is internal cleansing. Through breathing and moving the blood is boiled. It is said that thick blood is dirty and causes diseases in the body. The head created by performing Vinyasa and Asana cleans the blood and makes it thin, so that it can circulate freely in the body.
Therefore, after most postures, a half sun salutation is performed, which realigns the body and prepares it for the next posture. Vinyasa should not be considered as an interruption of the Asanas; it is rather the other way around: Vinyasa creates the flow of Ashtanga Yoga, which is interrupted by the postures. As Pattabhi Jois put it in his book “Yoga Mala”, Vinyasa is like a garland (a Mala). The great sage Vamana Rishi is said to have said: “Oh Yogi, do not do Yoga without Vinyasa.”
It is of utmost importance, however, not to practice with having a goal in mind. This will only lead to frustration ultimately and will eventually hinder reaping the fruits of the practice.
“Everybody can do yoga, except lazy people.“
Everything is included in Ashtanga. The whole practice is the meditation and with your breathing and your practice you will become one with yourself.
One discriminates two kinds of practice in Ashtanga Yoga: Mysore style and Led class. The practice always starts with Surya Namaskara A and B (sun salutations), which prepare the body for the postures to come. The sun salutations are followed by the standing sequence consisting of postures done in a standing position, and one of four series of postures of increasing difficulty. The practice ends with the finishing sequence.
In particular, there is always a definite sequence of postures, linked by Vinyasa. Postures should never be skipped nor practiced in a different sequence. The sequence is the result of a well-designed collection of postures, where each one has its own purpose.
The Primary Series, or Yoga Chikitsa (meaning “Yoga therapy”), was designed to purify the muscles and organs of the body. It is the one every student starts with, and is the most important one. Even after one has mastered the Primary Series, one will always come back to the Primary Series on a regular basis. The Primary series consists mostly of forward bends and hip-opening postures.
The Intermediate Series, Nadi Shodhana, purifies the nervous system and mind by opening and clearing the Nadis, i.e. the energy channels pervading our body. The Intermediate Series consists mostly of back bends.
The Advanced A and B Series are for very advanced practitioners only and usually require years of continuous and dedicated practice. It should again be emphasized, however, that one should never practice with the goal in mind to progress in the different series. The benefits of Ashtanga Yoga can be experienced by everybody doing his practice, independently of how far he has progressed in the series.