Ashtanga yoga is one of the oldest forms of yoga. It means “the eight limbs of yoga” in Sanskrit. The Yoga Sutras are a series of texts that detail the eight limbs. These limbs, which spell out the meaning of yoga, are guidelines to help people live their best life possible by practicing the art.
These are the limbs of yoga, with a brief mention of their significance.
- Yama — Yamas deal with how you conduct yourself with integrity and ethics.
- Niyama — This deals with self-discipline and nurturing your spiritual side.
- Asana — Asana promotes concentration as well as discipline.
- Pranayama — This deals with techniques that promote breathing control to rejuvenate the body.
- Pratyahara — This is making a conscious effort to direct your attention internally — basically, taking a look at your inner self.
- Dharana — This limb involves dealing with the distractions of the mind, slowing down the process of thinking.
- Dhyana — Dhyana is the limb that promotes meditation, quieting the mind.
- Samadhi — The final limb of yoga, samadhi, is transcendence of self. It’s the stage where you realize your connection to all living things.1
Ashtanga yoga involves the use of several different asanas — or postures. Each asana is linked to the next through deep breathing techniques, known as Ujjayi breathing.
Ashtanga is different than most modern types of yoga. There’s no music, special lighting or anything else – just you and your yoga mat. The practice of Ashtanga yoga is meant to remove external disruptions so you can focus on your inner self.2
The Yoga Sutras: Yama Niyama And More
When talking about Ashtanga yoga or any other type of yoga, it’s important to know at least a little bit about the Yoga Sutras. These texts show how to purify the body and mind through both internal and external cleansing.
The Yoga Sutras outline two principles meant to teach us how to not only relate to others but also to relate to ourselves. These are known as yama and niyama. Yamas teach social restraint, while niyamas teach self-discipline.
There are five yamas and five niyamas. The yama teaches how to avoid possessiveness, stealing, lying, violence, and the waste of energy. The niyama teaches how to surrender to something greater than yourself, to embrace contentment and cleanliness, and more.3 If you eventually decide to delve deeper into yoga, you’ll encounter yama and niyama a lot.
Learning Ashtanga Yoga: Postures, Movements, And Breathing
The different postures in Ashtanga yoga can be pretty involved. They require some pretty serious work that can build up your muscles, specifically your pelvic floor and other core muscles.
As a result, you’ll want to be sure your doctor says it’s OK for you to try this type of yoga. Some of the postures include backbends, twists, forward bends and many others.
There’s some work involved in Ashtanga yoga, like any other type of yoga. But the benefits may be worth it in the long run. Ashtanga yoga postures may support focus, known as drishti, as well as healthy blood flow.
Ashtanga poses flow together. The sequences between poses are known as vinyasas — or vinyasa flow. Each vinyasa is performed between each pose. You might perform as many as 40 vinyasas in a class session. Every vinyasa helps you to build the strength necessary in order to be able to do some of the more demanding postures.4
Practice Ashtanga With A Certified Ashtanga Yoga Teacher For Optimal Results
Once your doctor gives you the “go ahead” to try ashtanga yoga, the first step will be to find a qualified Ashtanga yoga teacher. Your yoga teacher will help you through every aspect of this yoga method, from asana practice, to how to take each breath, and more.
What To Expect
In most cases, your class will begin with a chant. This is a way to express thanks to the teachers and students around the world who have helped Ashtanga yoga continue. Chanting may also help everyone clear their minds so they can focus on the session ahead.
You can expect to move smoothly from one movement to another, performing a vinyasa between each pose, as you learned earlier. The trainer will likely ask you to sit with your legs extended for a bit so that you can connect with each breath you take. He or she will also show you some pranayama, or breathing exercises.
If you’re new to Ashtanga, you might think that one of the vinyasas might be a little beyond your capabilities.
There’s nothing wrong with sitting one out if you feel this way. It will be better to do so than to risk injuring yourself.5
Are There Other Types Of Yoga Similar To Ashtanga Yoga?
There are many forms of yoga that share characteristics with Ashtanga yoga. Here are a few of them.
This is actually a category of yoga that encompasses many different styles. It consists of asanas and pranayama that are meant to help calm the body and mind. Hatha is different from Ashtanga in one major way, however. It’s more relaxed and gentle from the standpoint of the physical demands it places on practitioners. This can make it great for beginners.6
Raja yoga means “royal path.” It is meant to connect yoga with the spirit, mind, and body. It’s a challenging practice, much like Ashtanga. Hatha yoga is often practiced in preparation for this method of yoga. Like Ashtanga, the origins of Raja yoga go back to the Yoga Sutras.7
This is another gentle form of yoga that helps support flexibility. Students will typically hold their seated poses for as long as a minute. That doesn’t sound like a long time until you try to do it. Many students will use props to help hold their postures so they don’t run the risk of injury. Iyengar, like Ashtanga, can also be good for those looking to tone their muscles.8
Jivamukti yoga is relatively new, having been created in the 1980s. The term is taken from the word “Jivanmuktih” in Sanskrit, which describes the feeling of enlightenment when connecting with your spiritual center. It’s a vigorous form of yoga, much like Ashtanga. That means it might not be the best choice for beginners.9
Yin yoga may help to strengthen the tendons and ligaments, and therefore strengthen muscles as well as joints. It requires holding postures for a long time, supporting flexibility and range of motion.10
If you’re just starting out, this is probably a type of yoga you should consider. Poses are much less taxing than those found in other forms and are typically much more gentle.11
Is Ashtanga Yoga For You?
Like other forms of yoga, Ashtanga can be healthy for the mind as well as the body. Follow your teaching and you could experience benefits you might not have ever thought were possible.
Just remember to speak with your primary care physician before deciding to practice yoga. You want to make sure it will be safe for you to do so.