Yoga asana

What is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga? A beginner’s guide.

You’ve heard of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and you want to know what it’s all about? Dive into this post to find out what Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is, its benefits, how to practice it, and why you shouldn’t confuse it with Vinyasa yoga. 


What is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a dynamic form of yoga that involves practicing a set sequence of standing and seated postures, focusing on the breath and linking each movement with the breath. 

This style of yoga originated with T.Krishnamacharya who taught the practice at the royal palace in Mysore, India. His disciple Sri K. Patthabi Jois, perpetuated the tradition of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga around the world until he died in 2009. His eldest son Manu Jois, his daughter Saraswati and his grandson Sharath continue to teach the practice across the globe.*

Yoga asana
Photo by Anna Leak

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga basics

Breath

In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga you practise a specific breathing style known as “Ujjayi Pranayama”, meaning “extending the life force”. This breathing technique is a thoracic type of breathing through the nose, where you contract the glottis in the back of the throat to make a soft sound, kind of like the sound of the sea. Practising this breathing technique creates heat and keeps prana (energy) in the body for the practice. Its soft sound also provides a focal point for the mind. 

Bandhas

Another key aspect of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the “bandhas” or “energy locks”, in specific parts of the body. The first one is “Mula Bandha’ (root lock) which involves contracting the pelvic floor to keep heat and energy in the body and moving up the spine. You also practice “Uddiyana Bandha”, which consists in engaging the abdomen and drawing the belly in and up. This bandha helps to keep the spine safe and maintain a strong core. 

Drishti

In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, you use the “Drishti” – the focal point. In each posture, you gaze at a specific focal point such as the hands, the feet, the belly, the nose etc… The Drishti focuses the mind during the practice. 

Vinyasa

Last but not least, there is the “Vinyasa” aspect – the concept of linking the movements and the breath. We also use this term to describe the sequence of movements between the seated postures.

When you put all of these elements together, you can consider Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as a moving meditation. 

Virabadrasana yoga asana
Photo by Anna Leak

How do you practise Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?

There are three series of postures in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga: the Primary series, The Intermediate series and four Advanced series. You start by learning the Primary Series, and your Ashtanga Yoga teacher will teach you more postures as and when he/she feels you are ready.

Mysore style

The traditional way of practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a “Mysore” practice. This self-paced practice was the traditional way Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was taught in Mysore, India. You come to class before sunrise, and you practice the portion of postures you have learnt at your own pace. A teacher is there to assist you. 

Mysore-style practise may seem intimidating at first, but I find it the best way to learn and progress in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Instead of a led class where you have to keep up with the teacher’s instructions (and therefore maintain an outward focus), you can tune in to your own body and go at your own pace with a Mysore practice. You are entirely focused on your practice and with an experienced teacher there to guide you, this kind of class is often where you’ll make the most progress. 

Led Ashtanga classes

You can also take a led class. This means choosing a class suited to your practice level and following along as the teacher guides you through the series. You’ll start with Primary series, and you will often find classes suited to different levels: Beginner, Level 1, 2 etc.

Self-practice

Once you become familiar with the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga series, I encourage you to practice by yourself. You will always need an experienced teacher’s guidance, but it is important to practice by yourself. 

Traditionally, you practise Ashtanga yoga every day except Saturdays and on full moon and new moon days. This may seem daunting at first, so do your best and always listen to your body!! 

Mantras

Each Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga class starts with a chanted opening mantra. This is a chance to express gratitude to all the teachers before us for perpetuating the practice and being thankful for the existence of yoga and the benefits it brings us. 

At the end of class, we close the practice with a closing mantra. This is an opportunity to send the benefits of yoga out into the world and to wish prosperity, serenity, freedom and happiness to all beings. 

What are the benefits of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?

There are so many benefits to the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system. Here are some of the ones I’ve experienced personally:

A structured approach

In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, you practice the same asanas over and over again. You might think that sounds boring but it’s really beneficial because it allows you to truly turn your focus inwards. As you progress the practice becomes like a moving meditation. Also, there’s no skipping (at least in theory) poses in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. That means that you’ll have to face your weak spots and challenges, learn to accept them, make space for them and work through them.

It’s a well-rounded practice

The Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system is designed as a well-rounded practice. This means that you’ll work your entire body and you’ll build strength and flexibility everywhere.You’ll try a bit of everything, meaning you’ll see improvements in your entire body and you may well progress more quickly. Unlike some more free-flowing yoga styles where you can virtually avoid doing any asanas you “don’t like”.

You can practice by yourself

Once you’ve become familiar with the Ashtanga Yoga system, you can practice by yourself. Now I’m not saying you should not see a teacher because you will always make more progress and avoid injury under an experienced yoga teacher’s guidance. However, given the structured nature of the Ashtanga practice, you can do it anywhere and at any time. You don’t have to worry about what flow you should do or what part of your body you will work today, just get on your mat and do your practice and feel amazing after! I find this aspect so liberating! 

The beauty of the Mysore practice

As I mentioned earlier, Mysore practice really is amazing. You will progress so much if you do a Mysore style practice. The class format allows you to do your own thing and turn your focus inwards, but at the same time, you have an experienced teacher there to guide and assist you if needed. You just have to be ok with getting to class at 6:30 am 😉.

Tree pose
Photo by Anna Leak

Is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga hard?

Yes 🙂 I’m not going to lie, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is physically demanding. When you go into the seated portion of the practice, you have to do Vinyasas (a set series of movements) between each asana which includes a “jump through” and a “jump back”. There are also many challenging asanas. Plus, if you have seen any videos of advanced practitioners of the Ashtanga system, chances are you may have been scared off.

But fret not, I really do believe Ashtanga can be made accessible to most people. I’ll give you my own example. When I started practicing Ashtanga Yoga, I had practiced yoga on and off for years, but I had been on a 2-year hiatus from my practice and had a baby. On top of that, I am NOT a naturally flexible person, and as I quickly found out, I was relatively weak, especially in my upper body. Yes, I found it challenging. But, I learned to listen to my body, and I discovered the beauty of modifications and yoga props. 

Is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga suitable for beginners?

Yes! Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga can have somewhat of an intimidating reputation. I’ve had many people tell me “I don’t do Ashtanga, I’m not crazy like you”! But rest assured most people can practice Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. Like everything you start at the beginning, you modify asanas to suit your body and you keep practicing, over and over again. 

I think it’s an excellent form of yoga when you’re a beginner and looking for a dynamic yoga style. You will learn all the fundamentals of yoga asana, you’ll build strength and detox your body, you’ll build flexibility, and learn about resilience, patience, proper alignment, breath and focus. Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is a strong foundation to build on should you ever want to branch out in other yoga styles. 

What is the difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga?

Vinyasa Yoga is a modern style of yoga that originated from Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, you practice the same set sequence of postures in the series you are practicing. Over and over again. Each series is designed in such a way that each asana prepares you for the next one.

In Vinyasa Yoga, on the other hand, you flow from one posture to another, but there is no set order. The teacher designs a series of postures depending on the area of focus of the class: hips, mobility, inversions etc. It’s a creative, flowing style of yoga class, and there is often music involved.

A note on yoga for everybody

I firmly believe you should never be in pain when doing yoga, and sometimes there is a fine line between challenging yourself and injuring yourself. Always be mindful and always modify when you need to.

Frankly, I also don’t believe in the concept of “the full expression of the pose”. Yoga is for everyone. And whatever version of a yoga asana you are doing is excellent. You’re on your mat, you’re trying, and most importantly you’re doing something good for your body. So give Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga a try, use all the props you need, and try your best every single time and I’m sure you will enjoy yourself! 

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Be well,

Olivia

*Source: Ashtanga Yoga, The Primary Series – Yoga Chikitsa By Gérald Disse & Linda Munro

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