What is Ashtanga Yoga?

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga is a popular style that is taught in many studios in Toronto, and it is the basis upon which Vinyasa-style classes are often built. Ashtanga itself was popularized in the West by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), who learned the postures from his teacher, Krishnamacharya, in Mysore, India (Click here to read more about Krishnamacharya in our post on Vinyasa).

Ashtanga is a progressive set series of postures. Practitioners work through each series, and move on to the Intermediate and Advanced series once they have mastered the Primary. What you may be used to is the Primary series, which is the one most commonly taught in studios across the city: five each of Surya Namaskar A and B (the sun salutations) followed by a standing sequence, then a seated series with a Vinyasa in between each pose.

Ashtanga means “eight limbs” and so there are eight stages of a traditional Ashtanga practice going far beyond the physical postures. A practitioner of Ashtanga traditionally works through all eight of the limbs through study, reflection, meditation, and practice. Here is a brief introduction to the eight limbs of Ashtanga.

  1. Yamas

The Yamas are defined as “right actions” that a yogi integrates into his or her everyday life. They include:

  • Ahimsa: Non-harming; Ahimsa is about practicing a lifestyle that causes no physical, emotional, or mental harm to yourself or another. Many take Ahimsa to mean a vegan diet as well as avoiding leather, fur, and other animal products.
  • Satya: Truthfulness; speaking and living the truth. The combination with Ahimsa balances Satya, so that you would avoid speaking a truth that would harm another person.
  • Asteya: Non-stealing; Asteya means to take only what is given freely, so this Yama includes turning away from the fruits of forced labour and slavery.
  • Brahmacharya: Restraint; this yama is traditionally associated with sexual abstinence, but can be applied in a broader way to mean moderation in all things to keep a balance in your life.
  • Aparigraha: Non-attachment; letting go of everything you do not need and also letting go of the fruits of your actions.
  1. Niyamas

The Niyamas are qualities that the yogi incorporates into his or her actions and attitudes. They are:

  • Saucha: Purity or cleanliness; this typically means eating well and staying away from toxic or unhealthy foods and substances, as well as keeping the mind pure and focused and the body clean and healthy.
  • Santosha: Contentment; Santosha is all about being content with what you have and not coveting the possessions or practices of others.
  • Tapas: Austerity; Tapas is often associated with the “heat” of willpower. Practicing Tapas is to practice that which benefits you even when you don’t want to.
  • Svadhyaya: Self-reflection; studying and reflecting to learn about yourself as deeply as possible so you can learn and grow from your mistakes.
  • Ishvarapranidhana: Connection to the divine; this Niyama is about surrendering the fruits of your practice to a higher power, whatever that means to you.
  1. Asana

Asanas are physical yoga postures; this is likely the part of the Ashtanga practice that you are most familiar with. Through the physical practice, we bring our body and mind into balance in order to progress further through the eight limbs. 

  1. Pranayama

Pranayama is breathwork; there are many techniques and practices for working with the breath. The general idea of Pranayama is to gain control over the breath; when you can control your breath, you can manage your mind.

  1. Pratyahara

Pratyahara is a withdrawal of the senses. Yogis at this stage of the eight limbs let go of all external stimuli to focus internally.

  1. Dharana

Once you have withdrawn the attention to within the self, Dharana is “concentration” on a single thing – a sound, image, or thought – for extended periods of time.  The practice of focus in the previous three steps leads to Dharana.

  1. Dhyana

Dhyana is meditation: uninterrupted concentration. Instead of focusing on one thing as in the previous step, Dhyana is awareness without focus.

  1. Samadhi

Samadhi is defined as ecstasy, when the meditator gives up his or her sense of self and merges with the divine. Samadhi is traditionally considered to be the ultimate goal of a yoga practice, but of course, that depends on your own outlook and goals for yourself!

If you’re interested in learning more about each facet of the Ashtanga philosophy, stay tuned! We’ll be exploring each aspect in depth over the next few months. In the meantime, you can always ask one of our experienced Ashtanga teachers questions when you come to class