Ashtanga yoga seeks to create a union of body, mind and spirit. This style of yoga was introduced to the West through the work of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009) of the city of Mysore, India. The word “ashtanga” means eight limbs, and refers to the eight areas that make up yoga. All eight limbs carry equal weight, although asana, the physical practice of the postures, is for all practical purposes the best place for any student to begin. The others are yama (moral codes), niyama (self-purification and study), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense control), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (total peace). In practice we work with body, gaze and breath to purify the body, seeking to eliminate the poisons of desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth(….) The physical practice is vigorous and energetic: You’re bound to work up a sweat and improve your fitness. While the health and fitness benefits are what attract many people to yoga in the first place, they are a happy by-product. The real goal is to create balance, allowing us to live in peace and harmony with others and the rest of creation.
The word “vinyasa” is synonymous with ashtanga yoga, and the vinyasa method is one of the things that makes Ashtanga different to other styles. In many of the other styles, like Hatha, you will perform a series of static poses one after the other, but in Ashtanga, the asanas flow from one into the next as the student aligns movement with breath. The type of deep, calm breathing used here is called ujjayi, and you’ll notice how it quiets the mind while filling the room with a beautiful, soothing whisper, a sound much like the ocean.
The traditional approach, as taught by Pattabi Jois, is to practice six days a week and rest on the seventh. Many beginners are daunted by this challenge, and it is wise to start slowly with two or three days a week , building up gradually as you become stronger. The secret to making the mind shift to the six-day week is to view your yoga practice as a devotional one, rather than something you do to keep fit. As Miami-based yoga teacher Kino McGregor explains in her book The Power of Ashtanga Yoga (Shambhala Press, 2013), “If you accept yoga as a lifelong commitment to inner peace, it behooves you to practise as often as you can. If you only practise when it’s convenient or when you feel good, then yoga is more of a hobby that you take up and put down at will.” As she points out, practising six days a week means you see results faster: improved strength, stamina and flexibility. “In fact, those who choose to attend yoga class once a week are actually setting themselves up for a weekly struggle in which they must always face the same weaknesses and other issues; they have no chance of realising improvement through sustained practice.”