Ashtanga yoga is a type of yoga which was popularized by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. It involves joining heat-producing poses together while controlling the breath.
This produces a cleansing sweat, which is said to improve circulation and inspire inner calmness. The breathing is a key part of Ashtanga yoga, even more so than in other styles of yoga practice.
Not necessarily for the yoga novice, these poses are designed to be challenging and take classic flows like the sun salutation to a more advanced level.
Ashtanga gets its name from the Sanskrit words ashta (eight) and anga (limb), but don’t worry, you don’t need to grow four more limbs to participate. It refers to eight phases of mastering a good and worthy life, with which the discipline of yoga can assist.
How To Do Ashtanga Yoga Flows
- Sun Salutation – Yes, Ashtanga yoga starts with sun salutations just like any other type. Moving through the poses, there are guidelines as to how many breaths each pose should be held and whether you should move from one pose to another on an inhale or an exhalation. Often called the dance of the body and breath, controlled breathing and concentration are an integral part of Ashtanga Asanas.
For a basic Sun Salutation, begin standing. Reach your arms up above your head and touch your fingertips. Then on an exhale, bend from the waist and place your hands flat on the mat close to your feet.
After a few breaths, look forwards and extend your back straight. Moving your hands to the top of your mat, adopt a plank pose before lowering on an exhalation for a chaturanga. Flow into upward facing dog, then on an exhalation push your hips back into downward facing dog.
Stay here for five breaths, then jump or step towards your hands. Move through your flat back pose, to a forward bend. Finally, exhale as you reach your arms up tall over your head and end in mountain pose.
- Seated Asana – For those of you who don’t love standing flows, you’ll be pleased to know that Ashtanga Yoga also has a seated flow. Starting in staff pose, move through an intense seated forward fold with flexed foot. The next pose is an upward plank pose, which is exactly as it sounds. Your spine should form a straight line with your chest towards the sky and your feet pointed on the mat.
Your hands are planted underneath your shoulder blades with straight arms, and your head can relax back to avoid neck tension. Next is head to knee pose, which is a seated forward bend over one straight leg at a time.
The other leg can bend and the flat of your foot can rest on your straight thigh. If you’re not familiar with the Marichyasana poses (seated twists) then you might want to watch a video for directions as they can be complicated to explain. And finally, boat pose ends the seated flow.
Challenging Ashtanga Poses
Ashtanga flows get increasingly complicated as you progress, so here are a couple more single poses to try.
- Upward Bow Pose: lying flat on your back, reach behind you and place your palms flat by your ears. Bend your knees, so your feet are flat to the mat. Then push through your palms and feet, so your hips lift off the floor. Create a rounded arch with your spine and feel the stretch through your stomach.
- Shoulder Stand Pose: Lay flat on your back and on an inhale lift your legs up as you press your palms into the floor. Sweep your legs up until they are directly over your head and use the momentum of the movement to lift your hips off the floor. Then you can move your hands to support your lower back.
- Lotus pose: This is the classic pose you might associate with yoga. If you’ve tried it, you will know that it takes considerable flexibility and lengthening of the muscles to pull off. Start in a cross-legged seated position, then move one ankle at a time off the mat and rest it on the opposite thigh. It may be more comfortable with one ankle on top than the other, that is because the human body is rarely symmetrical with flexibility. Finish with your palms facing upwards and resting on your knees, sit up tall and lengthen your spine.
Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga Poses
Moving your body with your breath and maintaining a focus and control over both body and breath is what Ashtanga yoga is all about. But why is it good for you? Well, Ashtanga is designed to reset the body from the pressures and strains our bodies go through. It encourages healthy blood flow to targeted muscles and helps the circulation to flush out toxins.
Internally, it aids the digestive system, helping to support your liver, kidneys and gallbladder and encourage natural detoxification of the inner organs. The poses and flows help you to bring balance to your nervous system and to increase flexibility in muscles and joints.
It is also particularly good for calming the mind. Forcing your breathing to slow and obey you, can help control your heart rate and blood pressure. But, these are physical reactions to you making a conscious decision to calm and focus your mind. If you can control your mind and your breathing, then a mindfulness of your behaviors and actions off the mat will follow.
That is what Ashtanga yoga is all about; if you can control your actions, then you can control your body and breathing and vice versa. It is a yoga which encourages mindful and conscious thinking in our lives and choices, not just our exercise habits.
We mentioned that Ashtanga is translated to mean the eight limbs. Well, the first two limbs specify a set of values and habits which are the foundation of a healthy mind as well as a healthy body.
There is no mention of any yoga poses or flows until the third limb. The idea being that you must master each limb one at a time, and you cannot move onto the next one until you have a control over the first. Think of it like a pyramid of wellness. It’s worth looking into because the eighth limb is a state of ecstasy, and who wouldn’t like to get to that?