Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a traditional form of yoga that was created by Pattabhi Jois. This form of yoga mainly focuses on a combination of vigorous exercises and controlled breathing (Jarry, Chang and La Civita 1269). An important part of Ashtanga Vinyasa is to create fluid transitions or movements in between the different postures (Rodrigues 385). The ultimate end goal of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is to create a yoga mala, which means that all of the components of the practice are connected like a garland. The movements are the string and the poses are the beads (Maehle 2006:9). Pattabhi Jois’ idea of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is proposed to stem from an ancient system outlined by Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta, a now unlocatable book, which Pattabhi Jois was given by his guru Krishnamacharya (Smith 26). According to one of Pattabhi Jois’ students, Eddie Stern, all of Pattabhi’s teachings regarding Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are taken from the Yoga Korunta (Smith 26). Pattabhi Jois also says that he never saw the book but only received oral teachings from his guru (Smith 26). Jois took his ideas and the method of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and created a book called Yoga Mala. He believed that when practicing yoga postures, it is more important that an individual masters a few postures at a time rather than trying to work on many at a time. This was also his belief when he was teaching Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (Donahaye and Stern 5). Jois taught yoga at the Sanskrit College as well as eventually opening his own small studio where he taught around 50 students. He was very respected by his students. (Donahaye and Stern 5). When teaching, Pattabhi mainly focused on the aspect of healing (Donahaye and Stern 7). During the time that Jois was teaching, there was very little modern medicine; it was believed that yoga was the best thing you were able to do for your health. (Donahaye and Stern 6). Due to this, most of Pattabhi Jois’ students were sick, and he helped individuals that all had different issues become healthier through the use of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Other than healing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is used to increase body heat, to change an individual’s energy pattern, release impurities, develop internal awareness, mindfulness, the ability to concentrate as well as increase sensitivity to internal sensations and messages (Frey and Cataldo 1007).
There are eight limbs of yoga that are essential components when practicing yoga. These eight limbs were listed by Patanjali and include yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi (Rodrigues 149). Yama is the ethical behaviour you should have towards others and Niyama is the rules you have toward the self. Asana are the poses that are practiced, and Pranayama is the breathing exercises that coordinate with the poses. Pratyahara is the ability to control sensory input. Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are different levels of meditative practice (Jarry, Chang and La Civita 1269). Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga involves components of these eight limbs of yoga. When practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa, the eight limbs of yoga are practiced simultaneously rather than practicing each limb separately (Maehle 2006:15).
The fundamentals required to successfully practice Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga include breath, bandhas, drsti, and vinyasa. The fundamental of breath is what allows for the postures to bind together. This is done with three fundamental techniques that are necessary for the postures to bind together in order to achieve the fluid transitions that are needed to create the desired yoga mala (Maehle 2006:9-14). These three techniques are essential types of breathing and controlling breath. The three techniques are Ujjayi Pranayama, Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha. Ujjayi Pranayama means “victorious breath” which is the stretching of breath, it is meant to develop an inner heat or tapas (Smith 27). Mula Bandha is what allows for the pulsating movement in the ribcage that is required, and Uddiyana Bandha is the light contracting of the transverse abdominal muscles (Maehle 2006:9-14). These three techniques, known as the invisible content, are more important than the posture or the visible content (Maehle 2006:9). Bandhas, such as the Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha, are fundamental to Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga because they allow an individual to gain control of their body as well as lock their energy. One of the main bandhas that are used in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the Mula Bandha, this bandha is used to create an upward flow that allows for growth (Maehle 2006:12). Mula Bandha is held throughout the entire practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa. Another primary bandha that is involved is the Uddiyana Bandha. The point of Uddiyana Bandha is to allow free movement of the diaphragm. Another important fundamental of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is drsti. Drsti is an individual’s gaze to a certain focal point (Maehle 2006:14). A few of the focal points used in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are toward the nose, toward the center of the forehead, or the third eye, toward the naval, toward the hand, toward the toes, toward the side, toward the thumb and upward (Maehle 2006:14). The use of drsti allows for the individual to avoid looking around. Keeping concentrated on one focal point allows for the practice of yoga to become internal and meditative (Maehle 2006:14). The idea of vinyasa is important when practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga because some types of yoga can require a lot of time and dedication. Vinyasa Yoga is a type of yoga that was designed for householders, it allows for individuals with social duties to be able to practice yoga without turning their backs on their responsibilities (Maehle 2006:15). Vinyasa Yoga has poses arranged in sequences that allow them to be combined with the eight limbs of yoga. This allows for the practice of yoga to be condensed into a shorter amount of time. Vinyasa Yoga contains movements or vinyasas that occur in between the different postures. The vinyasas link the poses together in order to create a yoga mala. Due to this, Vinyasa Yoga is known as movement meditation. Incorporating vinyasa with the postures allow strength and flexibility to be built simultaneously (Maehle 2006:16).
When practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, the postures and the order in which they are performed are very important, due to the fact that this type of yoga is meant to be very structured (Frey and Cataldo 1008). The postures, or asanas, that are involved in yoga are meant to bring individuals to a state of freedom in which they are able to realize their divine potential (Maehle 2009:xvii). Asanas also promote flexibility, improve breathing and well-being as well as to help individuals to remain in a meditative state for a lengthy period of time (Frey and Cataldo 1008). The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has a series of asanas that are tied together by series of movements or vinyasas to create a yoga mala (Smith 27). The postures and movements are coordinated with Ujjayi Pranayama, which is used throughout the entire practice (Smith 27). The combined practice of asana, vinyasa, drsti, ujjayi pranayama and bandha allow the individual to move towards the ability to control the fluctuations of the mind (Smith 27). The control of the mind is seen to allow an individual to realize their true nature of the self, which is the intended goal of yoga (Smith 27).
The practice begins with an opening sequence, which consists of Surya Namaskara and standing poses (Frey and Cataldo 1008). Surya Namaskara is a series of sun salutations that act as an opening. This series is meant to create the inner fire of purification, or agni. When agni is obtained, the postures and breath come together to cleanse the body and the mind. Agni allows for yoga to become transformative (MacGregor 2013, np). The next part of the opening sequence is the standing poses. The goal of the standing poses of Ashtanga Vinyasa is to build a strong structural foundation and create good alignment for the rest of the practice (MacGregor 2013, np). After the opening sequence is complete, the next step in practice can include seated poses, arm balances, leg-behind-head postures and backbend poses (Maehle 2009:xix). The postures that are included depends on which series you are doing. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga consists of six different series that increase in difficulty (Jarry, Chang and La Civita 1270). The six series are the primary series, the intermediate series and the advanced series. The advanced series contains four different series, advanced A, advanced B, advanced C and advanced D. All of the series contain the same core principles. The practice concludes with the finishing sequence. In between all of the stages of practice, there are connective sections which allow for the postures to flow smoothly. When all postures are smoothly bonded together, a yoga mala is achieved (Maehle 2006:9). The overall goal of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is to create a yoga mala, and when achieved it can have numerous benefits.
The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa
Yoga is understood to have many benefits, both psychological and physical.
While teaching, Pattabhi Jois focused on the aspect of healing and that was how
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga began. It was understood that practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa
Yoga with Jois would help you become healthier (Donahaye and Stern 6). Most of
the students that Pattabhi Jois had were sick, and that was the reason they
began to study yoga. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is known for creating an inner heat
within the body which is capable of clearing the body and mind of unwanted
toxins. This allows the body to be cleansed as well as the mind to be cleansed
from unwanted thoughts. Benefits of practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga also
include increasing flexibility and strength (Maehle 2006:16). It also has the
benefit of increasing an individual’s ability to concentrate and the ability to
control sensory input through the practice of pratyahara (Jarry, Chang and La
Civita 1269). Newer studies of the benefits of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga show that
there are also benefits towards mental health, such as reducing symptoms of
depression and anxiety (Jarry, Chang and La Civita 1269). A possible
explanation for this could be that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga involves physical
exercise, which is known to reduce and prevent the symptoms of depression and
anxiety (Kandola et al. 525). Another reason could be that Ashtanga Vinyasa
Yoga involves meditation which is a popular treatment used for depression and
anxiety (Sorbero et al. 1). Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga also involves controlled
breathing, which inhibits the sympathetic nervous system and activates the
parasympathetic nervous system (Jarry, Chang and La Civita 1270). Activation of
the parasympathetic nervous system creates a calming reaction, supressing the
feelings of depression and anxiety (Jarry, Chang and La Civita 1270). Ashtanga
Vinyasa Yoga has many benefits that can be achieved when practice occurs, this
is due to the fact that all the different components of Ashtanga Vinyasa are
very beneficial in many aspects of life.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Donahaye, Guy and Stern, Edwin (2010) Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students. New York: North Point Press.
Frey, Rebecca J., Cataldo, Laura Jean (2017) “Vinyasa Yoga.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Fitness, 2:1007-1010. Accessed February 20, 2020.
Jarry, J. L., Chang, F. M. & La Civita, L. (2017) “Ashtanga Yoga for Psychological Well-being: Initial Effectiveness Study.” Mindfulness, 8:1269-1279. Accessed January 29, 2020. doi: 10.1007/s12671-017-0703-4
Kandola, A., Ashdown-Franks, G., Hendrikse, J., Sabiston, C. M., Stubbs, B. (2019) “Physical activity and depression: Towards understanding the antidepressant mechanisms of physical activity.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 525-539. Accessed March 19, 2020. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.09.040
MacGregor, Kino (2013) The Power of Ashtanga Yoga: Developing a Practice That Will Bring You Strength, Flexibility & Inner Peace. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. (No pagination available)
Maehle, Gregor (2006) Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy. California: New World Library.
Maehle, Gregor (2009) Ashtanga Yoga: Mythology, Anatomy and Practice. California: New World Library.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Smith, B. R. (2007) “Body, Mind and Spirit? Towards an Analysis of the Practice of Yoga.” Body & Society, 13:25-46. Accessed January 28, 2020. doi:10.1086/599247
Sorbero, M., Ahluwalia, S., Reynolds, K., Lovejoy, S., Farris, C., Sloan, J., Miles, J., Vaughan, C., Kandrack, R., Apaydin, E., Colaiaco, P., Herman, P. (2015) Meditation for Depression: A Systematic Review of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Major Depressive Disorder. California: RAND Corporation
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Rama Mohan Brahmachari
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Article written by: Caitlin Beler (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content