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What is Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic, flowing style that connects the movement of the body with the breath. The method stresses the importance of daily practice of a set series of movements. There are six series of Ashtanga yoga sequences, which the student progresses through at their own pace.

History of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga, sometimes referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, is a style of yoga that was developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and T. Krishnamacharya in the 20th century. They claimed it originated from a system of Hatha yoga described in the ancient text, the “Yoga Korunta.”

Ashtanga yoga, sometimes referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is named after the term given in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for the eight-fold path of yoga, or asht-anga, meaning “eight-limbed” in Sanskrit.

Patanjali defined the eight limbs as

  1. yamas (abstinences)
  2. niyama (observances)
  3. asana (postures)
  4. pranayama (breathing)
  5. pratyahara (withdrawal)
  6. dharana (concentration)
  7. dhyana (meditation)
  8. samadhi (absorption)

It was Sri K. Pattabhi’s belief that the asana “limb” of yoga must be practiced before the others could be mastered. The practice was developed in Mysore, India where Sri K. Pattabhi Jois taught and set up the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute.

Sequences and series

An ashtanga vinyasa practice of asanas typically begins with five repetitions of surya namaskara A and B respectively, followed by a standing sequence. The practitioner then progresses through one of six series of postures, followed by a standard closing sequence.

The six series are:

  1.  The primary series: Yoga chikitsa, yoga for health or yoga therapy
  2.  The intermediate series: Nadishodhana, the nerve purifier (also called the “second series”)
  3.  The Advanced series: Sthira bhaga, centering of strength
    1. Advanced A, or third series
    2.  Advanced B, or fourth series
    3.  Advanced C, or fifth “Rishi” series
    4.  Advanced D, or sixth series the most advanced series

Principles of Ashtanga Yoga

There are several key principles that underlie the practice of Ashtanga yoga such as Tristhana, Vinyasa and Bhanda.

Tristhana means the three places of attention or action: posture (asana), breathing system (pranayama), and looking place (drishti). They are supposed to be performed in conjunction with each other and encompass the three levels of purification: the body, the nervous system, and the mind.

Posture – Asana

Each asana in ashtanga yoga is part of a set sequence, as described above. The stated purpose of the asanas is to increase the strength and flexibility of the body.

Breath – Pranayama

Breathing is ideally even and steady, in terms of the length of the inhalations and exhalations. It is recommended that postures are held for five to eight breaths or more, if possible.
Ujjayi pranayama: This specific breathing technique is used throughout the practice. The victorious breath is a slow audible breathing technique used to warm, energize and increase focus and concentration. Additional pranayama techniques are only taught to advanced students.

Gazes – Drishti

Drishti is the point where one focuses the eyes while practicing asana. In the ashtanga yoga method, there is a prescribed point of focus for every asana. There are nine dristhis: the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, thumb, hands, feet, up, right side, and left side.


Vinyasas are flowing sequences of movements that connect each asana to the next. In modern vinyasa, the core of the practice is synchronizing the breath to the sequence of postures and transitions in the series.


The engagement of the bandhas, or body locks, is encouraged throughout the class to seal in the prana energy and create core stability. There are three principal bandhas which are considered internal body locks:

  1. Mula bandha or root lock at the pelvic floor (drawing in the perineum)
  2. Uddiyana bandha, drawing back the abdomen approximately two inches below the navel
  3. Jalandhara bandha, throat lock (achieved by lowering the chin slightly while raising the sternum).

Difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa

The technique of vinyasa, linking each posture to breath in a fluid movement, derives from Ashtanga. So there are similarities in that both styles build heat and strength in the body. The main difference is that there is freedom in a vinyasa class, whereas Ashtanga is a set sequence.

Difference between Ashtanga and Hatha Yoga

Similarly, the main difference is that there is no set sequence of postures in Hatha yoga. Hatha is much more passive and static than an Ashtanga class. In Hatha yoga there is not always a need to flow from each pose as the focus is more on the benefit of that particular posture and getting deeper into it.

Difference between Ashtanga and Iyengar

In Iyengar the intention is to perform each posture with correct alignment. You may hold an asana for a longer period to ensure you are performing it accurately. There is a lot of work with props in Iyengar to aid the alignment of postures and to enable you to get the most out of each pose.

Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga

The benefits of Ashtanga Yoga include:

  • Greater flexibility and range of motion
  • Reduced back pain
  • Improved core strength and endurance
  • Improved upper body strength
  • Weight loss and reduced body fat
  • Increased muscle tone
  • Stress relief and a calmer mind
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression

Opening and closing chants

Ashtanga practice is traditionally started with the following Sanskrit invocation to Patanjali:



vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde
niḥśreyase jāṅ̇galikāyamāne

ābāhu puruṣākāraṁ
sahasra-śirasaṁ śvetam
praṇamāmi patañjalim

I bow to the lotus feet of the gurus,
The awakening happiness of one’s own-self revealed,
Beyond better, acting like the jungle physician,
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara.

Taking the form of a man to the shoulders,
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword,
One thousand heads white,
To Patanjali, I salute.

and closes with the “mangala mantra” (Lokaksema):



svasti prajābhyaḥ paripālayantāṁ nyāyena mārgeṇa mahīṁ mahīśāḥ
go-brāhmaṇebhyaḥ śubham astu nityaṁ lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino bhavantu

May all be well with mankind,
May the leaders of the Earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path.
May there be goodness for those who know the Earth to be sacred.
May all the worlds be happy.

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