Ashtanga - for those seeking a more dynamic style of yoga!

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Ashtanga Yoga Basics

Ashtanga Yoga is a style of yoga developed by Sri K Pattabhi Jois in India. It is a dynamic form of yoga that involves synchronizing the breath with a series of postures to produce an intense inner heat that detoxifies the bodys muscles and organs.  The regular practice of Ashtanga yoga builds strength, flexibility and inner focus. Basic elements of Ashtanga Yoga, as described in John Scott's book 'Ashtanga Yoga' that is recommended reading for all students, are included in the following text.


The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga  

In a direct translation from the ancient Sanskrit word ashtanga, ashto means "eight", while anga means "limb".  The renowned Indian sage Pantanjali, writing more than two thousand years ago, assigns eight limbs to the tree of yoga - each limb being a stage or step along the path to self-realization.  In the tradition stemming from this ancient text, each limb of yoga is given in a precise order through which practitioners must progress.  Starting from the bottom, these eight stages are: Yama (moral codes); Niyama (self-purification and study); Asana (posture); Pranayama (breath control); Pratyahara (sense control); Dharana (concentration); Dhyana (meditation); and finally Samadhi (contemplation, self-realization, or state of bliss).


Asana (posture)

From the word aas, meaning "to sit" or "to be", asana encompasses the meaning of a particular posture or mode of sitting.  "Seat" is the most literal translation of asana. Ashtanga Yoga organizes postures into three groups.  The primary series (Yoga Chikitsa) aligns and purifies the body. The intermediate series (Nadi Shodhana) purifies the nervous system.  The advanced A, B, C and D series (Sthira Bhaga) integrates strength with grace of movement.  Each series has been precisely arranged and each level must be fully developed before students progress to the next.

The primary series is, therefore, the beginning of Asana practice, and it is within this series that students are introduced to the principles of breath/movement synchronicity. This provides the roots and foundation that support the other seven limbs of yoga.

The asana poses have been carefully organized in a specific sequence to access every muscle in the body, and toning them, as well as the nerves, organs, glands, and energy channels.  But asana are not merely exercises; they are postures and transitions synchronized to the breath.  It is through tristana (the union of vinyasa), bandhas (the lock or seals that protect the body), and dristis (looking points) that practitioners journey inside, working deeply on the inner body, opening and clearing the nadis, the energy channels of the subtle body, allowing themselves to access and harness the internal life force known as prana.  Only when this pranic energy has been accessed can the yogi transcend the physical body.

By practising asana poses in the prescribed sequence, students gain the necessary stamina, strength, flexibility, and steadiness of mind to sit in Padmasana, the classic lotus position.  Once they can sit in this pose for long periods without discomfort, they can begin practising the fourth and seventh limbs (Pranayama and Dhyana), which take them to higher states of mind than is possible through non-yogic exercise.


Vinyasa is the unique movement/breathing system that distinguishes Ashtanga Yoga from the other forms of yoga practised today

The essence of the vinyasa elemment of Ashtanga Yoga is a synchronicity of breath and movement.  In vinyasa, the breathing technique called ujjayi or "Victorious Breath", initiates the movement, and then movement and breath flow as one.  The characteristic of ujjayi is the soft, sibilant sound made when breathing.  Inhalations and exhalations are through the nose; as if drinking the perfume of a rose, the air is taken to the back of the throat where by subtle contraction of the muscle around of the glottis, its flow is regulated.  The quantity and length of inhalations and exhalations are equal, and it is this equality that sets the rhythm and meditative aspects of Ashtanga Yoga.  When practising ujjayi, you discover the integral partnership between breath and bandha.  Meaning "lock" or "seal", each bandha harness and directs the pranic qualities of the Victorious Breath.  Bandha control requires a fine balance between hard and soft.  The correct application will free the breath, unleashing an uplifting effect that imparts internal strength and lightness to the body.

Breath and movement synchronicity

In a direct translation of the Sanskrit word vinyasa, vi means "to go", "to move", "to conceive", or "to start from" while nyasa means "placing", "planting", or "prostration".  Through their research into the origins of this forms of yoga, guru Shri Krisnamacharya and his then student, Shri K Pattabhi Jois, the current guru of Ashtanga Yoga, discovered to important factors.  First, all the asana, or "postures" are linked in an exact sequence, and second, there is a precise number of synchorinized breath/movement transitions into and out of each asana.

In his book Yoga Mala, Shri K Pattabhi Jois details how each asana starts with Samasthitih in which the practitioner stands ready to move with equal breath and then returns to Samasthitih, with an exact number of synchronized breath/movement transitions, or vinyasa, in between.

These principles are introduced right from the beginning with Surya Namaskara A in which there are nine counted breath-syncronized movements (vinyasas).  For simplicitys sake, the positions are named, but in fact we are counting the transitions from one position to the next in the sequence. Bear in mind that the counting is strictly sequential, so that, say, vinyasa 8 of one sequence may be different to vinyasa 8 of another.

These principles underly the practice of Ashtanga Yoga and are responsible for creating a system that is known for its graceful, flowing sequences of transitions and postures "woven on the thread of the breath".  And the three key components that turn these principles into the actuality of vinyasa are the ujjayi (Victorious Breath), the bandhas, and the dristis.  When all three come together, practitioners have reached tristana.  Having attained tristana practitioners of Ashtnaga Yoga can then begin to practise the sixth and seventh limbs of ashtanga concentration and meditation.



When learning the intricacies of the Victorious Breath, students often find it difficult to produce the correct sound characteristic of ujjayi.   To do this, air is drawn in and out through the nose, but the sound should not come from the nostrils.  If is does, you are in effect sniffing.  When you are moving to the rhythm of the breath, you muscles demand a constant supply of oxygen.  To meet this demand, air flow needs to increase but if you sniff, airflow is, in fact, restricted.  To prevent this, each breath is drawn in from the back of the throat so that the airflow can be increased and metered by the muscles around the glottis.  It is the friction of air through the glottis that produces the ujjayi sound.  This friction also warms the air before it enters the lungs.  To help correct any tendency to sniff, lightly stretch the skin either side of the nose to dilate your nostril so that the air is being drawn in at the back of your throat.  

The correct ujjayi sound is similar to the noise waves make as they surge up a pebbly beach.  To achieve this "free breathing" you must keep the glottis open at all times during the inhalation/exhalation cycle.  Closing your glottis is like holding your breath; if this happens, the energy flow stops and your muscles become starved of oxygen and pranic energy and therefore tighten up.  In this state, it could be said that "where there is no breath there is no life", and thus vinyasa and the asana become lifeless.  

The grunting noises practitioners sometimes make indicate that the glottis has been  locked closed - this usually occurs at the top of the inhalation or at the bottom of the exhalation  and so you need to refocus your attention on keeping the glottis open.  This control is the only way to achieve ujjayi.  You can practise ujjayi any time you like when walking, for example, climbing stairs, or even as a part of a relaxation routine.

You can think of the ujjayi technique as the inner stretching of your breath.   Once you have mastered this method of controlling the glottis, you next need to turn your attention to metering the length of each breath.  There is usually an imbalance between the duration of inhalations and that of exhalations and so the aim how is to achieve sama ("same"), the equalization of both the length and intensity of each inhalation and exhalation.  

In the beginning, exhalations are usually longer and easier to achieve.  So, the first "stretching of the breath" is to lengthen the inhalation in order to match that of the exhalation.  The second stretching of the breath comes when synchronizing breath/movement transitions, when the length of the transition sometimes requires a longer inhalation and/or exhalation.  The result of stretching the breath is the stretching of the body.


Bandha is the first paradox that we come across in Ashtanga Yoga.  Bandha means "lock" or "seal", but the result of applying a bandha is to unlock the latent lifeforce energy and then to move and direct this pranic current from its inner souce to enter the network of 72,000 nadi ("energy channels") of the subtle body.  The development of bandha control cultivates and increases prana, and it is from the integrations of ujjayi and bandha that an internal alchemy is achieved.  When this chemistry is working correctly, the asana is revealed from the inner body, and the outer body eventually reflects that which is created within.  

There are three bandhas controlling the sealing of prana:  mula bandha, uddiyana bandha and jalandhara bandha.  All three bandhas are integral components of the ujjayi breathing technique.

Mula bandha This bandha is the root lock or root foundation.  It is discovered at the end of the exhalation, when you are "on empty"

Mula bandha is responsible for the root energy necessary for a firm foundation, whether this foundation is the feet, hands, or bottom.  Mula bandha is also the safety lock protecting the body, sealing prana internally for the uddiyana bandha then to direct it upward through the nadis.

Mula bandha is difficult to master.  At first it is a gross, general action of squeezing the outer and inner sphincters of the anus.  From discovering this gross action, the application of mula bandha becomes lighter, increasingly sensitive more a subtle lifting of the perineum.  The location of the bandha can be experienced differently from men and women, but you can practise it anywhere and at anytime until you get the action just right.

Uddiyana bandha This is the most dynamic of all the bandhas and can be translated as "upward flying".   You will most easily discover the position of this bandha at the end of an exhalation on empty.  This empty can best be experienced in the Adho Mukka Svannasana (Downward-facing dog position) of Surya Namaskara A.  This position is held for the duration of five breaths. After six moving transitions to reach this point, you now hold your body stationary to regulate and equalize the rhythm of your breath. It is here that is best to cultivate the uddiyana and mula bandhas.

Because uddiyana bandha relates directly to the workings of the diaphragm, ribs, and intercostals muscle, it plays a crucially important role in the development of ujjayi breath.  During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes, moving up into the lungs to push the air out, and the internal intercostals muscles pull down the ribcage to complete the action  The result of this is to draw in the abdominal wall (the region from the navel down to the pubis), which supports and protects all the internal organs and the lower back.  If your lower abdominal wall is well toned, you can hold the lower abdomen in this position with minimal effort for the entire inhalation/exhalation cycle.

This abdominal control provides a platform, or foundation, for the next incoming breath.  As the diaphragm flexes in a downward direction, drawing ujjayi breath into the lungs, the external intercostals muscles lift the ribcage, expanding the thoracic region and allowing the lungs to inflate to their maximum capacity.  This is the physical action of uddiyana bandha, which, when perfected, is also a subtle control that results in a softness and stillness of the lower abdomen.

To feel the uddiyana bandha in action, it is useful to look at the vinyasa transition out of Padangusthasana (Standing Forward Bend).  This vinyasa is stationary and intended purely for the cultivation of uddiyana bandha and the protection of the lower back.  Place your hands on your lower abdomen to connect physically with the bandha.  Placing your hands on uddiyana bandha is a frequent action during the standing asanas - it not only reminds you of the function of the bandha, it also provides you with many chances to practise and develop this control. 

The paradox of bandhas is that the lock in fact unlocks the flowing pranic energy and directs it upward.  Uddiyana bandha combined with mula bandha are responsible for the lightness and strength evident in Ashtanga Yoga.  The jump through vinyasa demonstrates the rooting of mula bandha through hands and the flight of uddiyana bandha as the legs are floated through the space between the arms - all on a cushion of ujjayi breath.  

Uddiyana banda is a generally beneficial technique, one you can practise during the day.  It helps to support your lower digestive organs and to protect the lower back when bending or lifting.

Jalandhara bandha The next bandha, or lock, is jalandhara bandha.  This is the bandha and it occurs spontaneously in a subtle form in many asanas due to the dristi ("gaze point"), or head position.  Once again, Surya Namaskara A (the sixth position) best demonstrates this bandha, as the chin tucks in toward the notch between the collar bones in order to look at the correct dristi - the navel.  Primarily, it is a lock specific to Pranayama, or "breath control" - the fourth limb of Ashtanga.  This lock prevents pranic energy escaping and stops any build-up of pressure in the head when holding the breath.  It is best to practise jalandhara bandha only under the supervision of an advanced teacher.



Each asana in the Ashtanga Yoga system has a gaze point on which to focus.  There are nine dristis and each is intended to draw the outward-looking eyes inward.   They are, in the order of appearance:

Using the discipline imposed by the dristis, the mind becomes focused, taking students "inside".  This inner focus leads to the development of concentration (Dharana) and meditation (Dhyana) - the sixth and seventh limbs of Ashtanga.



The true essence of vinyasa is experienced when a state of tristana is achieved.  This is the union of the three main focuses of Ashtanga Yoga: advanced breath/movement synchronicity, bandhas, and dristis.  When this union blossoms, a powerful wave of fluidity and grace flows out from the practice, and the resulting chemistry unleashes the energies or the five elements:

Tristana is achieved through repetition.  It is repetition that brings about the familiarity necessary to make the transitions and postures subtle, natural, and graceful.  


The above contains extracts from John Scott's book "Ashtanga Yoga" .



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Last modified: May 31, 2020