Notes on Practicing Ashtanga
Ashtanga Vinyasa is a system based upon Krishnamacharya’s teaching of Vinyasa Krama Yoga. Vinyasa Krama means a “carefully ordered sequence.” Krishnamacharya taught asanas, yoga positions, in groups with specific methods of entering and exiting them. During practice, each breath and movement is choreographed to maximum effect. Pattabhi Jois, one of Krishnamacharya’s senior students, was a Sanskrit scholar and accomplished Yoga practitioner. He taught Yoga for therapeutic benefit in Mysore. Over time, and especially as more and more westerners came to take practice, the sequences became more solidified. Today, there are six Ashtanga series, known as Primary (1st), Intermediate (2nd), and Advanced (3-6). Should you want to practice this style, mind the following guidelines:
Practice is taken 6 days per week, with days off for new and full moon. If you are very tired, try just a couple sun salutations, a few seated poses, or practice the sequence backwards. A little bit still counts. Try to practice with a gentle, inquisitive intellect in order to avoid rigidity. Discipline is a necessary part of practice, but as Richard Freeman says, “Discipline is necessary to the correct degree.” Viewing the practice as a dull, rigid, dead thing runs the risk of burn-out, stagnation, or zealotry. Remind yourself to approach each practice with new eyes and a new mind, for though the sequences of poses may be constant, your experience of the practice will be different and new each day, and your approach must recognize that.
Each pose is to be learned one by one, in order. Do not skip around or allow your personal preferences to dictate the practice. This allows the practice to do its work. That said, some poses are not appropriate for some practitioners. For example, someone who has had knee surgery can enjoy the full practice by doing lotus positions with crossed legs. It is best to have a teacher in order to have an expert opinion. If you do not have access to a teacher, practice in the most intelligent way you can; there are many alternatives suggested on this website. Many things maybe uncomfortable, unfamiliar, but if something is painful find a kinder way to practice it.
Ashtanga uses the Tristana method, the “three-pronged” approach. 1) Asana. 2) Pranayama (Breathing, Bandha) 3) Drishti (Gazing point). Employing this method allows the practitioner to develop focus and concentration, keeping the mind busy enough to help ward off stray thoughts and distractions.
Each pose is done for a minimum of 5 breaths. Some have a higher minimum number, mostly finishing poses. Any pose can be done for a longer period of time. I recommend spending extra time on poses that are especially challenging, or ones that feel particularly beneficial.
“As long as you can do a pose, you do.” -Pattabhi Jois
In a led class—a guided “count” of the vinyasa—each series takes roughly an hour. 90 minutes is enough to finish the series, backbending, finishing postures, and rest. If you always have a short window of time to practice, say, 45 minutes or so, you can still practice full primary series by practicing standing poses and the first half one day, then standing poses and the second half the next day.
It typically takes 1-3 years for a practitioner to become reasonably competent in the Primary Series. Its proper name is Yoga Chikitsa, or Yoga Therapy. This sequence is aimed at creating mobility in the hips (especially hamstrings) plus core and shoulder strength.
The second sequence is called Nadi Shodana, Energetic Cleansing. It introduces deeper twists, a long section of backbending, and deep flexion, including leg-behind-the-head poses.
I believe that everyone can and would benefit from learning primary series, plus the first half of second series. I have worked with a diverse group of people who are doing just that, from generally healthy 20-somethings to 36 year olds with hamstring injuries, to 50 year olds with 2 fused vertebrae and knee surgery, to 70 year olds with a previously sedentary lifestyle.
Pattabhi Jois said, “Any man can take practice except lazy man.”
I have seen amazing transformations through dedicated Ashtanga practice. If you have the motivation to practice, there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome. I think that full primary plus half intermediate represents the basic level of strength, mobility, coordination, and focus necessary for general health.
The second half of second series onward demands intense dedication. It is generally accessible to those who make Yoga practice a high priority in their lives. The advanced series are known collectively as Sthira Bhaga, or divine resolve. They are very demanding of every faculty.
If you practice more than one series, they are practiced on alternating days. When learning a new series, it is tacked onto the previous series until you have grown familiar with at least half of the sequence. For example, when learning second series, the first pose of second series, Pasasana, is done after Setu Bandhasana. The second series poses are added on one by one, until Karandavasana, at which point second series can be practiced by itself. Third series is tacked onto the end of second series until Hanumanasana. Fourth series is tacked onto the end of third until Mandalasana.