Yoga styles: Ashtanga yoga

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  • Ashtanga yoga is a more vigorous style of yoga.
  • Ashtanga yoga postures are set, and sequences are repeated.
  • One of the best-known sequences is the basic Sun Salutation.

Yoga is a discipline that originated in ancient India. It has a rich history, and has come a long way, but has been considerably Westernised in many countries.

While it was originally a way of life, many people use yoga mainly as a form of exercise, and over the years, numerous different styles of yoga have emerged.

Background

Ashtanga yoga is a more vigorous style of the discipline. According to Yogapedia, Ashtanga yoga was made popular by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

It is said that the style originated with Vamana Rishi, the author of The Yoga Korunta. T. Krishnamacharya studied The Yoga Korunta and passed his knowledge down to his student, Pattabhi Jois.

Pattabhi Jois taught according to the Yoga Sutras, which contained the framework, philosophy and wisdom of Ashtanga yoga.

Directly translated, Ashtanga means “eight limbs”, and in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines them as:

  • Yamas: This is the first limb, and it refers to its moral and restraining nature. It’s said to present a better opportunity for the practising student to live a more peaceful, healthier life.
  • Niyamas: This is the second limb outlined by Patanjali, and it is inner observance recommended by its teachings and philosophy. It details the application of the ethical codes of yoga to the student for the mind, body, and spirit, which helps create a positive internal environment.
  • Asanas: This is the third limb, and it is the term commonly used when speaking of yoga positions and postures. Directly translated from Sanskrit, asana is the seated posture, used for meditation, but it has become the common term referring to any physical Hatha posture, found in almost every style of yoga – from Ashtanga to Vinyasa, from Bikram to Iyengar. 
  • Pranayama: The fourth limb involves breathwork and practices. Prana is universal energy, which is an important aspect of yoga. Breathing practice is incorporated into most series of asana and precedes meditation.
  • Pratyahara: The fifth limb, generally translated from Sanskrit is “withdrawal of the senses”. This step is highly significant before embarking on the sixth and seventh limbs because of the importance of removing oneself from external influences.
  • Dharana: This limb refers to the mind’s concentration, and making an external object, like a god, or an internal object, like a chakra, the focal point. This practice of the sixth limb helps improve a student’s ability to maintain concentration, remain calm and increase mental strength.
  • Dhyana: Translated from Sanskrit, this means “meditation”. This is the seventh limb according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and like Dharana, this practice also requires an incredible amount of mental concentration. The limbs leading up to this seventh limb play integral roles in helping to strengthen the student’s Dhyana.
  • Samadhi: The eighth and final limb can be translated in a number of ways from Sanskrit to English. For some it is referred to as “together” or “completely”, and it could mean “liberation” or “enlightenment”. Samadhi is believed to be the pinnacle of activity; it could be referred to as being in a state of complete meditative absorption after taking the journey from the first limb to the eighth limb of the Sutras.

The practice

Ashtanga yoga postures are set, and sequences are repeated. While this sounds like it could become monotonous and boring, students should be reassured that there are numerous sequences to learn and master before one can move on.

One of the best-known sequences is the basic Sun Salutation, known as Surya Namaskar A. The basic Sun Salutation is a sequence of 12 poses, but there could be some variations, depending on the yogi:

1. Pranamasana (Prayer Pose)

2. Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)

3. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)

4. Ashwa Sanchalanasana (Equestrian Pose or Low Lunge)

5. Chaturanga Dandasana (Plank Pose)

6. Ashtanga Namaskara (Eight Limbed Salute)

7. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

8. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog Pose)

9. Ashwa Sanchalanasana (Equestrian Pose or Low Lunge)

10. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)

11. Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)

12. Pranamasana (Prayer Pose)

These are aimed at awakening the body and channelling energy from the sun – a symbol of consciousness. There are several other sequences practised in Ashtanga yoga, and they are generally learned and practised in a continuous flow, which could make this style of yoga more vigorous.

Benefits 

Ashtanga yoga tends to be more vigorous in its flow, and therefore provides a bit more cardiovascular exercise. The style doesn't only increase mobility and flexibility, but also improves strength and stamina.

Even though this style of yoga may be a little more brisk in its flow, it still enhances mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and strength.

READ | Lockdown got you feeling low? Yoga may help

READ | 8 Yoga poses for injury-free running

READ | The often-overlooked stretch that can relieve back pain 

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