The Ashtanga Method
‘Ashtanga Yoga’ means ‘eight limbed yoga.’ It is an ancient system that can lead to a deep connection with our spirit or Atma. The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga can be described as eight disciplines. They are yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhāra, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Of these, the third limb, asana (yoga postures), is the most important for us to practice, and through it we can understand the other limbs. Though in appearance, an external and physical discipline, through consistent effort we find many layers, more and more subtle, which need to be experienced directly and can lead to the experience of the last four limbs. Yama (restraints) and niyama (observances) should be observed at all times, otherwise yoga asana practice is reduced to a purely physical pursuit. Pranayama (breath control) is usually taught after mastering asanas, when the nervous system is strengthened and prepared for more rigorous practice. It should be understood however, that the deep even diaphragmatic breathing (Ujjayi Breath) taught as part of the asana practice is in essence pranayama and has a profound effect on our system at many levels. The last four limbs are pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (union). These final four are considered ‘internal limbs,’ meaning that they arise spontaneously as a result of practice of the first four and lead to experiential spiritual knowledge.
Through asana we can access higher levels of yoga and, over time, bring both the body and mind to a state of stability, a state of peace. With consistent practice of asanas, changes become apparent on many levels, physical, mental and spiritual. A deep sense of contentment and inner peace arises, and it is then that we can begin to more clearly understand the other seven limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.
The method of practice taught in Ashtanga Yoga relies on the linking of yoga postures through prescribed movements and incorporates deep, even breathing (Ujjayi Breath) and steady gazing with the eyes (Drishti). The ‘vinyasa,’ or movement between postures, encourages the blood to circulate properly in the body, while the deep breathing supplies a rich source of pure air, oxygenating the blood and allowing the removal of unwanted toxins through the lungs. Internal heat is produced from within, and is described as burning up the impurities in the body, the toxins liberated from the tissues by each posture. The sweat that results through practice also serves to remove toxins. Steady gazing in different places during each movement and posture, is an important element of the practice, and over time facilitates the state of meditation, having a profound effect on the steadiness and calmness of the mind.
1. Series Sequencing
There are six Ashtanga series: Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, Advanced B, Advanced C and Advanced D. These are also referred to as First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. Most practitioners advance through the Primary and Intermediate series. The series increase dramatically in difficulty after Intermediate.
Everyone begins with the Primary Series and it should involve a certain degree of mastery before moving onto the next series. The Primary Series is the foundation.
Each series begins with Sun Salutation A (Surya Namaskar) then Sun Salutation B . Consider these your warm up though they are complete within themselves. A standing sequence follows the sun salutations then the actual series begins. After the actual series, there is a backbend sequence followed by a finishing sequence which involves inversions, seated meditation and rest (savasana). Generally, students are taught a backbend sequence and finishing sequence before learning the whole of a series. And each student learns a “short finishing sequence” from their very first class. The Primary Series consists of a great many seated poses.
This links your breath with the transitions into and out of poses. Each pose is like a prayer. Moving into poses are typically on an exhale breath and moving out of a pose is typically on an inhale breath. There are exceptions. Poses are generally held for five to eight breaths.
This is the focal point for your eyes in each pose. Drishti supports balance and focus. Common focal points are the tip of the nose, the navel, the thumb or hand.
Bandha refers to energy locks in the body. The main ones are mula bandha or your root lock , uddiyana bandha or your lower abdominal lock and jalandhara bandha or your chin lock.
Ujjayi is a pranayama or a way of regulating your breath. Bandha and ujjayi work in tandem so that the body builds up heat from within and your prana or life force is contained during practice.
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The principles of Ashtanga are taught to each student on an individual basis starting with Sun Salutation or Surya Namaskar A and following through to each pose thereafter. This allows for each student to learn according to 1) their own breath rate, and 2) their specific and individual physical, emotional and mental edge. This style allows for the most individual attention within a group class setting.
Consistency. This style depends on practice consistency as you are expected to gradually remember the sequencing as it is taught to you. We all learn and remember at different rates and there is no requirements on how or when this takes place. Each students is taught slightly differently as a result of this natural fact.
Six Day a Week Practice. Traditionally, Ashtanga Mysore Method is a six day a week practice. A traditional week starts on a Sunday and ends on a Friday with Saturday for rest. Full and new moon days are observed which allows for an extra day of rest from practice on these days too. Any amount of practice is beneficial and traditional practice is recommended but not at all required to begin. Many students begin with 2-3 days a week.
Sequence Recall. One reason for teaching gradually is so that you can remember the sequencing with vinyasa as you are taught it. Your class time will grow as you learn and remember more of the sequencing. At the same time, your breath rate with change from shallow to deep so this also will effect the length of your class.
Classes are within a Window of Time. Mysore Style classes are taught within a window of time. A new student should allow for 30 – 45 minutes within the allotted window. Gradually, more time will be needed.
How is the teacher able to teach each individual student if there are so many students?
This is the beauty of Mysore Style. Most students in a given class are not new students and the teachers function is different for on-going students than for a new student. A new student has to be taught from the very beginning so they can build to remembering as much of the sequence as they are taught on any given day. As a result, the new student will capture the majority of the teachers attention at certain periods during the new student’s beginning classes. We all learned in this manner so there is an inherent generosity from on-going students towards any new student. This style derives from Mysore, India and contrasts significantly to the western style teaching classes.