Ashtanga yoga was inspired by the "Patanjali Yoga Sutras," a revered and ancient Sanskrit text. The teacher most associated with Ashtanga in the Western world is K. Pattabhi Jois, whose method begins with a primary series and progresses to advanced poses suitable for experienced practitioners. Ashtanga is very physical yoga. The poses repeat vigorously, linked by breathing exercises, to create an aerobic yoga session.
Aims of Ashtanga
The primary series of asanas, or poses, follows the performance of the basic postures in an Ashtanga session. Primary poses are designed to purify the body, restore balance and heal disease or anything out of alignment. Performing the primary series introduces the Vinyasa practice of continuous connected poses, one after another with no break. The nonstop nature of the primary series challenges your endurance, concentration and flexibility as you progress from standing poses to seated stretches, twists, arm balances, hamstring stretches and hip openers to back bends. The primary series is the basis for the other five Ashtanga series.
Primary Series Poses
Primary poses strengthen your whole body with particular emphasis on your spine. The spine is consider the channel for spiritual energy, called kundalini, to flow upward in the body. Although Ashtanga can make you fit, it has its origins in a deeply spiritual practice with enlightenment as its goal. You begin by balancing in Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe pose which stretches hamstrings as it strengthens ankles and legs. Between poses you perform Sun Salutations and the emphasis is on flowing movement, not posture perfection. As you become more adept, your form improves. The primary series includes familiar asanas such as Chair pose, Warrior poses, Seated Forward Bends, Upward Plank, Boat pose, Bound Angle, Bridge and Upward Bow. You use continuous yoga breathing and an engaged core as you stretch and strengthen deltoids, pecs, quads, hamstrings, spine, abs, calves, shoulders, wrists and ankles. The series is a full-body, dynamic workout.
Performing the complete primary series can take at least 90 minutes. "Yoga Journal" offers a shorter version for home practice when you just can't squeeze a full Ashtanga class into your schedule. The preparation for primary series poses begins with yoga breathing practice followed by engaging the core and then doing just two or three Sun Salutations. Flow through Big Toe pose, Triangle, Side Angle, Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe pose, Seated Forward Bend, Marichi's Twist, Boat pose, Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend, Upward Bow and a modified Shoulder Stand. Don't perform Sun Salutations between the poses as you would in a full practice session. Do include an abbreviated closing sequence of Fish pose and meditation in Lotus or on a chair with five minutes or more of Corpse pose to relax.
A traditional Ashtanga session always closes with finishing poses, whether you are working in primary or a more advanced series. The finishing poses restore equilibrium by balancing some of the moves in the series that preceded them and slowing your metabolic rate to normal. You continue controlled yoga breathing as you shift into Shoulder Stand, Headstand, Lotus or another meditation seat and then a long rest in Savasana, or Corpse pose. The cool-down lets your muscles and nervous system integrate the rigorous practice and calms your mind. As your skills in the poses improve, the flow of the sequences becomes almost like a dance and your concentration turns the entire session into a powerful meditation -- the real purpose of an Ashtanga practice. Progress is internal and individual, not measured by the level you achieve. You may spend years just perfecting the primary series before your teacher signals that you are ready to move on.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .