* What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga Yoga literally means eight (ashto) limbs (anga) as originally codified by the ancient sage Patanajli over 2,500 years ago in the classic text, The Yoga Sutras. It is here that he outlined the eight limbs of yogic practice. Yama (moral principles), Niyama (spiritual attitudes), Asana (postures), Pranayama (breathing techniques), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (self realization). This eight-limbed path, when practiced with devotion and dedication, eventually leads one to the realization of truth through the gentle unfolding of our greater Self.
Ashtanga Yoga, as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore India, combines sound breathing (deep, slightly audible nostril breathing), bandhas (internal energy locks) and drishti (specific eye gaze points) in specific sequences of asanas linked by vinyasa (coordinating breath with movement). This unique combination creates the foundation from which the benefits of this yoga system may be experienced. With continual practice one attains strength, flexibility and grace of both body and mind. This internal purification allows the practitioner to experience a meditative quality which leads to a deeper understanding of the Self.
There are six sequences of asanas in the Ashtanga Yoga system. Primary series, which is known as Yoga Chikitsa (yoga therapy), detoxifies and realigns the body; Second series, which is referred to as Nadi Shodana (nerve cleansing), acts to further purify the nerve and spinal energies; and the advanced A,B,C and D (or 3rd through 6th) series, which are known as Sthira Bhaga (divine grace), continue to refine and clear the internal body while requiring greater levels of humility and concentration to undertake.
* What is meant by Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally taught in what is called ‘Mysore style’, named after the city of Mysore, India where Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (affectionately known as Guruji to his students) has been teaching this practice for over 70 years. A Mysore style class differs from most yoga classes in that the students all appear to be doing their own thing and the only sound in the room is deep breathing. In fact, everybody is following the particular asana series that they are working on, most likely primary or second series, in the same precise order of asanas but to their own individual breath rhythm. Basically it is a self practice done in a group setting. The teacher, or teachers, are walking around the room helping everyone on a one-to-one basis, adjusting or assisting the asanas and generally helping the students to do, and understand, the practice in a way that is most beneficial to each student’s body and circumstances.
* So how do you actually learn the sequences?
Well, beginners are welcome and even strongly encouraged to come to Mysore style classes. Sometimes students who are new to this method feel intimidated. Since everyone appears to be doing this practice individually, new students sometimes feel like they can’t just jump in without knowing more. But there is only one way to know more – just jump in!
On your first day, you’ll be shown the Ashtanga breathing technique – a deep, slow, slightly audible nostril breath. After getting the basics of this breath, which will take a few minutes, we’ll show you the very beginning of the series, the Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salute A), then possibly Surya Namaskar B (Sun Salute B). These sun salutes consist of various flowing movements linked to the inhale and exhale of the breathing technique you learned earlier. After getting familiar with the sun salutes your practice will end with what we call the ‘Closing Sequence’ and then some time lying down taking rest. So day one is pretty short, maybe only 30 minutes. The next day, you’ll come in already familiar with the sun salutes. You’ll go through these on your own (with one of us helping you if you forget) and then we’ll add the first two standing postures of the series and once again you will finish your practice with the closing sequence and rest. With every day of practice we slowly start to add one or two postures of the primary series. If a posture is very difficult for you at that moment it is a wise indication that maybe your body needs to stop there for awhile until things acclimatize rather than just pushing through for more and more postures. The process is slow for a few reasons. One, the idea is to memorize the postures and the sequence, so taking just a couple of new postures a day makes this easier. Secondly, it allows your body to adapt slowly and healthily to this new experience, developing strength, stamina, flexibility and understanding with each day. Thirdly, there is no hurry! Yoga is a slow and steady journey, meant to be enjoyed and taken in with ever-growing self acceptance and wisdom. Rushing this process usually results in unnecessary pain and frustration. So, depending on the student – their particular body, age, life circumstances, etc. – you would need about one to three months of consistent practice to learn most, if not all, of the Ashtanga primary series. In this way your practice time will grow a little bit longer every day. Doing the full primary series including rest at the end takes about 1.5 hours.
You can easily see that with this method of yoga it is encouraged that new students sign up for a minimum of one month to give the experience a fair trial. Guruji has been saying the simple line (in various wordings), “practice, practice, slowly, slowly…and all is coming”, for a very long time and for a very good reason! The beauty of this method is that once you learn the series, it is yours forever. You can take this practice with you wherever you go. Being in a group setting with a teacher has its benefits – the support and experience of the teacher, the community of fellow practitioners, etc. But in Ashtanga the real teacher is the practice itself and once you learn it, it is a
lifetime gift and a self practice that will continually offer you a rare experience to witness your Self.
*What is meant by ‘Led Primary’ class?
Once a week we teach what is called a ‘led’ class. In this class the teacher will verbally lead the entire group through the primary series. If you are not yet doing the entire primary series you will stop at your usual last asana (pose) and then either wait for those going through the entire series and re-join to do backbending and the closing sequence or continue on your own into the closing sequence depending on what the teacher suggests is most appropriate for your practice. A led class is beneficial in helping students to learn the correct vinyasa and breathing system since the teacher is specifically calling out every vinyasa in traditional sanskrit.
*What do I need to bring?
You will need to wear comfortable clothing that won’t restrict movement. Please bring a small towel and a yoga mat (you can borrow one from us for your first few classes).
*Anything else I should know about class?
Yes, please don’t eat for at least 2 hrs before class as having an empty stomach is important. You should not drink any water during class. It is best to wait about 1/2 hour after class to eat, drink. or bathe. In Ashtanga, it is preferable to empty your bowels before coming to class. So waking up right before you leave home makes that pretty difficult. Give yourself time to relax and drink something warm and your body will get in the habit of going to the toilet in the morning. Please come to class with a clean body, clean clothes and a clean yoga mat.
*What about practice for women during their period or pregnant women?
In Ashtanga yoga women do not practice during the first 3 days of their period or even longer if your period is heavy. The Ashtanga practice engages deep internal locks called bandhas and this action strongly creates and upward energy within the body. During your period, women want to create a space for softening and a downward energy to release the blood. It is an important time to take things a bit easy, rest and be aware of your natural rhythms. Pregnant women are advised by Guruji not to practice Ashtanga during their first trimester and also for the first 3 months after giving birth. If you are pregnant or postpartum, please come in and talk to us and we can help you do the Ashtanga practice in a way that supports you and your baby.
For more information, a beautiful book that I am honored to have been a part of, written and compiled by Sharmila Desai and Anna Wise focuses purely on Ashtanga yoga, menstruation, birth and motherhood. www.yogasadhanaformothers.com
Another wonderful resource is the book Strength and Grace. A collection of essays by women of Ashtanga Yoga. My contribution, “Acceptance and Surrender”, can be read here as a PDF file: Acceptance and Surrender by Pamela Luther
* Why don’t we practice on full moon, new moon or Saturdays?
We don’t practice on full moon or new moon days in the Ashtanga tradition because these are days to rest from asana practice and observe how mother nature has both obvious and subtle effects on all living things. Humans are about 70% water and therefore the gravitational forces exerted on us by the relation of the Earth, Sun and Moon create shifts in our energy. Full moon and new moon represent the peaks of such shifts with the full moon building a strong and not so grounded energy while the new moon fosters a very grounded but heavy energy within us. Saturdays we take a rest day from our asana practice as it is important to give the body one day off per week.
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