What Is Ashtanga Yoga? A Beginner's Guide, Health Benefits & How To Practice
If you're ready to test your physical and mental strength while exploring yoga in a deeper form, you may want to consider a daily practice of Ashtanga yoga. Known as one of the more strenuous types of yoga, this ancient practice has been challenging yogis for decades.
To find out why Ashtanga yoga is such a popular practice, we asked a few seasoned instructors to share the ins and outs of Ashtanga yoga, including the many health benefits it offers. So, if you're ready to give this highly structured, physically demanding style of yoga a try, check out this Ashtanga Yoga 101 crash course, designed with beginners in mind.
What is Ashtanga yoga?
Developed by the late Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga is a vigorous style of yoga that incorporates set sequences or series of postures where the breath is linked with movement, according to Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist Diane Malaspina, Ph.D.
There are six levels of sequences or series in Ashtanga yoga, including the Primary Series, Secondary Series, and four levels of Advanced Series. A newcomer would typically begin with the Primary Series and progress once they've memorized and mastered the sequence.
The energetic nature of all of the series leads to a cleansing of the body through heat, which Malaspina says enhances circulation, improves joint pain, carries impurities away from the body, and builds strength. "As students progress through the series, strength and grace are cultivated, and breathing becomes more even, which purifies the nervous system," she says.
The Ashtanga system emphasizes the Eight Limbs of Yoga as outlined in the Yoga Sutras, which Malaspina says serves as practices for living a meaningful life. This system inspires followers to adopt a daily practice of yoga.
What are the health benefits?
Ashtanga yoga is known for its ability to help students develop a routine of self-discipline and, eventually, their own daily practice. Additionally, many people choose Ashtanga for its physically demanding series of poses as well as the numerous health benefits that come from practicing this method of yoga. Here are six health benefits worth noting:
1. Improves breathing technique.
In Ashtanga, the postures are strung together with a breathing technique called ujjayi breathing—a textured audible inhale and exhale through the nose, says registered yoga teacher, and MINDBODY holistic wellness expert Christa Quattrocchi. Since each pose is held for five full breaths, Ashtanga yoga allows you to develop a deep level of awareness over your breathing.
2. Establishes mental strength.
Ashtanga is challenging, both physically and mentally. With the physical challenge of deep stretches, core strengthening, and inverted postures, Quattrocchi says the practice pushes you beyond your boundaries and into a space of mental perseverance. "It constantly reminds you that you are capable of much more than you realize," she says.
3. Boosts psychological well-being.
Researchers have found that Ashtanga yoga can be used as an intervention to improve psychological well-being. According to a 2017 study published in Mindfulness, participants who took Ashtanga yoga classes two times a week for nine weeks reported significant improvements in both depression and anxiety symptoms.
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4. Calms the nervous system.
"Ashtanga is a moving meditation focused on breath and precision," says Quattrocchi. The rigorous sequence ends with savasana, or corpse pose, where your body can integrate all of the physical and mental feats. It's here, she says, that the body can easily transition into "rest and digest" mode as the mind is quiet, and the body is prepared for stillness.
5. May help with bone formation.
A 2015 randomized controlled study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that an eight-month practice of performing two sessions a week of Ashtanga-based yoga had a small positive effect on bone formation in middle-age, premenopausal women.
6. Reduces lower back pain.
The Ashtanga Primary Series includes postures that stretch and strengthen lower back muscles. And since the same poses are executed each time you step onto the mat, Quattrocchi says you will continue to flex (and strengthen) these muscles, which may help reduce low-back pain.
How to practice.
To practice this style of yoga, Quattrocchi says you will first follow the Primary Series, which is comprised of four parts: sun salutations, a standing sequence, a backhanding sequence, and a finishing sequence. The poses are always practiced in this order and held for five full breaths.
During a class, Malaspina says a teacher will lead you through the sequences and provide guidance on alignment and offer hands-on assistance. After you memorize the sequence, you can join a Mysore-style class where you practice in the same room with other students but without a teacher leading—although, they may be present to offer encouragement.
To unify body, mind, and spirit, Ashtanga yogis integrate all three components of the practice, including vinyasa, or movement linked with breath; bandhas, or energetic locks that direct the energy of the subtle body; and drishti, a one-pointed focus, which Malaspina says centers the mind.
The system is a highly structured style of yoga, and as you progress, the poses become more challenging. That's why Malaspina says it's important to let instructors know about any physical limitations and to listen to your body. "Ask for modifications if you feel pain in any pose, and consider taking classes that are teacher-led prior to taking Mysore classes," she says
Who is Ashtanga good for?
If you're looking to build strength and flexibility along with physical and mental endurance, consider trying Ashtanga yoga. However, since it is a very physically demanding sequence of poses, it may not be a great fit for yoga beginners.
That said, if you're eager to get started but you're new to Ashtanga yoga, Malaspina recommends beginning with the Primary Series. "This teacher-led class is a great place for new students since they often find the repetition helpful," she explains. Plus, once you learn the series, you can practice at your own pace, in your own space.
Additionally, Quattrocchi stresses the importance of being self-motivated and thriving on structure as characteristics that may determine a good fit for Ashtanga yoga. "It requires a great deal of discipline and physical strength, so if you're already active, this is a great way to introduce yoga into your routine," she says.
The bottom line.
Yes, Ashtanga yoga does fit better with more advanced yogis and those looking to strengthen their practice, but that doesn't mean newbies can't benefit from the self-discipline, structure, commitment, and strength that are the cornerstones of this style of yoga.
And while it's definitely not the easiest method of yoga to practice, with time, patience, and grace, you can learn to link your breath with movement and eventually fall in love with this transformative sequence.
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