As a dedicated yogi, I spend a lot of time thinking about all the different styles of yoga and what they could bring to my practice. I love checking out new teachers, classes and workshops and finding ways to look on yoga with a different perspective. I'm now lucky enough to call Dumfries and Galloway my home, while also working in Edinburgh part-time, so I've got the gift of two yoga communities to immerse myself into. The choice really is endless, with such an abundance of great teachers and classes on my doorstep!
Lots of choice, however, can be overwhelming and daunting when first starting out. Particularly to the new practitioner, it can be hard to know where to start. Many people shy away from dynamic styles of yoga as they can seem overly complex and advanced on the face of it. However they can be the most rewarding to practice if you can find the right teacher and be prepared to master the basics first.
Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic form of yoga, founded by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in India in the tradition of T. Krishnamcharya. The word Ashtanga means 'eight limbs' in Sanskrit, and its philosophy is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yoga's most ancient text written between 5,000 B.C. and 300 A.D. Ashtanga is structured carefully - it's six series of postures are cleverly designed with personal practice and progression in mind. For this reason it is perfect for the beginner yogi, or anyone with any experience of yoga looking to commit to a more regular practice.
Any form of yoga needs to be experienced to be understood. You just need to get on your mat and practice, and the Ashtanga system gives you the tools to do that. As Pattabhi Jois put it, yoga is "99% practice, 1% theory". However, I will try and outline some of the reasons for practising below, so you can then go and experience the joy of Ashtanga for yourself.
1. You know what to practice when you get on the mat.
This is a big one and very relevant to beginner yogis. Having a sequence already laid out for you means less hesitation and less reason not to practice. If you don’t know what you’re going to do when you get on your mat, this can be a huge reason not to practice at all. And then one or two days off and you’ve lost the drive to practice. Ashtanga Yoga is a prescribed sequence, learned posture by posture. You begin with the Primary Series, which can take years to learn, and then move on up the series as you progress.
Also by practising the same postures, you can keep track of your progress much more easily, noticing small changes as you improve day upon day.
2. There's a clear path of progression.
Pattabhi Jois designed his system with an intricate knowledge of the human body. As you move through the sequence, you learn each posture according to a clearly thought-out, logical progression to build strength and work through tightness and stuck energy in the body. The system is very compassionate to the human body and presents you with the right amount of challenge at each point.
3. It is energising and dynamic.
Ashtanga yoga really is the ultimate vinyasa sequence. Vinyasa means movement with breath, and a vinyasa class keeps you moving – breath to breath. Ashtanga is likened to a mala (prayer beads) – the thread is the breath, the beads are the postures. When breath is controlled correctly, the practice becomes a moving meditation where you can cultivate true presence. An hour usually flies by and you leave the class or session feeling alive and invigorated.
The breathing technique used in Ashtanga Yoga is known as Ujjayi breath. With Ujjayi, the throat muscles are used to inhale and exhale through the nostrils. This enables us to take fuller, deeper breaths, build heat in the body and energise the whole body by taking more oxygen into the cells.
4. It is steeped in tradition.
I love to sing and I was enchanted during my teacher training by the sutra chanting sessions in Sanskrit. The sounds are very natural and organic sounding and vibrate beautifully in the heart as you sing. I particularly love the opening chant at a led Ashtanga yoga class. It reminds me of the community of yogis practising yoga all around the world and makes me grateful for my own community.
The yoga sutras provide a blueprint for the practice of yoga and for life, and are just as relevant to the modern-day yogi as they were at the time they were written (and their wisdom is now needed more than ever!). Each sutra holds so much wisdom, they are worth taking the time to read and digesting slowly. Sutra 1.2 reads: Yogas citta vritti nirodah. Its translation: "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind."
5. It cultivates discipline.
There are certain rules to practising Ashtanga that I don't like when I'm feeling rebellious - but I'll be the first to admit they are there for a reason -to help you improve! When you don’t stick to them, you start to feel like something’s missing. Stick to them and you feel on top of the world – your practice is progressing, you feel lighter, stronger and more alive!
As a general rule, Ashtangis practice 6 days a week, taking Saturdays off. Each day you do a full practice as prescribed by your teacher, but if you’re tired, you can do a shorter practice. Ladies do not practice during their monthly cycle and Moon Days are also taken as holiday (that's new and full moon days!). Practice is generally taken in the morning but that’s not prescribed – it just feels better to practice then as it's a great way to start the day! As with any form of yoga, you practice on an empty stomach.
6. It's all about self-practice.
Although the sequence is the same for everyone, the way it is taught is traditionally in a 'Mysore-style' setting - where everyone turns up and does their own practice, rather than being led by a teacher. The teacher is present, however, with assistants to keep teaching you the sequence, and to give hands on adjustments and assists to help you stay safe and aligned and move deeper into each pose. You are taught as much of the practice as you need, to build the strength and flexibility required for the next part, which you learn only when you are ready.
My Mysore teacher, Sarah Hatcher at Meadowlark Yoga in Edinburgh, is an incredible teacher. She has a deep understanding of the body and can read when a student is ready to progress. She knows intricate details of everyone’s practice and what they need to be taught – and what they need to learn themselves - in order to become badass yogis. She is dedicated to a life of study of the practice, so I have absolute confidence in her as a teacher as I know she is constantly learning from her own teachers.
Ashtanga yoga for me bridged the gap between attending a weekly class, to having a daily practice that was about discipline, progress and growth. I never expected to become an advanced yogi but even though I am only at the beginning of my yoga journey, I know in 5, 10, 15 years time I’ll be able to do some pretty cool moves on the mat! Although I’ve diverted from Ashtanga and I love certain other styles (Forrest and Yin particularly), I’ve always come back to the Ashtanga system which gives me strength, stability and empowers me to keep on growing and working through challenges.
I would recommend Ashtanga yoga to anyone of any age or ability, and remember it's never too late to start or explore something new! Just one class can benefit, but you may just find that like me you catch the bug!