Discover the powerful Ashtanga yoga practice, unleash your inner strength, and awaken the harmony between body and mind. Ashtanga might be your best practice if you’re looking for a full-body workout and a clear mind.
However, this style of yoga is not only an effective workout for the body but a holistic approach to life that also includes meditation, breath control, and ethical principles.
Find out what health benefits Ashtanga yoga brings and how you can unleash them with the asanas of the primary series.
Table of Contents:
- What Is Ashtanga Yoga?
- What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?
- What Are the Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga?
- How to Start Ashtanga Yoga
What Is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga yoga is also often called power yoga and is based on eight moral principles and a series of yoga poses.
Since the late 1990s, this style has been one of the most popular forms of yoga in the Western world. The focus is on a powerful physical practice in which the postures are performed in the same sequence each time and are combined with deep breathing.
The practice requires high discipline, physical strength, flexibility, and stamina, so many people consider Ashtanga a rigorous and demanding workout. It is meant to keep the mind and body healthy and robust while calming the nervous system and creating a higher level of awareness.
Ashtanga yoga is more physically challenging than other styles of yoga, such as Hatha yoga.
The style originated in Mysore, India, and is now practiced by thousands worldwide. In the early 1900s, the teachings of Ashtanga were passed on by Guru Brahmachari to Sri T. Krishnamacharya and later to Pattabhi Jois, who popularized the practice in the Western world.
Can Beginners Do Ashtanga Yoga?
Beginners can do Ashtanga yoga if they want a more physical practice or supplement to their daily workout.
What Is the Difference Between Vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga?
Vinyasa yoga is a flowing, dynamic style where movements are performed synchronously with your breathing. Ashtanga is also breath-synchronously and dynamically and is sometimes called Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. However, in Ashtanga yoga, the postures are always performed in the same sequence, in so-called series. On the other hand, the sequence of a pure Vinyasa Yoga flow is different from class to class.
What Can I Expect From a Class?
You can expect 90 minutes of active and powerful yoga in an Ashtanga class, where the same postures are always practiced in a specific series.
Traditionally, the class begins with a short opening chant, which includes sun salutations and some familiar postures from Hatha yoga. A final relaxation or short meditation follows at the end.
What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?
Ashtanga comprises two Sanskrit words, “Ashta” and “Anga.” “Ashta” refers to the number eight, while “Anga” means limb or body part. Ashtanga is thus the unification of the eight limbs of yoga into a complete, holistic system. The 8-limbed path was described in the book of “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” and is said to lead to enlightenment or inner purification.
1. Yama (Morality)
The first limb is about morality and ethical standards for the life of a yogi. Essentially, it is about how we treat our environment. The Yamas teach us to treat others as one would like to be treated.
The 5 Yamas are:
- Ahimsa (non-violence)
- Satya (truthfulness, authenticity)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (abstinence)
- Aparigraha (non-pleasing)
Modern yogis interpret these yamas in different ways. The most important thing to remember is that yoga practice is not only on the mat but also in life off the mat.
2. Niyama (Self-Discipline)
The second limb is based on self-discipline and dealing with ourselves.
The 5 Niyamas are:
- Sauca (cleanliness, purity)
- Samtosa (contentment)
- Tapas (discipline, inner fire)
- Svadhyaya (study of self and spiritual scriptures)
- Isvara Pranidhana (devotion to the higher, i.e. God or universe)
3. Asana (Posture)
The physical practice that many people, especially in the Western world, refer to as “yoga” today is only one aspect of holistic yoga. The physical postures were initially intended to strengthen the body and prepare it for long hours of meditation.
4. Pranayama (Breath Control)
Breath control is one of the cornerstones of yoga and meditation. The literal translation of pranayama is “prolonging the life force” because yogis have long believed that deep breath control improves and prolongs life.
In Ashtanga, it is crucial to incorporate breathing into the movements between each posture consciously.
5. Pratyahara (Sensory Withdrawal)
The fifth yoga limb refers to sensory control or withdrawal of the senses from external stimuli. This way, you increase the focus on your own body and your inner world.
Off the mat, this can also mean observing habits and cravings that hinder personal growth.
6. Dharana (Concentration)
Focusing on one thing in a world full of distractions can be challenging. This practice is designed to calm the mind and focus attention entirely on one focal point in preparation for meditation.
7. Dhyana (Meditation)
In this state, the mind and thoughts are entirely at rest, which may feel difficult for novice meditators. However, finding higher levels of consciousness and inner peace is a worthwhile goal. Remember that yoga is a process in which you will find it easier to reach a meditative state over time.
8. Samadhi (Superconsciousness)
The final piece of the yoga path is samadhi, enlightenment, or full realization of the self. It is a meditative peak experience that happens when a yogi merges with the deep interconnectedness of the universe. Some associate it with “enlightenment,” but samadhi can be seen simply as an experience of universal bliss and fulfillment.
What Are the Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga yoga strengthens muscles throughout the body, helps with weight loss, trains balance, lowers blood pressure and inflammation, and improves self-awareness.
While it is a challenging practice, it is also enriching with incredible benefits for physical and mental well-being.
1. Strengthens Muscles
A study on 44 healthy women aged 35 to 50 found that those who practiced Ashtanga twice a week strengthened their leg muscles more after eight months than women who did not do yoga
(Kim et al. 20151).
2. Lowers Hypertension
People between 20 and 58 were subjected to either hatha or asthanga practice for six weeks.
While the Hatha group could improve flexibility, muscular strength, and upper body and trunk endurance, the Ashtanga practitioners also decreased blood pressure and stress (Cowen et al. 20052).
3. Improves Well-Being
A recent study found that people who practiced Ashtanga twice weekly for nine weeks reported better self-esteem and less depression and anxiety (Jarry et al. 20173).
4. Supports Weight Loss
Children and young adults who were at-risk candidates for type 2 diabetes underwent a 12-week Ashtanga program in one study.
14 of the 20 young people lost an average of 2 kg. Some also improved their low self-esteem and anxiety symptoms (Benavides et al. 20094).
Another study in 2022 subjected people who suffered from abdominal obesity to a 12-week yoga practice, where one group was introduced to the philosophy of Ashtanga and the other was not.
The result shows that the philosophy of Ashtanga yoga changed personality traits, which in turn was associated with less abdominal obesity (Mewada et al. 20225).
5. Promotes Balance
In an American study, severely visually impaired individuals considered blind and at risk of falling underwent eight weeks of Ashtanga yoga therapy.
The results show that yoga can improve residual sensory contribution and increase postural stability (Jeter et al. 20156).
6. Reduces Inflammation
A brand-new review study reveals scientific evidence of yoga’s positive effects on the stress hormone cortisol, inflammatory markers, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which forms new neural connections.
Particular reference is made to the role of the Ashtanga tradition (eight-limbed Patanjali yoga).
Therefore, yoga practice can help with the following conditions with an inflammatory component (Estevao 20227):
- Cardiovascular and metabolic diseases
- Impaired vascular and immune function
- Autoimmune diseases
- Breast cancer
How to Start Ashtanga Yoga
Traditional Ashtanga yoga consists of six series that build on each other and have different goals.
However, the first series is the most common in yoga classes, as it is better accessible to beginners. It is practiced for general health and well-being.
What Are the 6 Series of Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga series have set sequences of postures, mantras, and other breathing techniques that are repeated chronologically.
- The First Series (Yoga Chikitsa) is yoga for health
- The Second Series (Nadishodhana) is for the purification of the nervous system
- Advanced Series (Sthira Bhaga) is about centering your strength
- The Third Series, or Advanced A
- The Fourth Series, or Advanced B
- The Fifth Series, Advanced C, or “Rishi” Series
- The Sixth Series, or Advanced D, is the most challenging series of the practice
Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series
In most yoga classes, the first series is taught. It lasts about 90 minutes and includes 41 postures you may already know from common Vinyasa or Hatha yoga classes.
Like other styles, Ashtanga is meant to be like a moving meditation. The integration of movement and breath creates a flow that can activate and fully open the chakras (energy channels in the body):
- Traditionally, the Primary Series class begins with an opening chant followed by five repetitions of the classic sun salutations (Surya Namaskar A) to warm the body and synchronize the breath with the movements.
- After round A of sun salutations, the series moves into Surya Namaskar B. These sun salutations are more challenging because they incorporate the chair pose and Warrior I. These strengthen the legs and stress the sense of balance.
- The series then continues with nine standing postures, such as the triangle, and moves into seated poses, such as the head-to-knee pose or the boat.
- The primary series concludes with the most challenging part. These poses are tricky and best done under the guidance of a trained yoga instructor. These include the crow, bow, wheel, or shoulder stand.
- The class concludes with a deep relaxation (shavasana) and a final mantra.
Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic and challenging form that combines the breath with a series of flowing postures. It is one of the most physically demanding yet enriching forms of yoga.
At its core, it is a physical practice that requires discipline and stamina but brings numerous benefits. It strengthens, stretches, and ultimately relaxes every inch of the body.
It also calms the mind because the demanding sequence gives you no time to worry or think negatively. Not only do you strengthen your body and mind, but you also gain a positive self-perception.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Who is Ashtanga suitable for?
Ashtanga yoga suits people looking for a physically challenging yoga practice or a complement to their workout while strengthening their body and mind.
What is the difference between Hatha and Ashtanga yoga?
Ashtanga yoga incorporates many hatha yoga poses. However, in Ashtanga yoga, they are performed dynamically and continuously in the same order, in specific series. In Hatha yoga, you stay longer in each pose, and the sequence varies between classes.
Is Ashtanga the hardest yoga?
Ashtanga yoga is the most physically challenging style and requires patience, discipline, and perseverance.
Is Ashtanga harder than Vinyasa?
As a rule, Ashtanga yoga is more strenuous than Vinyasa. In Vinyasa, the intensity depends on the chosen class. Both styles of yoga are flowing dynamic and bring a certain amount of physical exertion due to the faster sequence of movements.
Strictly speaking, you also do a Vinyasa flow in Ashtanga yoga, but always in the same sequence of postures.
1Kim, S., Bemben, M. G., Knehans, A. W., & Bemben, D. A. (2015). Effects of an 8-Month Ashtanga-Based Yoga Intervention on Bone Metabolism in Middle-Aged Premenopausal Women: A Randomized Controlled Study. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 14(4), 756-768. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4657418/
2Cowen, V. S., & Adams, T. B. (2005). Physical and perceptual benefits of yoga asana practice: Results of a pilot study. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 9(3), 211-219. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2004.08.001
3Jarry, J. L., Chang, F. M., & La Civita, L. (2017). Ashtanga yoga for psychological well-being: Initial effectiveness study. Mindfulness, 8(5), 1269–1279. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0703-4
4Benavides, S., & Caballero, J. (2009). Ashtanga yoga for children and adolescents for weight management and psychological well being: An uncontrolled open pilot study. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 15(2), 110-114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2008.12.004
5Mewada, A., Keswani, J., Sharma, H., Tewani, G. R., & K. Nair, P. M. (2022). Ashtanga Yoga Ethics-Based Yoga Versus General Yoga on Anthropometric Indices, Trigunas, and Quality of Life in Abdominal Obesity: A Randomized Control Trial. International Journal of Yoga, 15(2), 130-136. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijoy.ijoy_63_22
6Jeter, P. E., Moonaz, S. H., Bittner, A. K., & Dagnelie, G. (2015). Ashtanga-Based Yoga Therapy Increases the Sensory Contribution to Postural Stability in Visually-Impaired Persons at Risk for Falls as Measured by the Wii Balance Board: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS ONE, 10(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0129646
7Estevao, C. (2022). The role of yoga in inflammatory markers. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity – Health, 20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbih.2022.100421
Mag. Stephan Lederer, MSc. is an author and blogger from Austria who writes in-depth content about health and nutrition. His book series on Interval Fasting landed #1 on the bestseller list in the German Amazon marketplace in 15 categories.
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