What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Are you looking to start yoga, but have no idea where to start? Have you looked up yoga studios close to your house and office, only to be met with a bunch of foreign terms and styles? Have you ever heard the phrases “Vinyasa Yoga” or “Ashtanga Yoga” thrown around, but have no clue what they mean?
You’re not alone! When I first started my journey as a yogi almost a decade ago, I was bombarded with different types of yoga classes, studios, props, and even clothing. It felt like I was a tourist in a foreign country and had mistakenly forgotten my “Yoga Dictionary” on my bed when I packed.
After spending close to year searching through the sea of yoga styles and classes, I finally learned what a “basic” yoga class is in the West. To save my fellow yogis from suffering a similar fate, I’ve compiled this article about the most prevalent style of yoga today: Ashtanga Yoga.
Where Did Ashtanga Yoga Come From?
In this piece, we’ll answer the question “What Is Ashtanga Yoga?” by exploring the poses and breath work that define this powerful style of yoga. After reading this article, you will have the knowledge necessary to pick up an Ashtanga practice right away!
Ashtanga Yoga, otherwise known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, is the foundation of what we consider “Yoga” in the West. Established and popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois in the early 20th century, Ashtanga Yoga literally means “eight limbs.”
While most of us think of yoga as a form of exercise or stretching, these poses (or asanas) are actually only one piece of the yoga puzzle. According to K. Pattabhi Jois’ teachings, yoga involves a total of eight paths that can be mastered by the student, including:
1. Yama – ethical standards of integrity;
2. Niyama – self discipline;
3. Asana – the set of poses and postures commonly associated with yoga;
4. Pranayama – breathing techniques;
5. Pratyahara – focusing internally, often including meditation;
6. Dharana – concentration (also needed for meditation!);
7. Dhyana – quieting the mind;
8. Samadhi – a state of ecstasy, or complete connection with the Self or Divine.
Is your head spinning from all of the Sanskrit and existential questions? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! So let’s take a big, deep breath in and let it out together because I have some great news for you…
Ashtanga Yoga is for everyone!
That’s right, by no means do you need to dedicate yourself to learning the eight limbs of yoga, let alone master them, to start an Ashtanga Yoga practice. To the contrary, most of us make our way to class once or twice per week, wear fashionable yoga pants, eat some kale, and call it a day.
In fact, even K. Pattabhi Jois advised yoga students to start with the asanas first and, only after they have mastered those, move on to the other seven limbs.
That’s the best thing about Ashtanga Yoga: it’s attainable for anyone and everyone, regardless of whether you’re buying your first yoga mat or have been practicing for decades.
Staying with Your Breath: Vinyasa
First and foremost, Ashtanga Yoga involves movement and breath, the basic idea being that you connect one breath to each posture or asana. Together, this combination of breath and movement make what we commonly refer to as Vinyasa.
Why connect breath with movement? The practice of yoga is largely about ridding ourselves of the toxins that creep into our bodies on a daily basis. Our jobs, relationships, diets, and sleep patterns all create tension and toxins in the body, and the goal of Ashtanga Yoga is to cleanse our bodies so we can quiet our minds.
Whenever you inhale or exhale in a particular pose, you are either inviting cleansing breath into the body or expelling toxins and tension out of the body. The asanas are most effective at opening up our bodies and minds with a little help from the breath, and thus deepen your practice and increase its benefits!
So the next time you find yourself walking past one of those trendy-and-shall-not-be-named yoga studios advertising a fancy Vinyasa class, don’t be fooled! All these yogis are doing is connecting their breath with movement.
While experienced practitioners aim for one breath for every movement, this is something that can be built up to over time. Start by just thinking about your breath (most of us take it for granted!) and learn about the feelings you experience when you inhale and exhale.
Once you’ve gotten used to focusing on your breath, try to inhale whenever your body is moving upwards and exhale as you’re moving towards the floor. With a little guidance from your yoga teacher and our at-home practice below, you’ll soon notice that your breath naturally flows with these movements.
Another key aspect of Ashtanga Yoga involves your gaze, or Drishti. During each of the various poses that comprise Ashtanga Yoga, you may be directed to look in a certain direction. This helps to deepen your practice by giving the mind something to focus on!
Don’t stress if you don’t follow every Drishti that is cued by your teacher in class. I’ve been practicing for over 8 years and still have a hard time maintaining my balance when changing my gaze in certain poses! As one of my favorite yoga teachers always says, if you aren’t tumbling a bit during class, you aren’t learning or growing!
Mantras, or sayings, are sometimes used in Ashtanga Yoga to add a level of spirituality to your practice. The use of mantras is entirely up to the yogi, and you do not need to adhere to any specific religions or spiritual beliefs to practice Ashtanga Yoga!
For some of the most popular mantras used in Ashtanga Yoga, click here. You can also create a personal mantra that you repeat to yourself internally or out loud throughout your practice. This can be a word or short phrase, such as “Love” or “I am Present.”
Another option for adding meaning to your Ashtanga practice is to dedicate it to a loved one or cause that could benefit from some extra love. For example, I dedicated my practice to my uncle on a regular basis when he was going through cancer treatment and have also dedicated practices to gratitude when it is a particularly beautiful day outside.
What You’ll Need To Get Started
Now that you have some background knowledge about Ashtanga Yoga, it’s time to get ready for practice! Here’s a list of everything you’ll need to get started:
- A good yoga mat. After trying dozens of different mats over the years, I’ve learned that I prefer thicker mats during my yoga practice.
- Yoga blocks. If you’re new to Ashtanga Yoga (or are an experienced yogi looking to play around with your practice a little!), then yoga blocks are a must-have.
- A yoga strap. A strap can help you get the feel for certain standing and balancing poses while you’re still working on your flexibility!
You may also want to grab a small hand towel (great during sweatier practices!) and a water bottle to stay hydrated. You should also wear comfortable clothing such as loose sweatpants, leggings, a t-shirt or tank top.
Ashtanga Poses For At-Home Practice
Unlike other styles of yoga, Ashtanga relies on a prescribed set of asanas during each practice. These include both sun salutations (A and B) followed by standing poses, a cool-down, and savasana.
Surya Namaskara A (Sun Salutation A)
An Ashtanga Yoga practice begins with the first Sun Salutation, or what is usually referred to as “Sun A.” Here’s how it’s done:
- Start in a standing position with your feet hips-width distance apart and your arms relaxed by your sides and take a deep breath in (Tadasana, or Mountain pose);
- As you exhale, forward-fold towards the ground, letting your arms and head hang heavy to relieve tension in your spine and neck (Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend pose);
- On your next inhale, lift half-way up to a flat back resting your arms on your shins or the floor (Ardha Uttanasana, or Half-Way Forward Bend pose);
- As you exhale, step or hop back so your body is parallel to the ground in a low plank position (Chaturanga, or Low Plank pose);
- On your next inhale, straighten your arms and reach your heart up towards the sky (Urdhva Mukha Savasana, or Upward-Facing Dog pose);
- As you exhale, push back into hips and legs (Adho Mukha Savasana, or Downward-Facing Dog pose);
- On your next inhale, bend your knees, look forward, and hop or step to the front of your mat and land in a forward fold, exhaling here (Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend pose);
- Inhale half-way to a flat back again (Ardha Uttanasana, or Half-Way Forward Bend pose);
- Exhale to a forward fold (Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend pose);
- Inhale your entire body to a standing position and reach your arms high to the sky;
- Exhale and bring your arms by your sides or to your heart (Tadasana, or Mountain pose).
Sun A is usually repeated for a total of three sequences, each taken at your own pace based on the flow of your breath. Are you more a visual learner like me? Check out this great video by the pros at Yoga Journal to see what Sun A looks like in practice by clicking here.
Surya Namaskara B (Sun Salutation B)
After you’ve completed your three rounds of Sun A, it’s time to move on to Surya Namaskara B (aka “Sun B”):
- Start in a standing position with your arms by your sides (Tadasana, or Mountain pose);
- As you exhale, move your feet closer together so they touch or are almost touching;
- On your next inhale, bend your knees like you’re sitting in an imaginary chair with your arms outstretched towards the sky (Utkatasana, or Chair pose);
- As you exhale, forward fold towards the floor (Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend pose);
- Inhale as you lift half-way up with a flat back (Ardha Uttanasana, or Half-Way Forward Bend pose);
- Exhale as you hop or step back to a low plank position (Chaturanga, or Low Plank pose);
- On your next inhale, extend your arms reaching your heart and head up towards the sky (Urdhva Mukha Savasana, or Upward-Facing Dog pose);
- As you exhale, push back into your legs and hips (Adho Mukha Savasana, or Downward-Facing Dog pose);
- On your next inhale, step your right foot forward in between your hands and rise up so your right leg is bent at a 90-degree angle and your arms are outstretched towards the sky (Virabhadrasana I, or Warrior I pose);
- As you exhale, cartwheel your arms towards the floor and hop or step back to a low plank position (Chaturanga, or Low Plank pose);
- Inhale as you extend your arms, reaching your heart and head up towards the sky (Urdhva Mukha Savasana, or Upward-Facing Dog pose);
- Exhale as you push back into your hips and legs (Adho Mukha Savasana, or Downward-Facing Dog pose);
- On your next inhale, step your left foot forward in between your hands and rise up so your left leg is bent at a 90-degree angle and your arms are outstretched towards the sky (Virabhadrasana I, or Warrior I pose);
- Exhale as your hop or step back and lower to a low plank position (Chaturanga, or Low Plank pose);
- On your next inhale, straighten your arms and reach your heart and head towards the sky (Urdhva Mukha Savasana, or Upward-Facing Dog pose);
- As you exhale, push back into your hips and legs (Adho Mukha Savasana, or Downward-Facing Dog pose);
- On your next inhale, bend your knees, look forward, and hop or step to the front of your mat to land in a forward fold (Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend pose). Exhale here;
- As you inhale, lift half-way to a flat back (Ardha Uttanasana, or Half-Way Forward Bend pose);
- Exhale to a forward fold (Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend pose);
- On your next inhale, rise up to stand with your arms outstretched towards the sky;
- As you exhale, bring your hands to your heart or relaxed by your sides (Tadasana, or Mountain pose).
Repeat Sun B for a total of three rounds, and moving in time with your breath. Want to see Sun B in motion? Check out this great video from Leaf by clicking here.
Sun salutations are performed at the beginning of your practice to warm up your muscles and prepare you for more advanced standing poses. Unlike sun salutations, standing asanas can be varied from practice to practice, depending on the muscle group(s) you’d like to focus on! Here are some common standing poses to get you started:
Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
Good for: Leg and core strengthening
How-To: From Warrior I, open up your arms so they are parallel to the floor reaching towards the front and rear of your mat. Lean forward into your front, bent leg and stand proud and tall. Need a visual? Check out this video tutorial of Warrior II here!
Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)
Good for: Arm and core strengthening
How-To: From Warrior II, place the forearm of your forward-reaching arm on the top of your bent thigh. Reach your opposite arm overhead, reaching towards the front of your mat. Check it out here.
Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
Good for: Side stretches and arm strengthening
How-To: From Warrior II, place both of your hands on your hips. Straighten your legs, and hinge forward so your hips are over your front leg. Place one hand on your front shin or frame your front foot with your hand on the ground. Raise your other arm overhead, working towards stacking your arms to a vertical line. Need a hand (no pun intended)? Check out this step-by-step video here!
Tree Pose (Vriksasana)
Good for: Balance and grounding
How-To: From Mountain pose, raise one leg and bend at the knee. Open your hip and place your raised foot against the opposite leg, either on the ankle, shin, or thigh (avoid your knee area!). Focus on rooting down through your straightened leg and opening up the hip of your bent leg. Your hands can be in prayer at your heart, outstretched above your head, or clasped above your head. Want to see Tree pose in action? Check it out here!
After you’ve worked on your standing poses, it’s time to start winding down your Ashtanga Yoga practice. There are a variety of poses you can perform to slow down your heart rate and prepare for this meditative part of your practice, but here are a few of my favorites:
More experienced yogis can go into a supported shoulder stand of headstand variations during this portion of the practice. However, if standing on your head isn’t quite up your alley just yet, don’t worry! You can still get all of the benefits of an inversion without earning a gold medal in gymnastics. Check out this video tutorial for a supported inversion to get started!
For me, there is no better feeling than ringing out my spine with a twist at the end of practice. Check out this video for instructions on making your way into a supine twist. Your spine will thank you!
Bridge pose is one of those asanas that can be energetic or restorative, depending on how you approach it. To fire up your abdominals, go for a traditional bridge pose like the one seen here. For a more relaxing pose, try supported bridge as seen here!
Once your cool-down poses are complete, you can now enter my absolute favorite yoga position: Savasana. Savasana, or “Corpse Pose” involves lying flat on your back with your legs outstretched and your arms at your sides, palms facing up.
With your eyes closed, take a few deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. If you’re new to Ashtanga Yoga, focus on your breathing throughout Savasana to calm your mind and stay centered during this relaxing, present moment.
Savasana usually lasts for 10-15 minutes, and is aimed at grounding your practice and soaking up all of the benefits of the various asanas you just performed. Savasana is considered by many to be one of, if not the most important asana in Ashtanga Yoga and should never be skipped.
That’s it! You now have everything you need to jump into your Ashtanga Yoga practice! Here’s a quick overview of what you should keep in mind when getting started:
- Make sure to pick up a reliable mat, set of yoga blocks, and a yoga strap.
- Consider purchasing a yoga blanket, eye pillow, or bolster to deepen your practice.
- Follow the Ashtanga Yoga poses in the correct order: Sun A, Sun B, Standing poses, Cool-Down poses, and Savasana.
- Consider adding a mantra to your practice and focus your gaze as instructed when possible!
Still have questions about Ashtanga Yoga? Comment below!
1. The International Ashtanga Yoga Information Page (AYI), https://www.ashtangayoga.info/
2. Yoga Journal, Types of Yoga: Ashtanga, https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/types-of-yoga/ashtanga-yoga
3. Green Path Yoga, Ashtanga History and Philosophy, http://ashtangayoga108.com/ashtanga/ashtanga-yoga-history-and-philosophy/