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What is Ashtanga Yoga? History, Sequence & Philosophy

One of the most common questions asked to yogis, both new and long time practitioners, is, “So, what style of yoga do you do?”. Whether you’ve been practising yoga for one week, 10 years, or have done a yoga teacher training, it can be difficult to remember or differentiate between the various styles of yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga is one style that is heard among most yoga studios and is referenced throughout different styles of yoga. The Ashtanga definition according to Oxford is, “A type of yoga based on eight principles and consisting of a series of poses executed in swift succession, combined with deep, controlled breathing.”

As with most yoga styles or types, Ashtanga has deep and rich teachings and a long history. So what is Ashtanga? Keep reading to learn about the history, philosophy, and what to expect from an Ashtanga Yoga class.

Ashtanga History

“Ashtanga” in the ancient Indian language Sanskrit, means “eight limbs”. Patanjali, who flourished 2nd century BCE or 5th century CE, first used this term in his written Yoga Sutras. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali describes the eight practices we should master to transcend suffering and recognise our true nature.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the vinyasa style of Astanga Yoga became more widely known. It was popularized by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, and later, his student, K. Pattabhi Jois. Jois, established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948 in Mysore, India.

Traditionally, yoga was taught in an extremely individual way. The teacher would create a unique sequence for each student to learn. The student would then only practice this sequence under the teacher’s guidance.

When they were ready to move on, the teacher would give the student a more challenging sequence. This is how Jois was taught by Krishnamacharya. Jois took this method of teaching with him when popularizing Ashtanga Yoga, also known as Mysore-style Yoga.

To learn about other styles of yoga, check out the posts on Jivamukti Yoga and Kundalini Yoga.

What is the Ashtanga Sequence?

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga consists of six series. Each series is a set sequence and made up of fixed postures or asanas.

The first series is called Primary Series, the second is Intermediate Series, then Advanced A, Advanced B, and so on. Practitioners will gradually learn each series, starting with the Primary Series, and move on when their teacher sees fit.

Each of the series begins with five Sun Salutation As (Surya Namaskara) and three to five Sun Salutation Bs. Next, in each series, is a standing sequence. And all the series end in the same set of asanas.

The middle part of the sequence is what differs between each series. Starting with more accessible asanas and gradually becoming more advanced.

Today, modern yoga studios offer group guided Ashtanga classes. Students learn a revised/modified Primary Series sequence that caters to mixed-abilities in a safe way.

8 Limbs of Yoga

While the eight limbs of yoga may sound short (just eight right?), the list involves extensive papers, books, and studies on it.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga are:

  • Yamas (behavioural observances – things you SHOULD do)

  • Niyamas (behavioural restraints – things you SHOULDN’T do)

  • Asana (the practice of physical postures)

  • Pranayama (the practice of breathing techniques to control our life force energy)

  • Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

  • Dharana (concentration)

  • Dhyana (meditation)

  • Samadhi (transcendence)

Vinyasa Vs Ashtanga

While both practices incorporate strong postures/asanas there are differences. The words ‘vinyasa’ and ‘ashtanga’ are often used interchangeably but keep reading to learn the difference between the two.

What Is The Difference Between Vinyasa And Ashtanga Yoga

While ‘Ashtanga’ means ‘eight limbs’ in Sanskrit, ‘vinyasa’ means ‘to place in a special way’. Oxford defines vinyasa as ‘movement between poses in yoga, typically accompanied by regulated breathing’.

Ashtanga consists of the six series as previously mentioned, whereas vinyasa yoga can change class to class and teacher to teacher. It does incorporate many of the same postures as ashtanga but their order is varied.

Ashtanga vinyasa classes are traditionally held in the earlier hours of the morning and practiced six days a week. The Full Primary Seris takes on average 90 minutes to complete which is longer than an average yoga class. The thought behind morning practice is it allows for an empty stomach, a clear head and well-rested body and mind.

Vinyasa yoga is practiced throughout the day depending on the studio you choose to practice at. The classes can range between a 20 minute class (generally online) to 90 minute classes but average on an hour.

The most important difference between when it comes to ashtanga vs vinyasa, is that vinyasa yoga puts emphasis on connecting movement to breath. Therefore, vinyasa is more quickly paced and has a flowing rhythm.

Closing Thoughts On Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Vinyasa, or Mysore-style, yoga is a strength-building, challenging practice. If you enjoy a structured practice where you can monitor your progress through repition then Ashtanga Vinyasa is a must try.

The classes are breath-focused and meditative. Once you learn the sequence off by heart, you can focus on clearing the mind, rather than the asanas or your teacher’s dialogue.

The classes also offer hand-on adjustments. Ashtanga teachers will offer physical adjustments, or assists, throughout your practice. The adjustments can be used to correct your alignment, be therapeutic, or deepen you into a posture.

If you’re up for growing your yoga practice with a set sequence and dedication then Ashtanga is definitely worth try. Almost all styles of yoga are worth trying, and Ashtanga is no different. So roll out your yoga mat and get practicing.

Enjoy all of the benefits Ashtanga yoga will bring you.


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