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Ashtanga Yoga 101: Everything You Need to Know

Chris Amedy
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Ashtanga Yoga – what can I say about the practice that I love? It’s a great system, from the way that it is physically structured to how the spiritual side comes through during the practice. Ashtanga Yoga is a system that is truly designed for everyone from the beginner to the advanced yogi.
 
Not convinced? Read this article to learn more!
 
Ashtanga isn’t like a typical vinyasa flow class. Although you have a teacher there, he/she isn’t telling you the next pose to do. The set of postures that you will be doing are the same for each class.
 
If you like routines, then this is perfect for you. The routine is what allows you to enter into a meditative state during your practice. Instead of having to focus on the outside and what pose is next, you can bring your attention inward.
 
Another part of the tradition that is unique to Ashtanga is parampara, or the passing of knowledge in succession from teacher to student. Teaching in the Ashtanga tradition comes after years of dedicated practice and studying under an authorized teacher. An authorized teacher is someone that has received the blessing of either Pattabhi Jois (before his passing) or from Sharath Jois who is now in charge of the KPJAYI (K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute), which oversees the Ashtanga tradition in Mysore, India.
 
This article explores how the Ashtanga tradition works and all the benefits that come along with it. Here are the main characteristics of Ashtanga Yoga:
 

The Ashtanga SeriesThe Ashtanga Primary Series

The Primary series consists of the asanas that you will see in most typical Vinyasa Flow classes. The difference is that you will do them in a set sequence that doesn’t change. Most students will begin with Half Primary and as you become more proficient in the poses, the teacher will add more until you are able to do the entire Primary series.
 
The yoga poses in the Primary series build upon each other as you progress through the series as well. For example, doing Utthita parsvakonasana B (revolved side angle) will help with Maricasana C and D (bound sage pose) because you need to be able to get the shoulder past the leg in the twist to catch the bind.
 
The Primary Ashtanga series is designed to purify and tone the body and also bring focus to the mind. As the detoxification process progresses, you may not like the things that come up in your mind and what you discover about yourself. That’s why one of the authorized teachers I’ve worked with has said the Primary series is the easiest, yet simultaneously hardest of all the series.
 
If you’re interested in watching an Ashtanga Primary Series class led by Pattabhi Jois (Guruji), you can view it here:
 

 
 

The Ashtanga Intermediate Series

The next series in Ashtanga is the Intermediate series, and its main focus is to cleanse the nerves. This series has more backbends and headstand variations. The backbends are there to preserve the spine and the suppleness of the back. Since our nervous system runs through our spine, the second series helps open the subtle channels so that prana (or lifeforce energy) may flow freely, thus allowing the cleansing of the nervous system.
 
The Intermediate series starts out the same way as the Primary with Surya Namaskar A and B (Sun Salutations A and B) and the standing postures, and ends with the same closing postures. The difference comes in the middle . . .
 
The first pose of Second series is Pasasana (noose pose), which is a balancing twist. The pose itself is a challenging pose to get into and is said to be a good gatekeeper to the Intermediate series. As authorized teacher David Garrigues says, “It’s an ego check is what it is. A noose that hangs your ego. So you have to get a different reason to practice other than collecting asana trophies.”
 

 
Although the Intermediate series is a compliment to the Primary series, the idea of when to start Second series still varies. The most agreed-upon gauge is having a firm grasp of Primary series and being able to move through it without stopping and still maintaining a steady breath. Ultimately, your teacher will be the one that knows best when you are ready to begin the Second/Intermediate series.
 

The Ashtanga Advanced Series

The Advanced series is definitely one that you must have a six-day-a-week practice and be proficient in the Intermediate series to begin. I would personally recommend making sure that you have the guidance from an authorized teacher before starting the Advanced series.
 
I personally have no experience with the Advanced series and couldn’t do justice with a proper explanation. Instead, I would rather refer you to Kino MacGregor’s explanation of the Advanced series, which you can view here.
 

Teaching Styles of the Ashtanga Tradition

The two styles of teaching in Ashtanga will be the led class and the Mysore style class. Both have their advantages and drawbacks but are great ways of learning the tradition.
 
The Mysore style of class is great for following your own breath and moving into a meditative state during your practice. In this style of practice, you come in and do your practice at your pace. It is all about link your breath to your movements. There is a teacher there to assist you and to offer advice or to adjust your alignment.
 
The Mysore style can best be explained as personal instruction in a groups setting. The drawback would be that you have to provide your own motivation to complete your practice.
 
The led class is great for learning the sequence and having the teacher to help motivate you. Some would say that it’s the best way for beginners to learn the tradition. Also having everyone breathing and moving together is a great way to build bonds with your fellow yogis. The drawback is that you are subject to the count of the teacher, or the pace that they are setting for the class. The teachers’ count may be too long, or even too short, for you.
 
Whichever style you choose, it has to be what will best serve you and your unique practice.
 

Life-Long Practice

The tradition of Ashtanga is a practice that you will always continue to learn from, no matter what series you may be in. There will always be subtleties of each series that you will notice as you progress through the different series.
 
You will see the importance of the Primary series, or notice how the subtleties of the series effects what you are doing in the Intermediate. The way the series compliment one another and how they work to make a more complete and balanced practice is what constitutes a life-long Ashtanga practice.
 
Whether you choose to go to led classes or you progress to the Mysore classes, the Ashtanga practice will be a life-long partner in helping to make you a better person physically, mentally, and spiritually.
 
Have you tried Ashtanga Yoga before? Which practice (led vs. Mysore) best suits your individual needs as a yoga student? We love hearing from you in the comments below. Namaste, yogis!
 

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Chris Amedy

Chris Amedy is a writer, musician, and Buddhist Ashtangi. Through both his Buddhist and Ashtanga practice, he hopes to inspire people to become the best person they can be. He maintains a regular Mysore practice, a full-time job and writes regularly while saving for teacher training. You can check him out on his blog: ripplesintheuniverse.com

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