All About Ashtanga

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by Laura Josephy

Ashtanga Yoga is a traditional style of Hatha Yoga popularized by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India (1915-2009). Ashtanga Yoga is said to be rooted in the Yoga Korunta, an ancient text written by Vamana Rishi.  This text was imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 1900’s by his teacher Rama Mohan Bramachari, and was later passed down to Pattabhi Jois throughout the time of his study with Krishnamacharya, beginning in 1927.  The term Ashtanga, meaning eight limbs, refers to the set of essential practices listed in the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.”  They are yama, universal ethical observances; niyama, personal observances; asana, posture; pranayama, breath extension; pratyahara, sensory transcendence; dharana, concentration; dhyana, meditation and samadhi, meditative coalescence. Jois believed that it was essential for most practitioners to enter the eight limbs through posture practice as it facilitates the purification of the body and mind creating a suitable environment for meditation.   

The main components of Ashtanga Yoga emphasized by Jois are vinyasa and tristhana.  The Sanskrit word vinyasa is typically translated as movement with the breath.  In colloquial language today, there term vinyasa often refers to the transitional movements that reset the body between each pose or between each side of a pose - think chaturanga, up dog, down dog.  More specifically it means a focused, intentional sequence of form, movement and breath that frees the mind.  In Ashtanga Yoga each movement is assigned either an inhale or exhale, while the state of the pose is given five complete breaths.  The breath intrinsically directs and shapes movement in the body.  The inhale resonates with rising and spreading patterns like lifting the arms overhead. The exhale enhances downward and inward patterns such as forward folds.  A key aspect of this movement-breathing system are the bandhas, or locks, which seal energy inside the body lending it both buoyancy and stability.  Mula bandha, the root lock, is a physical and energetic lifting of the center of the pelvic floor that is correlated with the exhalation.  Uddiyana bandha, the flying lock, is physical and energetic scooping of the lower abdominals correlated with the inhalation. Finally, tristhana refers to the three points of action/awareness - posture, breath and looking place - that are important in internal purification at the level of the body, nervous system and mind. Vinyasa coupled with bandha and tristhana creates a strong internal fire that, when practiced over a long period of time with great devotion, remove the six poisons discussed in the yoga shastra  - kama, desire; krodha, anger; moha, delusion; lobha, greed; matsarya, envy; and mada, sloth - that obscure the light of our True Nature. 

There are two formats in which Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally taught and practiced; led and “Mysore Style.”  Yoga practitioners today are most familiar with the led format in which the teacher guides the entire class through a sequence of postures simultaneously. However, the Ashtanga Yoga method was built around the “Mysore Style” class, so named because this was the way in which Pattabhi Jois taught in Mysore, India.  Ashtanga Yoga today continues to be taught primarily in the Mysore Style format by Jois’ grandson Sharath in India and by other qualified teachers all around the world. In the Mysore Style each student is given individual instruction within the group setting.  The movements, breath and other aspects of the practice are learned gradually in a step-by-step process accessible to anyone.  Through repetition students begin to commit small sections of a sequence known as the Primary Series to memory.  Students arrive anytime during the two hour class period and are welcomed into a room filled with the sound of the breath as instruction and questions are kept to a whisper.  A new student’s practice may only be 30 minutes.  In this first class students are taught the basic breathing techniques, the tristhana method, the Sun Salutation and possibly a few standing poses.  This approach allows students to establish a solid foundation in both body and mind; to integrate what was learned previously before progressing further and to adjust to a new daily routine.  Doing too much too fast often brings the risk of strain and imbalance while learning gradually allows time to develop the strength, flexibility and confidence necessary for a sustainable practice.  This process will likely surface the mind’s strategies of avoidance, resistance, distraction, impatience and self-judgement. Ultimately a form a mindfulness training, such is the path and process of Yoga. These moments are opportunities to let go of conditioning and to wake up to the fullness of the present moment experience. 

Many misperceptions about Ashtanga Yoga Mysore Style exist.  Though the class is not led, ample one-to-one instruction and hands-on assists are given.  You need not practice for the full two hour class period, be a yoga teacher, highly experience or even at all familiar with the sequence. The Primary Series is the template from which all students work independently yet each unique body inhabits the shape of any given pose differently such that modifications are given making the practice accessible to all - young, old, big, small, flexible, strong.  Like any practice or skill, the key is consistency.  At the start, you will likely discover new muscles. Regularity in practice will relieve the muscular soreness and invigorate the body-mind each day.  Having practiced this method almost exclusively for many years I am admittedly biased.  I feel the Mysore Style method gives me the room I need to work at my own pace and level, to follow the rhythm of my own breath and to draw my attention inward in a way that is not possible in led classes. I am able to explore the sensations of my body and carefully observe and feel the pattern of my breath in a way that settles my thoughts and clears my mind. Yet I am not alone. I am in the felt presence and support of the other practitioners breathing and moving in the room. We are in it together as a community.  This inspires and motivates me to get on my mat morning after early morning. It gives me permission to be vulnerable as a student of the practice myself and to listen, learn, grow and transform through its teachings.  

Join Laura in her upcoming 4-Week Intro to Mysore Style Series, January 14th - February 4th. More details available HERE. 

Ayurvedic Self-Massage

Massage is often considered a luxurious indulgence. But in fact, it is an important component of optimal health.  The sister science of Yoga, Ayurveda is a holistic health system for everyday life.  Abhyanga is the Sanskrit term used to describe Ayurvedic oil massage.  Among other things, the oil bath is a traditional Ayurvedic home remedy recommended to reduce excess internal heat particularly in the joints, liver and skin. This heat may show up in the body-mind as impatience, irritability, stiffness in the joints, redness in the skin, insomnia and/or indigestion.  Other benefits of Ayurvedic self-massage impart tone and vigor to the tissues of the body, stimulate the internal organs, increase circulation and decrease the effects of aging.

“In Sanksrit, the word “sneha” can be translated as both “oil” and “love.” In Ayurveda there is an inherent connection between enveloping the body in oil and enveloping it in love. Both oil and love provide a sense of nourishment and grounding. These qualities benefit the entire body, particularly the nervous system, and support the entire being - mind, body and spirit.”

Ayurvedic teachings recommend a daily self-massage, which need only take 15 minutes.  Pattabhi Jois, the Indian teacher who developed and popularized the Ashtanga Yoga method, recommended that students take an “oil bath” once per week on his or her day of rest. I have found it easiest to start this self-care ritual twice a month on the new and full moon day as these days are observed as rest days in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition.   

In India, the oil bath is customarily taken with castor oil.  Castor oil delivers the best results, but can be replaced by organic almond, sesame or coconut oil. You can purchase these oils at your local grocery or via a Ayurvedic lifestyle retailer such as Banyan Botanicals.  Banyan Botanicals offers a variety of specialized oils to support individual constitutions or balance particular conditions.

Here is a simple self-massage routine offered by Dr. Claudia Welch. Try doing this routine in the morning for a vital day, or before bed for a more restful sleep:

  1. Put about a 1/2 cup of oil in a 4 oz. squeeze bottle (I prefer a glass bottle).
  2. Warm the oil by placing the bottle in a mug of hot water.
  3. Sit or stand comfortably in a warm room on a towel. Consider choosing a towel that is dedicated for this purpose because over time the oil accumulation will ruin the towel.
  4. Apply the oil to your entire body.
  5. Massage the oil into your entire body, beginning at your extremities and working toward the middle of your body. Use long strokes on the limbs and circular strokes on the joints. Massage the abdomen and chest in broad, clockwise, circular motions. On the abdomen, follow the path of the large intestine, moving up on the right side of the abdomen, then across, then down on the left side. Massage the body for five to twenty minutes, with love and patience.
  6. Every so often, give a little extra time and attention to massaging the oil into your scalp, ears and feet. Apply oil to the crown of your head and work slowly out from there in circular strokes. Oil applied to the head should be warm, but not hot. Put a couple drops of warm oil on the tip of your little finger or on a cotton ball and apply to the opening of the ear canal. (If you have any current or chronic discomfort in your ears, don’t do this without the recommendation of your healthcare practitioner). When you massage your feet and toes, be sure you don’t slip.
  7. Enjoy a warm bath or shower. Minimize the use of soap, and use only where needed.
  8. Wash the shower/bath area. The shower floor will be very slippery and the drain may be clogged a bit. Scrub the shower area well to avoid slipping and pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain to keep it open.
  9. Rest over the next few hours, avoiding hard work, strong sun and swimming in or drinking cold water. Allow the body and mind to rest and rejuvenate for the coming week of practice, study, work and family life.

For the love of oil baths! ENJOY!!

To learn more about the benefits of Ayurvedic self-massage and view how-to videos visit Banyan Botanicals.

My Ashtanga: Mysore Style Yoga Path

Susan practicing Sirsasana - headstand. 

Susan practicing Sirsasana - headstand. 

by Susan Baker

For me Yoga is more of a path than a journey, I see a journey as having an ending point; a path as a never ending movement forward. My path started by taking a few led classes here and there: Flow, Yin and Hatha.  I loved them all but never felt a real personal connection.  Last January I was invited to attend the four-week "Introduction to Ashtanga: Mysore Style Series."  I accepted the challenge and I am forever grateful for that invitation and decision.

After my four-week introduction I began my path of Ashtanga: Mysore Style.  Mysore Style is more than yoga; it is a personal experience guided by yourself, your breath and your teacher.  This self-practice allows you to move and grow at your own pace (I must admit I was comparing myself to others in the beginning).  I have learned that I am strong, that I am capable of quieting my mind and that I can attain goals I never thought possible. Mysore Style practice is the window into your own personal possibilities.  My favorite experiences have been found in the community of other Ashtanga: Mysore Style yogis, the story telling, the chanting and the encouragement I feel each time I roll out my mat to practice.  I am becoming strong, compassionate, and a believer in peace amidst the chaos.

Consider the next Intro to Mysore Series invitation and you will be so pleased you did...

Learn More About Ashtanga: Mysore Style

Register for the Next Intro to Mysore Series

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Greetings From Mysore, India

By Kacey Davy

Namaste, greetings to you, from India! Laura and I are in Mysore, the small South Indian city where the posture practice of Yoga that we know today was revived and codified by T. Krishnamacharya. All lineages and modern styles of yoga asana are likely influenced by Krishnamacharya's teachings in Mysore and throughout India. As I move about this town and immerse in my practice each day, I feel a deep reverence for the history of these practices that have transformed my life and am overwhelmed with gratitude. 

Here in India, gratitude for life is displayed everywhere you look. In every home, shop, cafe and even on the streets there are altars to honor the Divine that exists in all. Every day, several times a day, time is spent meditating and cultivating awareness for the Divine. The people here live every day with love, faith, gratitude, and respect. There is so much we can learn from the culture and practices of India.  Especially now in a time when so many people are feeling emotions such as fear or uncertainty about the future of our country. As Thanksgiving approaches let us be thankful for our life and for the lives of others regardless of our differences. Let us focus on finding ways to cultivate kindness and compassion instead of spreading anger and contempt. 

We can look to the practices and philosophy of Yoga to find the tools we need to interact with others. In the first chapter of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, verse 1.33 is powerful teaching that anyone can embody through practice. It says that through conscious cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity in relation to those who are happy, sad, virtuous and vicious, we develop clarity and serenity in the mind. Through the practice of this sutra, we can choose to cultivate kindness toward those who are happy and extend compassion for those who are suffering. When we meet virtue with joy we offer others the support to continue their virtuous actions. The cultivation of equanimity, even-temperedness, or simply the ability to remain calm with vicious or cruel people brings an end to feelings of hate and anger. Remembering these four keys to connecting with others is a choice we can make to bring peace to ourselves and promote love and gratitude in our relationships and our community at large.