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. 

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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Mysore Style FAQ's

Thanks be to the Yoga Workshop their guidance with this content.

You may have noticed the gradual increase of Mysore Style classes on the schedule. Most recently, Laura's Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. class has converted to a Mysore Style class.  What is Ashtanga: Mysore Style?  How may it benefit you?  Read on...

Mysore Style practice is the heart of the Ashtanga Yoga lineage. 

The room is quiet and people are in all sorts of different shapes. The teacher is moving from student to student offering individualized instruction and assistance.  The sound of the breath, the serious expression on people’s faces, the abundance of sweat, and the fact that everyone (except you) seems to know exactly what they are doing can provoke the urge to hightail it right back out the door.  Whether you are in South Lake Tahoe or any number of cities around the world; a Mysore Style class definitely leaves a first impression.  You need not be a yoga teacher or an advanced practitioner; once you understand what is going on and commit to the practice, you may discover that Mysore Style is an amazing forum for cultivating a transformative yoga practice. 

What is Mysore?

1). a city in Southern India, Karnataka State.

2). a format of an Ashtanga Yoga class. 

Pronounced as in: “My sore back is what got me into yoga.” or “Boy am I sore.” 

This style of class is modeled after the Ashtanga Yoga classes in Mysore, India taught by the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. A Mysore class provides an opportunity for students to develop a “self practice,” which is an integral part of the Ashtanga Yoga method. Students work independently on the particular series of postures that is most appropriate for them. The teacher assists, adjusts and may quietly discuss particular difficulties or concerns with individual students during class.

What is the structure of the class? 

Students need not practice for 2 full hours and can come and go anytime during the 2 hour window as is appropriate due to schedule, energy level and experience. 

About ten minutes into the official start time of the class, the teacher leads the students through the opening chant.  Sometime students come a bit early and begin warming up with sun salutations. However when the teacher announces the opening chant, they come back to stand at the top of the mat in samastithih and chant with the group. If a student finishes their practice early, they take rest for at least 5 minutes in savasana, or final relaxation pose, before quietly leaving. Some students may also arrive later in which case they enter quietly and set up their practice space.

If there’s no teacher leading the postures, how do people know what to practice?

The Ashtanga Yoga method is based on a number of specific series of postures which are learned over the course of time and are practiced on a regular basis. Beginning with the “primary series,” students gradually, one pose at a time, work through and memorize the sequence of postures. After becoming proficient in one series, the next series is slowly introduced into the practice a few postures at a time. In this way, yoga becomes an individual practice through which breath, feelings, thoughts and sensations may be observed.

What if I forget what comes next in the series?

You can think of the Mysore teacher as a human cheat sheet (we have actual cheat sheets too). Students learn a little of the series at a time and use repetition to commit various sequence to memory.  The basic pattern is the same for all of the Ashtanga Series.  The practice always begins with 3-5 of both sun salutations, Surya Namaskara A and B. This is followed by the same sequence of standing postures. Next the postures that are contained within a particular series are practiced. This is followed, no matter what series has been practiced, by backbends and finishing postures. A minimum of a 5 minute rest in final relaxation pose concludes the practice. When you first go into a Mysore class it can seem confusing; like people are just doing their own thing or are doing random postures. But once you understand the basic structure of the series, it starts to make sense.

Never hesitate to call a teacher over. That’s what the teacher is there for. Teachers scan the room to see who needs help, so usually if you just stop in your practice and wait, the teacher will notice and come over when she has finished helping another student. It is not advised to walk over to the teacher to get their attention—but they’ll see you if you signal them.

Why are there series? Why not just do what feels good day to day?

Different series are designed to address different and particular aspects of an integrated yoga practice. The primary series, for example, is grounding; the intermediate series is said to cleanse the nervous system.  Following the prescribed sequence serves several functions. First, the series are designed to prepare the body for the postures that follow. Becoming grounded through the primary series makes the practitioner ready to begin opening into deep backbends (which are in the intermediate series) without becoming mentally scattered, emotionally imbalanced, or ego driven—which can happen if back bending is practiced without proper grounding. Also, following a series insures that the less appealing postures are part of the repertoire. It’s always a temptation to skip postures we don’t like and often these postures are the very ones that will benefit us the most. Finally, by doing the same sequences repeatedly and by practicing on a regular basis—ideally 6 days a week—a rhythmic and meditative form automatically arises. This process allows the students to practice deeply; to move beyond the external form of the practice into the patterns of thought and emotional that shape the body from the inside. As we give space to the inner recesses of our bodies, we slowly release ourselves from subconscious patterns of conditioning.  This is the practice of Yoga. 

What is so great about “self-practice?”

When there isn’t a teacher guiding a led class, the responsibility falls squarely on the practitioner to practice with authenticity and intelligence. This form of introspective practice allows the student to observe the feelings, thoughts and sensations that arise during the practice and to gradually stop grasping at the pleasant experiences while rejecting the unpleasant ones. It allows the student to cultivate a visceral understanding of change and impermanence and a meditative state automatically arises.

If I’ve never been to a Mysore class before, is it OK to just show up?

Yes! That’s actually a great way to begin the practice. It’s helpful if you have some idea about what Ashtanga Yoga is, but even if you’re not sure you’re up to speed, beginners are always welcome. Some students find it helpful to attend guided classes at the studio to get a sense of the Ashtanga system before checking out Mysore. We offer Intro to Mysore Series on a quarterly basis but this is not a pre-requisite if you want to dive directly into a Mysore class.

Who practices Mysore?

All sorts of people from beginners to long-time practitioners. The Ashtanga method is perfect for young, athletically oriented people. At the same time this practice is something that can benefit you when you at any age and at any phase of health. You’ll find that any given class has a wide range of age, experience, flexibility and strength in attendance. It can appear when you first walk into class that everyone is advanced, because people seem to know what they’re doing and because they are practicing on their own, but many beginning students practice Mysore Style.

How do I know it’s time to move on to a new posture or start a new series? 

Students work with the teachers individually to determine when it is appropriate from them to move on, modify or experiment with new postures. Students are encouraged to practice within their capability of focus, strength and flexibility. We do not encourage students to breeze through a series or skip postures ‘they cannot do’ or don’t like. 

Our Mysore teachers meet on a regular basis in order to offer a coordinated approach for students. We try to keep abreast of each student’s needs so that we can help the students from our own experience.  The decision to move a student onto the next pose is not purely based on physical ability.  The student's overall mental, emotional, energetic and physical gestalt is considered.  Mysore Style practice is a process that requires time, consistency, patience, curiosity, introspection and dedication.  It may take a year or more to learn the full primary series.  Ultimately the practice is not about the postures themselves but the internal process they reveal.  The mat the microcosm, is the laboratory where we run experiments and gather data about how we are predisposed to think, speak and act when presented with various circumstances. This data is then applied to the macrocosm of daily lifestyle practices and choices.

What is Ujjayi breath?

One central aspect of the Ashtanga system is the ujjayi pranayama — breathing with sound.  A sound that is made by breathing through the nose but from the throat.  A gentle contraction in the throat creates an audible whisper.  Sometimes people get overly enthusiastic and may begin to breathe with too much force, but generally it is a smooth, even and non-aggressive sounding breath. The breath is intended to be a means of focusing the mind and inviting the practitioner enter a state of meditation.  As a general rule, inhaling is associated with expansive, opening, spreading, lifting types of movements.  Exhaling is associated with contracting, dropping, grounding and curling types of movements.

What are the bandhas?

Bandhas are internal seals that contain body and lend it strength and grace. The three principle bandhas used throughout the posture practice are mula bandha, the pelvic floor lock, uddiyana bandha, the abdominal lock, andjalandhara bandha, the neck lock. Bandhas stabilize potentially vulnerable areas of the body while imbuing the postures themselves with buoyancy and ease. With breath there is bandha. In general, the exhale is correlated with mula bandha and the inhale is correlated with uddiyana bandha.  

What does “dristi” mean?

Each pose has a preferred dristi or gazing point.  The gaze is another mindfulness training tool that encourages the student to attune to the sensations of their own body-mind. The gaze is soft and focused, never gripping nor darting. The most common gazing point is the nose, though some postures may have a gaze at the fingertips, the eyebrows, the hand or the navel. 

I feel like when I practice by myself I get stuck and I think too much.  Should I just go to a guided class instead?

When first beginning a self-practice it can be difficult to stay focused. That’s one of the benefits of memorizing the sequence slowly over time; by knowing what posture comes next and by simply keeping moving, the mind doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to wander. By keeping the gaze steady, the movement coordinated with the breathing, and by coming back again and again to the sound of the breath the mind gradually begins to release and relax and drop in.

Cultivating a meditative form of practice takes time and patience, but it is well worth it and cannot ever happen in a guided class to the depth that it can when doing self-practice.