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. 

Navaratri: The Nine Nights of the Goddess

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NAVARATRI: The Celebration of the Goddess
Monday, September 25th from 3-345pm with Kacey Davy

Donation class benefitting Sierra Child & Family Services.

Join us for Sanskrit chanting and storytelling…

This class will honor the Goddess with chanting of mantras, flowers, and offerings of food. All are welcome to join in this celebration of the Goddess. 

FREE! Bring a snack and something special for the altar.

REGISTER ONLINE

Navaratri is widely celebrated throughout India and symbolizes a time for internal reflection and purification. “Nava” means nine and “ratri” is night. The first three days are devoted to the Goddess Durgā who symbolizes the destructive and protective aspect of ourselves. Durgā represents the destruction of our inner demons by acknowledging our shortcomings and emotions such as fear, selfishness, desire, and anger. The next three days we honor the aspect of Lakṣhmī who represents our seeking of prosperity in the form of positivity, courage, generosity, and devotion. During the last three days we celebrate the Goddess Sarasvāti who represents spiritual knowledge, wisdom, creativity, and the ability to know our true Self.

The Road to Bliss with Kali Om

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Maha Sadhana means “The Great Practice,” and this amazing intensive will help you overcome imagined limitations, deepen your spiritual connection, and make rapid progress in your practice. We'll do plenty of hip, spine and shoulder-opening postures - some of which you may not have seen before - and focus on how they fit into the philosophy of yoga, including its ethical roots and scripture. We’ll also do mantra (chanting), pranayama (breathwork) and concentration – the goal of which is to settle the mind into silence so that we can experience our true, blissful nature. These practices were learned directly from Kali's spiritual preceptor, Sri Dharma Mittra. All levels with previous yoga experience are welcome; Ashtangis will find this to be a wonderful adjunct to their regular practice.

Kali Om has been teaching yoga since 1998 and is registered at the highest (E-RYT 500) level. She has completed 200-, 500-, and 800-hour trainings with her guru, Sri Dharma Mittra, and studied five times in India with Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. She is also certified to teach pranayama (breathwork), meditation, Hormone Yoga Therapy for Menopause, Prenatal yoga, Yoga Nidra, Psychic Development, Gentle/Restorative yoga and yoga for seniors, as well as yoga therapeutics. She leads retreats locally and in Belize, and is a columnist and cartoonist for “Yoga Chicago” magazine. She’s a lead instructor for the Chicago School of Yoga’s teacher training program, and is co-chair of the Vivekenanda East-West International Yoga Festival. She teaches as an offering to her guru. More at wwwyogikaliom.com

Friday, November 10th I 5:30 - 8 p.m. I Shiva Namaskar: Intro to Asana & Pranayama

An introduction to Sri Dharma Mittra’s challenging-yet-meditative Shiva Namaskar vinyasa, which is designed to open the body quickly and efficiently; variations will offered for different levels. We’ll also explore how asana and pranayama fit into the larger yoga system.

REGISTER ONLINE

Saturday, November 11th I 9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m. I Raja Yoga Maha Sadhana

Our focus will be raja yoga, or the royal path of yoga (the yoga of mind control, from the Yoga Sutras). We’ll weave the Eight Limbs of Yoga into our practice - which will include asana, pranayama, chanting, philosophy and meditation. Sri Dharma Mittra says “Without Yama, there is no yoga.” REGISTER ONLINE

Saturday, November 11th I 4 - 6:30 p.m. I Chakras and Nadis: Divine Purification and Yoga Nidra

Yoga Nidra is an active, lying down meditation that purifies, rejuvenates and energizes all of the body’s systems, bolstering its natural healing capacities and relieving depression, anxiety, headaches, and cravings. Divine Purification includes special breathing, chanting, visualization and concentration techniques to help open the nadis (subtle energy channels), calm the mind, and stimulate the chakras. REGISTER ONLINE

Sunday, November 12th I 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. I Bhakti Flow Maha Sadhana

Bhakti, or the yoga of devotion, will be the focus of our final practice, which will include asana, pranayama, chanting, philosophy and meditation. REGISTER ONLINE

TUITION:

Full Urban Retreat I $130 prior to October 1st - $160 thereafter

REGISTER ONLINE for FULL RETREAT prior to OCTOBER 1st

Individual Workshops I $50

Niyama - Personal Observances

Last month we reviewed the yama or universal observances. This month we examine the niyama or personal observances. As the first two limbs, the yama and niyama establish the foundation of Patanjali's eight-limbed practice of Yoga.

As yama is universal social practices, niyama evolves from individual practices that strength one's character. The Sanskrit word yama translates as; to bridle, to restrain, to check or hold-in. The prefix 'ni'  as inniyama, is an intensifier signaling an internal restraint and discipline.

The five niyama are purity (shauca), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapah), self-study (svadhyaya) and the perfect aligning of attention with the True Self (ishvara-pranidhana). Purity extends beyond the external cleanliness of the physical body to include the nourishment that goes into body, the sensory impressions taken in via personal relationships/media and the subtle quality of thoughts and beliefs.  Contentment as an internal practice means embracing an Absolute Joy that is independent of external circumstances or conditions.  It is relaxing into the world as it is and the letting go of external attachments that allows one to abide in the here and the now.  Tapah, literally "to heat," is an intense commitment to the internal process.  Each time a distracting impulse, intense emotion or outdated habit surfaces but is not obeyed the heat of this friction moves us closer to discriminating awareness.  Self-study is independent study of philosophical texts and, more importantly, how one applies them to one's own life in order to "walk the talk."  Lastly, isvara-pranidhana.  Isvara is pure awareness, the omniscient Self, the Seer or the God within.  Pranidhana is orienting every thought, word and deed toward knowing pure awareness. Chip Hartranft in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras sums it up beautifully, "Isvara-pranidhana provides the point of focus to which the yogi continually returns in the course of practice (abhyasa) and the inspiration to cultivate non-reaction (vairagya)."

The inner life of every human being is visited by unwholesome and negative thoughts of all kinds. Patanjali doesn't find fault or judge but rather regards this as the natural state of affairs.  He does, however, state that we have the power to neutralize unwholesome thoughts by cultivating and realizing their opposites.  Otherwise, our unwholesome thoughts are bound to manifest and contribute to the cycle of suffering, pain and delusion.  The ten yama and niyama serve as a baseline "karmic management" program that encourage us to take actions that allow us to gain mastery over our lives while minimizing karmic burden.

Yamas - Universal Disciplines

The Yamas-Universal Disciplines


Over the last several months we have been taking a closer look at the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. The Sadhana Pada is the chapter on practice. This chapter includes one of the most beloved pieces of Yoga philosophy, the 8 Limbs of Yoga.  The 8 Limbs of Yoga are both a starting place and a roadmap for the student seeking an understanding of the philosophy that supports the 5000 year old practice. But as Richard Freeman so wisely states, "the map is not the territory." The map can give us a theoretically understanding of being there but, alas, it is not the same as actually being there.  If what follows resonates, I encourage you to seek out resources (including Shala teachers), journal, meditate and discuss your discoveries. Nothing beats ones' first hand experience.  The practice of Yoga is a living, dynamic, constantly changing tradition that requires your curiosity and insight in order to continue to evolve from generation to generation.


The first of the eight limbs is yama, universal disciplines. The Sanskrit word yama translates as; to bridle, to restrain, to check or hold-in. The yama focus on the interactions we have with people and things outside of ourselves. Together with the niyamas, or internal disciplines (to be discussed next month), the first two limbs of Yoga form the fundamental ethical precepts at the foundation of the practice.  To be clear, Yoga is not a religion. It is a philosophy of existence that offers us the contemplative science and technology for living the good life.  At the core of the Yoga practice is the understanding that we are all interconnected. You can interpret it on the gross level - we share air, earth, sun and water - or the subtle level - we share the spark of consciousness. The Dali Lama sums it up nicely, "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness."  The living practice of the five universal disciplines is an exercise in placing all beings inside your heart while simultaneously seeing yourself in others. 


The five yama are non-harming (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), moderation (brahmacharya) and non-grasping (aparigrahah).  Theses principles seem fairly straightforward but they run deep into every action, deed, attitude, thought and word. These questions are merely food for thought, not personal opinions or judgements. Does non-harming extended to animals? Insects?  Does non-stealing included other's time or energy?  Brahmacharya was traditionally considered a period of chastity. Most modern house-holding yogi's prefer to translate this yamaas moderation, specifically in the arena of sexual desire. Are there areas in your life where desires of any kind consume and incapacitate you?  The yama are ordered with intention.  Can you practice non-hurtfullness when speaking your truth?  Can you practice non-grasping in your intimate relationships?  Perhaps over the next five weeks you will ruminate on these question and others of your own, recognize patterns and reaffirm your Yoga practice as a method for creating a gap between the spark and the flame....