ASHTANGA YOGA

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ASHTANGA YOGA

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, also known as Ashtanga Yoga, is a style of yoga codified and popularized by  K. Pattabhi Jois, it is often promoted as a modern-day form of classical Indian yoga. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is named after the eight limbs of yoga mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanajli.

Power Yoga and vinyasa yoga are generic terms that may refer to any type of vigorous yoga exercise derived from Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.  The term vinyasa refers to the alignment of movement and breath, a method which turns static asanas into a dynamic flow. The length of one inhale or one exhale dictates the length of time spent transitioning between asanas. Asanas are then held for a predefined number of breaths. In effect, attention is placed on the breath and the journey between the asanas rather than solely on achieving perfect body alignment in an asana, as is emphasized in Hatha Yoga.  The term vinyasa can also refer to a specific series of movements that are frequently done between each asana in a series. This viṅyāsa ‘flow’ is a variant of Surya namaskara, the Sun Salutations, and is used in other styles of yoga other than Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. An example of a standard vinyasa is from a seated position, a ‘jump-back’, low plank, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog, ending with a ‘jump-through’, directly into the next asana.

The breathing style used in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is referred to as “free breathing with sound” or “normal breath with free flow”. This breathing is characterized by a relaxed diaphragmatic style, producing an ocean sound, which resonates in the practitioner’s throat. Throughout a practice, this specific breathing style is maintained in alignment with movements. The steady cycle of inhales and exhales provides the practitioner with a calming, mental focal point. Additionally, viṅyāsa and this type of breathing together create internal heat, which leads to purification of the body through increased circulation and sweating.

The first four limbs—yama, niyama, asana, pranayama—are considered external cleansing practices. According to Pattabhi Jois, defects in the external practices are correctable. However, defects in the internal cleansing practices—pratyahara, dharana, dhyana—are not correctable and can be dangerous to the mind unless the correct Ashtanga yoga method is followed.  The definition of yoga is “the controlling of the mind” and are the perfection of yama and niyama.  However, it is “not possible to practice the limbs and sub-limbs of yama and niyama when the body and sense organs are weak and haunted by obstacles”. A person must first take up daily asana practice to make the body strong and healthy. With the body and sense organs thus stabilized, the mind can be steady and controlled.  To perform asana correctly in Ashtanga yoga, one must incorporate the use of vinyasa and tristhana. “Vinyasa means breathing and movement system. For each movement, there is one breath. The first vinyasa is inhaling while raising your arms over your head, and putting your hands together; the second is exhaling while bending forward, placing your hands next to your feet.

The purpose of vinyasa is for internal cleansing.   Synchronizing breathing and movement in the asanas heats the blood, cleaning and thinning it so that it may circulate more freely. Improved blood circulation relieves joint pain and removes toxins and disease from the internal organs. The sweat generated from the heat of vinyasa then carries the impurities out of the body. Through the use of vinyasa, the body becomes healthy, light and strong.  Tristhana refers to the union of “three places of attention or action: posture, breathing system and looking place. These three are very important for yoga practice, and cover three levels of purification: the body, nervous system and mind. They are always performed in conjunction with each other.

Another major principle of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the bandha, or muscle locking/contraction, which focuses energy in the body and is closely tied to the breath.   Breathing: The breathing technique performed with vinyasa is called ujjayi [victorious breath] which consists of inhalation and exhalation.   Both the inhale and exhale should be steady and even, the length of the inhale should be the same length as the exhale. Over time, the length and intensity of the inhalation and exhalation should increase, such that the increased stretching of the breath initiates the increased stretching of the body.  Long, even breathing also increases the internal fire and strengthens and purifies the nervous system. Bandhas are essential components of the ujjayi breathing technique.Without bandha control, “breathing will not be correct, and the asanas will give no benefit.

Practicing asana for many years with correct vinyasa and tristhana gives the student the clarity of mind, steadiness of body, and purification of the nervous system to begin the prescribed pranayama practice.  Through the practice of pranayama, the mind becomes arrested in a single direction and follows the movement of the breath. Pranayama forms the foundation for the internal cleansing practices of Ashtanga yoga.

The four internal cleansing practices—pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi—bring the mind under control.   When purification is complete and mind control occurs, the Six Poisons surrounding the spiritual heart [kama (desire), krodha (anger), moha (delusion), lobha (greed), matsarya (sloth), and mada (envy)]—will, one by one, go completely revealing the Universal Self.

The existence or historicity of this oral transmission cannot be verified, and the text itself has not been preserved. It is said to have been made up of stanzas using rhymed, metered sutras, in the manner common to texts transmitted orally in the guru-shishya tradition.   The name Yoga Korunta is the Tamilized pronunciation of the Sanskrit words Yoga grantha, meaning “book about yoga”.   Ashtanga series is said to have its origin in an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta.   The story of the Yoga Korunta though finds no evidence in any historical research on the subject. It seems that no text with this name has ever been written. In addition, there is evidence that the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga series incorporates exercises used by Indian wrestlers and British gymnastics. Recent academic research details documentary evidence that physical journals in the early 20th century were full of the postural shapes that were very similar to Krishnamnacharya’s asana system.     Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has since been thought of as a physically demanding practice, which can be successful at channeling the hyperactivity of young minds. This system can also be used as a vessel for helping calm ongoing chatter of the mind, reducing stress and teaching extroverted personalities to redirect their attention to their internal experience.

The first four limbs—yama, niyama, asana and pranayama—are considered external cleansing practices. According to Pattabhi Jois, defects in these external practices are correctable while defects in the internal cleansing practices—pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi—are not. Pattabhi Jois thought these internal defects to be potentially dangerous to the mind unless the correct Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga method was followed.

There are three bandhas which are considered our internal body locks, prescribed in the different asanas. The bandha is a sustained contraction of a group of muscles that assists the practitioner not only in retaining an asana but also in moving in and out of it. The Mula Bandha, or root lock, is performed by tightening the muscles around the pelvic and perineum area. The Uddiyana Bandha, often described as bringing the navel to the base of the spine, is a contraction of the muscles of the lower abdominal area – this bandha is considered the most important bandha as it supports our breathing and encourages the development of strong core muscles. Jalandhara Bandha, throat lock, is achieved by lowering the chin slightly while raising the sternum and the palate bringing the gaze to the tip of the nose.     Drishti, or focused gaze, is a means for developing concentrated intention. The most common is Ūrdhva, or upward gazing, where the eyes are lifted, with the spine aligned from crown to tailbone. This technique is employed in a variety of asanas.

There are, in total, nine drishtis that instruct the yoga student in directing his or her gaze. Each asana is associated with a particular drishti. They include:   Aṅguṣṭha madhyai: to the thumb; Bhrūmadhya: to the third eye, or between the eyebrows; Nāsāgrai: at the tip of the nose (or a point six inches from the tip); Hastagrai: to the palm, usually the extended hand; Pārśva: to the left/right side;  Ūrdhva: to the sky, or upwards; Nābhicakra: to the navel; and Pādayoragrai: to the toes.

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The Ashtanga practice is traditionally started with the following Sanskrit mantra:

I bow to the lotus feet of the gurus,
The awakening happiness of one’s own self revealed,
Beyond better, acting like the jungle physician,
Pacifying delusion, the poison of samsara.

Taking the form of a man to the shoulders,
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword,
One thousand heads white,
To Patanjali, I salute.

and closes with the mangala mantra:

May prosperity be glorified,
may rulers (administrators) rule the world with law and justice,
may divinity and erudition be protected.
May all beings be happy and prosperous.

A more literal translation:

May it be well with the people.
Let Earth’s rulers protect the Earth with the path of law and justice.
May good fortune always befall cows and Brahmins.
May all the worlds be happy and comfortable.

Power Yoga, taking from its Hatha Yoga roots, consists of both a standing and sitting sequences of movements linking the usage of physical movement, breath-work or pranayama and meditation. Power Yoga strikes a balance between the originating values of yoga found in India and the North American societally driven demands for physical exercise.

Power Yoga is often practiced in a hot room held at a temperature approximate to 105°F.     Power Yoga has been argued to be the fundamental style of Hatha yoga that allowed for cultural acceptance of yoga in North America. According to the North American Studio Alliance, 30 million people are practicing yoga in the United States of America.  This includes practitioners not just of Power Yoga, but the entire practice of Hatha Yoga.

 Kathy Kiefer

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