WHAT About Astanga Yoga
So what is Ashtanga Yoga? Well, it's a big subject and this barely touches the surface but it's a bit of an overview.
Ashtanga is a Sanskrit word which translates as Eight Limbs.....the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Much has been written and debated about the details of these Eight Limbs which were first outlined in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written around 400CE. They are a series of 196 aphorisms (truths, observations) much like the 'old adages' we use today; ditties, if you like, open to personal interpretation and application. Never have I had so many light bulb moments reading a book!
This 'guide for living' is so simple and yet so complex. It's said that these aphorisms were notes taken by Patanjali's students as he tutored them in the ways of Yoga. In the Portion on Practice (Sadhana Pada), he lists the Eight Limbs:
1. Yama - abstinence, regulation
2. Niyama - Observances, training
3. Asana - Posture practice
4. Pranayama - Breath Control
5. Pratyahara - Sense Internalising
6. Dharana - Concentration
7. Dhyana - Meditation
8. Samadhi - Contemplation, absorption, superconscious
The intention is for these limbs, or stages, of yoga to be practiced in order. In the West, our access to them is usually via Asana practice and, interestingly, it is through this 4th limb of Asana, that we can, with practice, experience the other seven.
Ashtanga covers all Hatha Raja Yoga (the original name for all yoga) but its name today usually indicates a set sequence of postures which make up a specific yoga practice. Refined by Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga has been popularised by such names as Madonna and Sting and it is synonymous with both mental and physical strength.
So this set sequence of Asanas! There are actually Six in the Series but, more often than not, the Primary Series (known as 'Yoga Chikitsa' is practiced in an Ashtanga Class. Primary Series can be broken down into a number of stages:
Surya Namaskara A
Surya Namaskara B
Seated Sequence - (the start of Primary Series)
It is said that Ashtanga Asana Practice is all about the breath and the bandhas. The breath is integral to deepening the practice and achieving a flow and the bandhas are, loosely speaking, core support (there is a magic to the bandhas though, which is hard for even the most adept yogis to explain!) The other aspect is drishti or focal point. This is both external, i.e. tip of the nose, the thumbs, and internal (pratyahara: 5th Limb).
There is a flow (vinyassa) to the whole practice which, in time, transforms into a moving meditation. It's a beautiful practice and so often our approach to it mimics our approach to life. It's like our mat becomes a microcosm... it's fascinating and it teaches us so much more than choreographed moves!
The key to the whole thing is practice. Patabhi Jois said "Do your practice and all is coming" and The Ashtanga Series can facilitate an independent, personal practice where the practice itself becomes the teacher. Here's the thing; Ashtanga means different things to different folk. No practice is wasted, there's more to it than meets the eye and life is better with it than without. If you turn up on your Ashtanga mat you'll find out what it means for you.