with Paul Fox BWY Dip

Ashtanga Yoga
Paul endeavours to teach Ashtanga Yoga in way that make it accessible to all students while remaining true to the Mysore tradition. Some people have a negative experience of Ashtanga because it is taught to them in a hard-core way, without making allowances for western bodies, tight hamstrings and a weak core caused by our predominantly sedentary lifestyle.  

Many great Ashtanga teachers, like John and Lucy Scott, will nurture such students into the foundations of the practice, working around these limitations. This is also the only way to work that is in keeping with yoga’s first moral principle, ahimsa or non-violence.

At the end of his Ashtanga Yoga teacher training with John and Lucy, Paul
was challenged to focus on teaching the foundations of the practice and a
half primary. Although at the time this was challenging, and even humbling,
he has found that a deep inquiry into how to make the necessary
modifications to enable everyone to enjoy the benefits of Ashtanga
Vinyasa Yoga has provided a rich vein of teaching and learning.

The modifications and adaptations of the practice do not involve deviating
from the essentials of the Mysore practice of breath and movement, bandha
and drishti. Nor does it involve altering the sequence of postures. Rather, it involves adapting the form of some of the postures to fit in with the function
of the student’s body. Eventually, when the desired openings are forthcoming, the student can move towards the more traditional form without harming their
bodies or feeling disempowered by the practice.

This approach is taught in both group classes and in one-to-one sessions.

Ashtanga Yoga originated in India and has a long tradition. The main
Guru of Ashtanga Yoga for the past decades was Shri K Pattabhi Jois,
who died in May 2009. His yoga shala and Ashtanga Yoga Research Centre is in in Mysore, India. His Guru was T Krishnamacharya, a remarkable yogi who inspired, through his disciples, no less than three distinct approaches to yoga: Ashtanga, Iyengar (BKS Iyengar) and the
yoga of TKV Desikachar, who is Krishnamacharya’s son.

Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya (pictured left) are said to
have worked from the Yoga Korunta - an ancient manuscript containing the sequence of postures that Ashtanga Yoga is
based upon. They called it Ashtanga, meaning "eight limbed", because they believed the practice dated back to the time of Patanjali who wrote the Yoga Sutras setting out the eight fold
path of yoga to reach enlightenment.

Ashtanga Yoga is a form of Hatha Yoga, which means that it aims to work on the mind through disciplined practices for
the body. The word Yoga means "yoke" or "union" between the individual soul or purusha and universal consciousness
or God. All approaches to yoga have
the same aim of achieving this union,
so it is unwise to speak of one kind of
yoga being better or superior to another. They are merely different paths up the same mountain.

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a particularly demanding form
of Hatha Yoga that is strongly physical and requires dedication and discipline. This can be daunting at first,
but the intensive demands of a regular Ashtanga Yoga practice can reward students with rapid progress in their development.

Most people practicing Ashtanga Yoga are working on the Primary Series of postures, otherwise known as Yoga Chikitsa (meaning practices to cleanse, purify and
rebalance the body). The Primary Series is a comprehensive asana practice beginning with Surya Namaskara (sun salute) A & B, standing postures,
sitting postures, twists, backbends and inversions. What makes Ashtanga
Yoga unique is that this large number of
postures is woven into a flowing Vinyasa.
Instead of practicing a yoga posture, stopping
and then preparing to move on to a different
asana (as happens in most yoga classes) you
flow continuously in and out of postures,
sustained by breath, bandha and drishti
(Photo left shows two of my favourite people
and talented London-based Ashtanga yoga teachers, Paulo and Kirsteen with Sharath Rangaswamy. Below, Paulo and Kirsteen with John and Lucy)

 

 

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga should not
be confused with 'Power Yoga', which has been adapted from Ashtanga,
but has only a short tradition.
Pattabhi Jois sought to preserve and honour the system of Ashtanga Yoga, as handed down by his Guru, Krishnamacharya, by strictly
controlling how it is taught. Students
are still encouraged to go to Mysore
in India regularly and for at least a
month at a time to study directly at
the source.  Here in the UK, Pattabhi Jois expected students to continue their practice under the guidance of a  teacher directly certified by him, such as
John Scott. Gaining certification from the shala in Mysore is a long and demanding process.

 

 

The flowing Vinyasa of Ashtanga Yoga is sustained by breath, bandha (internal lock) and drishti (looking place). At first, when learning the postures, it may be difficult for students to incorporate all these
elements into their practice. This is not uncommon and should not be disheartening. Practice and more practice – the bedrock of Ashtanga
Yoga - will soon integrate these fundamental elements into your
approach to the Primary Series.

Breath
Bandha
Drishti

Breath
From the moment you begin your practice, the body is sustained and nourished by steady
and deep Ujjayi breathing. Ujjayi (meaning "victorious" breath) is done by a subtle
contraction of the throat so that a soft, low
sigh-like sound is emitted during the breathing process. This technique is sometimes called the "sound of the sea" breath because it is reminiscent of the waves breaking on the shore.

If you can whisper, you can do Ujjayi. Try talking in a whisper or sighing and notice how the sound is made in the throat. Now try to continue making that sound while you breathe in and out through the nose (all breathing in
Ashtanga is done through the nose, not the mouth).

Notice how the Ujjayi breath is calming to the mind, which becomes still and focused. Good Ujjayi breathing throughout your practice will help to develop
a meditative quality to your asana work.

In Ashtanga Yoga, the breath should be visualised as an equal circle, with the inhalation from the base of the circle to the top, and the exhalation from the
top to the bottom. As this analogy implies, the breath is not held at the end
of the inhalation or exhalation, but instead flows continuously. The in and out breath are the same length – a practice that is facilitated by Ujjayi because
the subtle contraction of the throat helps to regulate the flow of breath.

This breathing technique leads to awareness of a polarity or energies in the breath. The inhalation is accompanied by an upward energy, while the exhalation has a quality of grounding, downward-moving or "earth" energy. This blends in with the asana work because you are opening up and lifting on inhalations and often folding forward and/or making an earth connection on the out-breath. As your practice progresses,  you will notice that the essence of the grounding energy remains in the inhalation, and the essence of the upward energy is retained during the exhalation.

During the demanding asana practice that characterises Ashtanga Yoga, the breath needs to be full and rhythmic to sustain the body with oxygen and
prana. The breath is also directed mainly in the chest, particularly in
downward dog, when the abdomen is drawn in and the breath directed
between the shoulder blades. This can be a challenge for those more used to abdominal breathing.

Bandha
After the breath, the next most important technique for practicing Ashtanga
Yoga is Bandha.

Bandha means "lock" or "seal". There are three main bandhas in Hatha Yoga: moola bandha, located at the pelvic floor; uddiyana bandha, located in the abdomen; and jalandhara bandha, located in the throat area.

In Ashtanga Yoga the drawing up of the pelvic floor, the drawing in of the abdominal muscles and the
subtle constriction of the throat during Ujjayi
breathing correspond with these three bandhas.
But only moola bandha is fully applied in the way described by the classical texts on hatha yoga.


Moola Bandha
There are three groups of muscles in the pelvic floor, around the anus, the genitals and in between in the perineum. On a physical level, the application
of moola bandha means drawing up the muscles of the perineum only. At first
this can be difficult, and students should practice contracting and relaxing the whole of the pelvic floor until muscle tone is gained. Further exercises can
involve drawing up and relaxing each group of muscles in turn until they can
be isolated from each other. Some teachers suggest to new students that
they should begin by contracting the anus, as this is the easiest part of the
pelvic floor to work on and the muscles of the perineum usually follow along.

The importance of moola bandha cannot be underestimated. The drawing up
of the perineum is the foundation for core strength in the body. It leads to a
tilting of the pelvis into its correct plane and provides lift up through the centre of the body right to the top of the head.

On a psychic level, the contraction of moola bandha also activates the base chakra, mooladhara. This is the chakra for spiritual awakening and earth
energy and its activation can lead to rapid progress in the spiritual aspects of yoga when the energy released is channelled in the right direction. The Bihar School of Yoga founded by Swami Satyananda published a very good book
on this subject called "Moola Bandha: The Master Key" available from the Mandala Yoga Ashram in Wales.

Uddiyana Bandha
Drawing up moola bandha automatically activates the abdominal muscles and encourages them to be drawn in towards the body. A more conscious effort may be required to maintain this subtle drawing in of the abdomen  throughout the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. The engagement of the abdominal muscles combined with moola bandha further strengthens the core of the body and provides support for the lower back, guarding against injury during demanding posture work.

The drawing in of the abdomen is not an extreme movement, and should be thought of as bringing about stillness below the navel. That stillness is
facilitated by keeping the breath in the chest and not low down in the
abdomen.

In the subtle energy body, the abdominal area is the location for Manipura Chakra, where prana is stored. It is also the seat of gastric fire, necessary for
a healthy digestive system. Ujjayi breath combined with a drawing in of the abdomen stokes the fire of manipura, giving you energy for your practice and other health benefits.

Jalandhara Bandha
The full application of this bandha as an exercise in itself is not emphasised in the Primary Series. But, as stated earlier, the subtle contraction of the throat from Ujjayi breathing brings about some of the benefits of Jalandhara Bandha.

According to yoga theory, the body is sustained by subtle energy known as prana. There are five prana vayus, but in the chest, abdomen and pelvis,
prana is subdivided into three parts.

  • Prana – upward moving energy from just above the navel to the top of
    the shoulders.
  • Apana – downward moving energy from just below the navel downwards.
  • Samana – a regulating energy in the navel area between prana and
    apana.

The application of moola bandha reverses the flow of apana, sending it
upwards. The application of Ujjayi forces prana downwards. When prana
and apana meet, they form one continuous flow of upward moving energy. 
This helps to sustain the physical practice of Ashtanga yoga, works with
chakra energy and encourages spiritual development.

Drishti
A drishti, or "looking place", is prescribed for each posture in Ashtanga Yoga.  By directing your gaze at either your thumbs, toes, nose or third eye (between
the eyebrows) concentration is developed.

The practice of drishti also encourages pratyahara, or withdrawal of the
senses. A fixed gaze is less likely to lead you to looking around, or at other students, and instead encourage an inward-looking and meditative practice.