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
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
At the end of his
Ashtanga Yoga teacher training with John and Lucy, Paul
challenged to focus on teaching the foundations of the practice
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.
and adaptations of the practice do not involve deviating
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
bodies or feeling disempowered by the practice.
This approach is
taught in both group classes and in one-to-one sessions.
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
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
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
or God. All approaches to yoga have
the same aim of
achieving this union,
so it is unwise to speak of one kind of
better or superior to another. They are merely different paths up the same
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,
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
the body). The Primary Series is a comprehensive asana practice beginning
with Surya Namaskara (sun salute) A & B, standing postures,
postures, twists, backbends and inversions.
What makes Ashtanga
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
continuously in and out of postures,
sustained by breath, bandha and
(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
be confused with 'Power Yoga', which has been adapted from Ashtanga,
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
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.
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
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
From the moment you
begin your practice, the body is sustained and nourished by steady
deep Ujjayi breathing. Ujjayi (meaning "victorious" breath) is
done by a subtle
contraction of the throat so that a soft, low
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
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
inhalation or exhalation, but instead flows continuously. The in and out
breath are the same length – a practice that is facilitated by Ujjayi
the subtle contraction of the throat helps to regulate the flow of
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
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
shoulder blades. This can be a challenge for those more used to abdominal
After the breath,
the next most important technique for practicing Ashtanga
Yoga is Bandha.
"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.
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
be isolated from each other. Some teachers suggest to new students
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
this subject called "Moola Bandha: The Master Key" available
from the Mandala Yoga Ashram in Wales.
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
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
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
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
- Apana – downward moving
energy from just below the navel downwards.
- Samana – a regulating
energy in the navel area between prana and
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
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.