Many students, including myself, turn up to their 200-hour yoga teacher training to develop and deepen their Vinyasa practice, because it’s the one that is most widely taught in the Western world. Some of us come from a dance background and love the sequences or ‘flows’ that make up a vinyasa class, different every time, exploring the build up to a variety of challenging ‘peak poses’. What I surprise it is, then, to find that the core practice at various yoga schools in India is Ashtanga.
When I did my yoga teacher training with Sudhir, I learned that Ashtanga was the basis of vinyasa practice and that all the Wild Things, Happy Babies and Dancer’s Poses found their origins in Ashtanga, and a core ‘primary series’ of dynamic asanas (poses) that was codified by Pattabhi Jois in the 1930s in Mysore, India. Jois was heavily influenced by Sage Patanjali’s Yoga ‘Sutras’ which included the eight limbs (Ashtanga) of a yoga lifestyle.
Jois’ series of asanas was based on the vigorous practice taught by his own teacher in Mysore, Krishnamacharya, who had created it on young boys to increase their strength and stamina. (For many women learning to practice Ashtanga, knowing that it was originally made on boys can be enormously helpful.) These asanas take years to develop for some (maybe most) people, and in Mysore, you are only able to move on to the next pose in the primary series when you have mastered the one before it. In most yoga studios, especially in the West, we expect our bodies to tackle them all brilliantly straight away.
Each class starts with a series of sun salutations, moving through some physically demanding, weight-bearing asanas such as plank pose, chaturanga and downward-facing dog. A series of standing then seated asanas and a floor finishing sequence follow, the latter two stages of asanas linked together by ‘vinyasas’ which could be described as ‘half salutations’ between poses, all keeping the breath flowing and synchronised with the movements, not to mention keeping the body warm and energised.
For me, the repeated sequence of Ashtanga asanas became something of a ritual, and it is this practice that has most informed my own personal practice four years later. The repeated sequence of asanas held for five deep ujjayi (victorious) breaths each (longer at the end of class) has a calming, meditative effect, which prepares the body for the meditation practice that ‘should’ follow it.
The repeated asanas are like moving mantras of the body. When you are practising them, not only is your breath focused and engaged in the ujjayi, but your gaze, or drishti, is required to sit in targeted areas such as the fingertips or tip of the nose. All of this focused activity brings the gaze and awareness further inward, towards the self, the ultimate goal of yoga. Many people find that their mental and emotional health improves with the practice, its repetitive nature and disciplined sequence providing a focus during challenging times in their lives.
As well as giving us muscular strength and a healthy, focused mind, Ashtanga asanas maximise the healthy functioning of the body too. One of the purposes of the practice is to direct the ‘prana’ or ‘life force’ we take into the body during the ujjayi breath into its 72,000 ‘nadis’ or channels. We use a series of ‘bandhas’ or energy locks to lift the prana up and along the sushumna nadi, the main channel in the body, closely aligned with the spine. The faces of 200-hour Ashtanga/Vinyasa students glow with the good health and bright eyes of the practice (and the nutritious veg/vegan food which is prepared with love and with ayurvedic intelligence).
Ashtanga asanas can be challenging for some bodies to achieve, but students are also taught how to modify the asanas to their own, and others’, bodies. I have modified the asanas almost completely to my own physical capabilities, whilst aiming for the ‘full expression’ of each one.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of Ashtanga is that it is a practice that equips students with a personal practice for life, that can be taken anywhere in the world with them and completed at any time. During the yoga teacher training, students take part in ‘Mysore’ classes where they take themselves through the sequence in their own time, at their own pace. This is the point in the training where the penny drops, where the student’s gaze is drawn away from fellow students’ progress around them and fully turned inward to their own practice. The silence of the room with no teaching sounds, just the sound of ujjayi breath, induces calm and an inner peace.
So why does Sthira Yoga School include Ashtanga on its 200-hour yoga teacher training course? Because it has a direct relationship with the ancient yoga tradition, underpinning the vinyasa practice that features on the same course and on our 300-hour course. It is an incredibly strengthening, healthful and mindful practice, that leads students most effectively towards a personal practice and an inward gaze. If the goal of yoga, according to Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, is meditation (and enlightenment) then the calm, focused repetition of the Ashtanga asana sequence is one of the most efficient routes to that goal. For myself, using the primary series as the basis of my regular practice is something I never imagined, but having tailored it to my own needs, I recognise it as one of the greatest gifts I've ever been given on a training course: a practice for life.
Study with Sthira Yoga School– related courses:
200hr Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga TTC
Lisa Edwards is a freelance writer and editor who completed her 200-hour YTT with Sudhir Rishi in Goa in 2019. She has since completed Sthira Yoga School courses in Yoga Philosophy, Advanced Meditation and Advanced Pranayama and is currently studying the Bhagavad Gita with Sudhir. She is the author of two books, containing the story of her yoga journey: Cheat Play Live and Dark Horses Ride, and a children’s yoga series, Om Child. She splits her time between India and the UK.