I’ve been meeting a lot of people lately who are unfamiliar with Ashtanga, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to put this FAQ together to answer some questions that I hear regularly.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT ASHTANGA YOGA
What is Ashtanga?
Ashtanga Yoga is a system of yoga with a set sequence of postures. It is based around the concept of vinyasa, or breath-synchronized movement, meaning that the transitions between postures are given as much focus as the postures themselves. The result is a dynamic and rigorous practice.
I’ve heard that Ashtanga is a “traditional” yoga practice. What does this mean, and where does it come from?
The absolute origins of this practice are not entirely clear. What we know is that Sri K Pattabhi Jois, affectionately called Guruji by Ashtangis worldwide, learned this practice from his guru, Krishnamacharya (who was also BKS Iyengar’s teacher), and that it came from an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta. Tradition, as it is known in the this context, refers to parampara, or the guru-student lineage. Guruji learned this practice from his guru, and passed it on to his students. His students are now passing on the practice the way it was taught to them, and the way it continues to be taught in Mysore, India, at the K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, by Guruji’s grandson Sharath R Jois and his daughter Saraswathi Rangaswami.
The term “Ashtanga” means “eight limbs” in Sanskrit and comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which outline eight limbs to follow on the yogic path, only one of which is asana, or physical posture. In other words, Ashtanga Yoga is a comprehensive system of physical hatha yoga, but it also encompasses much more than the physical. A student of Ashtanga may only be interested in the physical part, and that is a perfectly fine place to be. An itch to learn more about the other limbs may follow, as a natural progression of the practice.
It’s the same sequence every time I practice? Won’t I get bored?
Maybe not at first. This is a challenging sequence for any student to learn. And although the sequence is set, your practice will evolve over time. A student might start with a beginning Ashtanga class and learn Surya Namaskar (sun salutations) and standing poses, and then progress through the Primary Series. If the student has been practicing the Primary Series regularly for a while in a Mysore setting (see “What is Mysore yoga?” below), his or her teacher may begin teaching the Intermediate (second) series. All in all, there are six series, and very few people do even the third or fourth.
That being said, yes, eventually you will get bored. Boredom is a challenge, just like lack of flexibility or lack of strength can be. Some days you will love every breath and movement, some days you will be dragging every part of your body. Some days you will be so in the moment that an hour and a half will go by before you know it, and some days it will feel like you’ll never get to the end. But the habit of being with whatever comes up, whatever reactions you have to your “amazing” or “awful” practice, is what will allow transformation to happen. This practice creates equanimity in the mind, and that ability to be calm and focused whether you’re angry, or bored, or excited, or scared, will translate to your life off the mat.
Doesn’t my body need variety in a yoga practice?
It does. And that’s Ashtanga sequencing is so intelligently designed: however far into the primary series you go, even if you’re not doing the whole thing, you get strength-building movements like the chaturanga-upward facing dog-downward facing dog vinyasa, you get lots of forward bending to open the hamstrings, hips, and lower back, you get backbending in every vinyasa and more backbending as you progress, you get twisting, side bending, and balancing.
Is the room heated?
Nope. It’s not necessary (except, you know, when it’s cold outside. We are in Minnesota, after all).
What you heard about heat helping you to get deeper into your muscle tissue and prevent injury is only partially correct. Ashtanga yoga builds heat internally, so you will warm up in the Surya Namaskara and stay warm throughout your practice. This kind of heat is what you want in order to soften tight muscles and increase flexibility. Artificially created heat can trick your body into going too far too fast, which can itself result in injury. Besides, the other practitioners in the room are building heat too, so the room will get warm. And you’re working hard, so you will sweat. If you’re not sweating under these conditions in a room that’s around 78-83° F, either you’re dehydrated (drink more water a few hours before class) or phoning it in.
What is Mysore yoga?
Mysore refers to the city in India where Guruji lived and founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (now the K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, or KPJAYI), and where his grandson Sharath, now the director of KPJAYI, and daughter Saraswathi still teach. Mysore-style Ashtanga is the method of teaching at the KPJAYI: essentially, self-practice with a teacher giving guidance through individual instruction and physical adjustments. In Mysore-style Ashtanga classes, students will usually commit to a regular practice (at least three, and eventually 5-6 days/week), and learn the poses from the beginning, moving slowly so as to memorize the sequence. No prior knowledge of Ashtanga, or any yoga for that matter, is necessary.
Even with a Mysore practice, it is helpful to continue attending a led Ashtanga class (in which the teacher guides all of the students through the practice at the same time) once a week or so, to stay in the habit of moving through the postures efficiently and without futzing about.
Do I have to begin with Mysore classes, or can I begin with led Ashtanga classes?
There’s no absolute right way to do this. Whatever way gets you into the practice is good, but if you start with led classes (whether they are full Primary series classes or beginning Ashtanga classes), know that eventually, you’ll probably begin feeling like you want more out of the practice, and that’s when it’s time to go Mysore-style.
Can I benefit from doing this practice just once a week?
Sure. Any yoga is better than no yoga, right? But if you’re only doing it once a week, it’ll be much harder to progress, and may continue to feel like a struggle for a longer period of time. If you’re truly interested, sometimes it’s necessary to rearrange some things in order to make time to practice. And even if you’re not making it to a class more than once a week, ten minutes in the morning doing sun salutations can be a perfect practice, if that’s all you have time for.
I don’t have the arm strength for all those chaturangas!
Sure you do. Your arms just don’t know it yet. Not everything comes easily right away. If you’re practicing every day, even just sun salutations, you will build arm strength.
I can’t touch my toes. Can I still practice yoga?
“I can’t touch my toes” is probably the most frequently heard sentence by yoga teachers. But truly, you don’t have to be flexible to start yoga; all you need is to be able to breathe.
“I reside in gratitude. What an amazing practice this is. The way it shines a light, that it inspires people to get out of bed in the darkness and to work so hard at what seems almost intangible gain. And at a time when there is so much potential for despair on our planet, so many, because of Guruji and this path of ashtanga yoga, so many people who may well have been lost have illuminated direction.”
–Dena Kingsberg, interviewed in 2009, in Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students