Ashtanga yoga practice with Green Blue Yoga
Part 1: Samasthiti, breath, locks, focus points, sun salutations A and 3 finishing poses
(Video displayed below - contact me to get access to following videos)
Part 2: Sun salutations B, chair pose and warrior 1, Finishing sequence: adding wheel pose variations, forward bend.
Part 3: Led sun salutations A & B; standing sequence: Padangusthasana, Padahastasana; finishing sequence: Urdhva Danurasana variations, Pashimotanasana, Sarvangasana variations, Matsyasana variation, Padmasana variations, Utplutihi, Savasana
Part 4: Practice 3 to 5 rounds of sun salutations A and B to warm-up before starting the video. Standing sequence: Adding transition to wide-leg stance, trikonasana & reverse (parvritta) trikonasana. Finishing seqhence: adding sirsana (headstand) preparatory pose, yoga mudra.
Part 5: No new poses, led class rehearsing learnt poses with a focus on the flow of the sequence.
Below is a long text which I prefer to write down rather than lengthily discuss in the practice sessions.
If you are practicing with me online, please glance once through headings and pink highlighted parts, and maybe come back at a later stage for a more in depth reading, and/or come and chat about it :)
NB: in green are external links for further info or video tutorials by renowned teachers.
Ashtanga yoga background
Ashtanga is a traditional system of yoga initially taught by Sri K. Pattabi Jois in Mysore, India who designed it in the 1950s with his guru (teacher) Sri Krishnamacharya.
As one of the first defined school of yoga, Ashtanga yoga includes in its own name the traditional teachings: Ashtanga means eight limbs. The eight limbs of yoga being:
Yamas - Code of ethics that apply to our relationship with others and ourselves, and unfolds with:
Ahimsa - non-harming
Satya - honesty
Asteya - not stealing even in thoughts, so to not be envious
Bramachyara - mastering our sexual energy and desires
Aparigraha - non-possessiveness or non-attachement, being able to let go of what we don’t have or cannot change
Niyamas - self-observation also contains 5 elements:
Saucha - cleanliness of body and mind
Santausha - contentment, appreciating what we have here and now
Tapas - self-discipline towards our body
Svadhyaya - self-study, observing ourselves
Isvara Pranidhana - surrendering to the divine (or for atheists, to the element of nature that generates life)
Asana - the physical practice, which aims to allow us to sit steadily and comfortably, head, heart and hips aligned. Yet we have so much work to do for this to happen that all other asanas (postures) were introduced to bring us back to this upright stillness!
Pratyhara - withdrawal from the senses. Can we lessen the message our senses send us? Not by ignoring them but by not letting them distract you.
Dharana - concentration of the mind onto a single point of focus - usually the breath.
Dhyana - meditation - what happens when we have mastered the previous 5 limbs.
Samadhi - self-realisation, Nirvana, the Graal of every philosophical and spiritual system in this world which, in Eastern beliefs, can be achieved in a lifetime.
The above is just a very short overview of the eight limbs of yoga. If you come to your practice, like I did, looking for a stretch and to feel better in your body, this may well pass over your head, and this is OK.
In my experience, these elements have grown within me and helped me notice progress in my body as well as in my mind and general well-being. Some of the main sayings of Ashtanga yoga, attributed to Pattabi Jois, is “1% theory, 99% practice” or “keep practicing and all is coming”
My background in Ashtanga yoga
As a traditional system, ashtanga believes in affiliation from a teacher (guru) to a student, to pass on the lineage. I initially practiced ashtanga with Niall Byrne, who studied it with John Scott, who learnt it from Pattabi Jois and his grandson Sharath Jois.
I practiced with Niall for less than a year, but his classes drew me so much into the spirit of yoga that they may well have been the initial spark that later led me to aspire to teach yoga myself.
The challenge of the primary series, the fact that all these poses were printed on a sheet as a marked path for the journey forward, called to me. Over the years since my first class, I have practiced with other teachers, including during my Yoga teacher training with Shree Hari School of Yoga however most were following a led-class principle, which brings me to the next part:
Mysore style or self-practice
What drew me to the ashtanga primary series, was the Mysore style that Niall Byrne taught. This means coming to the practice room and being given an initial set of guidelines and postures to practice and memorise. When this is achieved, the next few poses are introduced.
This allowed me to set my own rhythm - as I often found led-classes too fast-paced (no time for my analytical mind to think about how to adjust my body!). It also set a dual challenge:
Conquering each individual pose (or their variation)
Contenting myself with the poses I was given, refraining from always wanting more (which is such a revelation for all other aspects of my life)
The guidelines for ashtanga yoga practice
Awareness of the eight limbs of yoga, especially the Yamas is relevant as it sets the intention for the practice. Think of it as:
"Don't hurt yourself,
Be honest about what you can do today,
Don’t envy others in the room if they look like they’re “better” than you at it - look at them for inspiration if you notice them at all,
Control your desires - as thoughts come and go, it is easy to develop a crush for a teacher or someone else who impresses you in the practice room. Don’t deny these thoughts, acknowledge them, exhale and let them go as this is not the place.
Don’t get attached to how much you achieve in your practice. I read this quote in a yoga book - but cannot remember which - it went something like: “Approach your practice as if setting the table for honored guests, give it all your might and don’t be disappointed when they don’t show, as you may set the table again for them tomorrow with the same optimism and enthusiasm, and in doing so, elevating your mind and spirits”
Ashtanga yoga developed the principle of vinyasa which means linking breath and movement.
Each of the postures in the ashtanga sequence have a breath element to them, whether you are inhaling, exhaling, or both to a set count.
To further this, we practice Ujjayi breath. Sometimes called breath of fire for its power to generate heat, also called ocean breath, for the rolling wave sound it makes.
It takes a while to learn, and longer to keep it going throughout a whole practice session, but try and make it a priority. Actually your number one priority for ashtanga practice is for your movements to fit within the rythm of your breath (vinyasa). Try and breathe slower, equally in and out, and more regularly so that your movements become softer and graceful. Your body will show you the quality of your breath.
By regulating your breath, you are regulating your nervous system and releasing stress. You are also ensuring that your focus remains on the practice and you are developing physical self-awareness which will allow you to better look after yourself.
Kino McGregor tutorial on Ujayi breathing technique: https://youtu.be/oRb56apRa40
Ashtanga Yoga - Interview with John Scott on Mysore Practice, Breath, Flexibility, Menstruation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79CdbokQUxI
Practice Ujjayi breath anytime, for a few minutes a day. All you need to do is stand, sit or lie down with a long spine and pay attention to the sound and dimension of your breath.
In short, bandhas are energy locks in ayurvedic science, sealing and regulating the flow of prana (energy) in the body. Keep awareness of these three points throughout the whole practice.
Mula bandha is your root lock. Activate it by lifting the pelvic floor, or if you have no idea how to do that, by squeezing a little as if you needed the bathroom but had nowhere to go. Feel the relationship between your pelvis and the earth - through the soles of the feet, the seat or the back depending on the posture. Think of drawing energy from the earth and sealing it in your body.
Uddyana bandha is situated in your lower abdomen, it’s the action of keeping the lower abdomen drawn in when you inhale so the breath moves deeper into the rib cage allowing for more expansion of the ribs on the four sides of the body. It also protects your lower back in any forward or back bends as you are keeping space along your lumbar spine by engaging the muscles of your lower abdomen and diaphragm.
Jalandhara bandha is the chin lock as you reach up with the top of your spine and draw your chin in slightly towards you throat. It keeps the neck long anytime we are reaching forward and protects from over-arching when we are looking up.
Keep your bandhas active throughout the whole practice, but not tight!
Practice activating your bandhas during any other physical activities. I found it particularly useful with riding horses, surfing or even walking (it also works for cycling or sitting at a computer, it’s endless really)
Ekhart Yoga - The Bandhas - preventing yoga injuries https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/anatomy/the-bandhas-preventing-yoga-injuries
Mark Darby on Ashtanga Yoga, Bandhas and Technique https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1IbQSZB7v8&t=897s
These are points of focus for each pose. More than a visual cue, it’s the direction you are sending your energy towards. For instance in downward dog, the drishti is the navel, focusing on your navel on this pose automatically brings you to activate the bandhas.
http://yoga-ashtanga.net/en/tag/drishti/ The first part of the page has some ashtanga yoga history, scroll down for the chapter on “Focused gaze in the Yoga asana (Drishti)”
The ashtanga series
The ashtanga sequences (there are six in total, we are studying primary series) are like a sandwich. They all start with sun salutations A and B, followed by a standing sequence and finished by the finishing sequence.
In between the standing and finishing sequences is the sitting sequence, where each pose is held for five breaths and a vinyasa is linking them together. In this context, vinyasa is an extract of sun salutation A.
You can download practice sheets here (although hopefully you won’t need them as you’ll have them all memorised!):
Full disclosure: the traditional elements I don't include in my practice and my teachings
Opening and closing mantra singing - Singing anything past Om is yet too awkward for me. I don’t despair in finding musicality in my voice one day, but not yet. I did really enjoy the opening chant when practicing with Niall Byrne (the only teacher who included chants in the classes I’ve attended)
Here’s one opening mantra chanted by Joey Miles in the traditional way (every line is repeated so that students can join in on the repetition) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFx3JbQvUk8
Chanting together is a wonderful way of unifying the breath and setting everyone’s mind down to make space for the practice. One day, I may be brave enough to bring it into my teachings, for now I practice on myself only ;)
Practicing at dawn on an empty stomach six days a week is the traditional recommendation. It was easier during the teacher training in India when days have equal length and the temperature is already 25°C at dawn. At home, it really doesn't work for me, I’m just not an early morning person and I simply cannot function without breakfast. I have stopped beating myself up about it. Yoga is not my only kind of physical exercise, and ashtanga not the only style I practice. I may never reach the secondary series, and it is OK. I really enjoy the primary series anyway and still find it very challenging :)
Yoga, especially ashtanga, calls for strong veneration of your teacher. While I respect and acknowledge what my teachers have taught me, I am not inclined to put anyone on a pedestal to kiss their feet. The ashtanga community has also come down from this in late years, after the disclosure of many cases of sexual harassment by Pattabi Jois on his students. Not cool, not yogic, but sadly very common when we set expectations of a superior human being. I believe we are all equals.
Counting in sanskrit. It adds to the meditative feeling of the practice, keeps the teacher from giving too many cues and sets the rhythm. For now, I feel like I have yet too many other new concepts to introduce to my students, yet it may happen some day...
How to approach the self-practice style online
I am creating a series of short videos, the first one of Sun salutations A, including variations for beginners, and some finishing poses, and share these with my current group of ashtanga students.
Once you are able to practice 5 rounds of sun salutations A by yourself and you have done so at least 3 times (over consecutive days or within 3 weeks), get in touch and I will forward the next video. You should then keep practicing what you already know and add the new poses at the end of your sequence.
Scott, John, Ashtanga Yoga: The Definite Step-by-step Guide to Dynamic Yoga, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2000
Swenson, David, Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual, Ashtanga Yoga Productions, Austin, 1999
Singleton, Mark, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Oxford University Press, 2010