Ashtanga Yoga Beginner: 33 Things To Know Before Starting


Ashtanga Yoga Beginner: 33 Things To Know Before Starting

As an Ashtanga yoga beginner, it is almost as if a whole new world opens up to you. There are so many interesting layers to this practice that can take a whole lifetime to open up, learn, and experience.

For beginners to Ashtanga yoga and even for those who are fairly new to the practice, have a look below to see all the weird and wonderful things that you may experience when you start Ashtanga yoga.

I’ve written a complete guide to the Ashtanga yoga poses of the Primary series, so be sure to check it out.

1. You may find it difficult

Yes, Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding practice. You will get tired and you will most likely sweat. A lot. But don’t let that put you off. The practice can be tailored to all levels of practitioners and modifications are given to beginners or those with injuries.

So if you are an ashtanga yoga beginner, try to take your time and be patient.

2. Build up gradually

The Ashtanga yoga practice follows the same sequence for each practice. And each sequence begins with the sun salutations. For beginners, it is encouraged to learn the correct breathing and then move on to adding on the movement in the sun salutations, always in sync with the breath.

And so by spending time and working on the foundations of the practice, the correct breathing, and then how to link that to movement, you will then gradually be able to build up the practice and add more poses.

Here is a 30 minute practice video I filmed that you can try out!

3. Try to focus on the breath

In the world of yoga, we sometimes get lost in trying to achieve. We have all been there. And yet, by not focusing on the breath it could be argued that we are doing acrobatics rather than yoga.

As David Swenson once argued:

It’s my basic belief, and the premise to my teaching is that all yoga really comes back to the breath, otherwise it’s simply just a type of gymnastic exercise. If that were the case, the greatest yogis would be circus performers and gymnasts. 

4. Ask your teacher or watch tutorials

There are so many aspects to this practice and so many poses to glide in and out of. And so it is only natural that we may need some extra guidance or advice.

Try asking your teacher as they will most likely already know your body and they will be able to safely say what you should try to do. Alternatively, try looking through the vast array of tutorials on youtube which may also be able to help you out.

5. Feel Your Body

This is not something to be overlooked. I sometimes say to my students:

This is the body we were born in and this is the body we get to work with. And so as each body is different, we must become our own teacher and start to listen to our bodies. If something is too much for us, we take it easy, if something feels safe and ok, then continue.

6. The comparison game

This is something that most of us have experienced or may even still be experiencing. And it is only natural. We find ourselves playing the comparison game and comparing ourselves to those around us. She is more flexible, he is stronger, etc.

With time we start to learn that we don’t actually gain anything from this mental activity. Perhaps it would be more beneficial to shift our focus to trying to improve ourselves and do the best we can do and reach our maximum potential.

7. You may learn some Sanskrit

In Ashtanga yoga, the names of the postures are in Sanskrit. This may seem strange or difficult to follow when you first start practicing as you may have no idea what your teacher is saying. And yet with time, it becomes very familiar and you may even be drawn to try to break down each word so you know what it means.

For more information on why we use Sanskrit and for the commonly used Sanskrit worlds in Ashtanga yoga read here: Why We Use Sanskrit in Yoga (Plus Commonly Used Sanskrit Words)

8.  Surrender to the Process

I have heard many teachers say that the hardest part of the practice is stepping onto your mat. And this is actually true, especially for ashtanga yoga beginners.

Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding practice that may push our bodies to the limits. It is also a moving meditation practice that helps us recharge and lift our spirits.

And so, with its set sequence of postures, with time we learn to step onto our mat, surrender to the process and let the practice take us where we are meant to go that given day.

9. Avoid pushing and forcing

We all have our physical limits. And in any practice, we are able to get a good idea of where these limits are. The sad fact is that if we do push our physical limits and force our body into any position it may not be ready for, we will most likely get injured.

Unfortunately, injuries are not that uncommon for beginners as we are learning our limits and learning our range of motion. And so with the experience, we learn to tap into our body’s natural intelligence and learn to take our body to where it is safe to go.

10. There Are 2 Teaching Styles in the Ashtanga Yoga Tradition

The two styles are generally referred to as:

  1. A led class
  2. Mysore style class

In a led class, the teacher guides the class and calls out each breath and each posture, generally in Sanskrit. Here all students move in unison and follow the instructions of the teacher.

Ashtanga Mysore-style classes are different, as the teacher does not instruct the class. Instead, the students start to slowly and gradually learn the sequence of postures and so in a Mysore style class everyone practices the set sequence of the Ashtanga yoga postures at their own pace. And this is what sets Ashtanga yoga apart from any other yoga practice.

Both types of classes are suitable to ashtanga yoga beginners. Just try to first speak to your local studio so they advise you where is best for you to start.

11. Cheat sheet

A cheat sheet is something that is given to beginners in an Ashtanga Mysore-style class. It shows that set sequence and so it is a little guide for beginners to slowly learn the postures.

Not all teachers use cheat sheets. I do but I make a point of making sure my students don’t rely on it.

If you are looking to purchase a cheat sheet for your practice, Kino McGreggor has recently published practice cards that may help your home practice.

12. You will learn about moon days

Now, this is something that is also unique to Ashtanga yoga. Moon days are the two days of the month that we have a ‘day off’ from practice. More specifically, the two days are the full moon and the new moon. For more information on why we don’t practice on those days, read more here: Why Not Practice Ashtanga Yoga On Moon Days?

13. Ashtanga yoga is a self-practice

For those who regularly attend Ashtanga Mysore-style classes, you will be surprised at how fast you learn the postures. And so at this point, you can take your practice everywhere, even at home in your bedroom. And so you can truly make this practice a self-practice.

14. Moving at your own pace

In Ashtanga yoga, we link the breath to the postures. And so each breath is associated with a movement or equal duration. And so when doing the sun salutations, we inhale and raise the hands up, we exhale and fold forward. We inhale and lengthen the spine and we exhale and step back and lower to low plank etc. We each breathe at our own pace and so we are encouraged to do this during our practice.

15. Individual support from the teacher

Even in an Ashtanga Mysore style class when the teacher does not instruct the whole class, the teacher is there, present. They are walking around the room, giving hints and tips, and adjustments to all students.

16. You can modify the postures

Indeed, we may be following a set but there is flexibility in how these postures are carried out. This is true especially for:

  • beginners whose body may not be strong and open enough
  • those with an injury
  • pregnancy and post-pregnancy

17. The Ashtanga yoga sequences are progressive

This one always comes to a shock to my students. Do you mean there is more than the primary series?

Oh yes..!

What is commonly practiced in led classes is the Ashtanga yoga primary series. There are a total of 6 series. All are progressively more difficult than the previous and all require a certain level of proficiency in order to progress to the next series.

After the primary series, we have the Intermediate series.

For more information, check out my extensive Ashtanga Intermediate Series Ultimate Guide.

18. Ashtanga Yoga is a Life-Long Practice

This becomes evident especially from well-established Ashtanga yoga studios that have been around for a long time. There you will see all ages and all levels of practitioners.

If you want to read up on Ashtanga yoga, you may like my book recommendations: The 23 Best Ashtanga Yoga Books

19. You may develop discipline

This is particularly true if you want to progress with your practice. By practicing once in a while you may end up frustrated as for each practice you may find yourself back to square one. Ashtanga yoga is generally practiced 6 days a week. If that is too much for you, practice at least twice a week but try to be consistent.

And here is a quote that I think fits perfectly:

Man who is sick, he can practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people; lazy people can’t practice Ashtanga yoga

Sri K Pattabjhi Jois

20. You may form lifelong friendships

And this is true as you through this practice you will meet many like-minded people. Whether at your local studio, on a retreat, or even online.

21. You may want to go to India

Before starting Ashtanga yoga I had done a fair bit of traveling. And yet India was never on my list. That, of course, is till starting Ashtanga yoga. Every winter my teacher would travel to Mysore, India and it was through her that I started having a pull towards India.

And sure enough, I have now been to Mysore 5 times and can’t wait to go back to my teacher Sharath Jois, the wonderful community, and the most amazing chai.

22. Ashtanga yoga is international

I like telling my students that Ashtanga yoga is the same, anywhere they go to practice around the world. This becomes very evident when I travel to Mysore or too far away retreats. It is such a beautiful experience to share this daily ritual with someone from the other side of the world.

23. You will most likely stick with Ashtanga yoga

For those who start Ashtanga yoga and stay with it during the ups and downs of life, you will know you have a practice for life. I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga for 11 years and it has seen me through the darkest periods of my life. Stepping onto the mat, knowing that I have my breath to guide me is something that I wouldn’t change for anything else.

Yes, I may do a more static yin practice when my energy is low but I would never change my daily ritual of Ashtanga yoga.

24. You will hear your thoughts during practice

When a practice becomes as familiar and second nature as Ashtanga yoga can be, you may find your subconscious finding the time and space to resolve issues you may have been avoiding that day. Most times you may be unaware of this happing until perhaps savasana when all you feel is your heartbeat and suddenly the answer you have subconsciously been searching for pops into your head.

25. You will be invisible in a room filled with people

This is a fear that most beginners to Ashtanga yoga have. But everyone will look and me. And yet, once you step into an Ashtanga yoga class, you will notice that everyone around you is so lost in their own practice that your presence becomes energy that also helps motivate them to continue going.

26. You will become stronger and more flexible

Ashtanga yoga is physically demanding and does help build strength and flexibility. Remember to take it easy and modify poses at first. But then with time, your body will start to change. Your arms will become stronger thanks to all the chaturangas and your hamstrings will lengthen, thanks to all the forward folds.

Studies have indeed found that a consistent practice of Ashtanga yoga may improve strength, flexibility, mood, well-being, and overall health. For more information read the article: Ashtanga Yoga For Beginners: A Detailed Guide.

27. It’s the same thing all the time

When many people find out that Ashtanga yoga is practiced the same way every day they tend to wonder, but do you not find that boring?

And yet, as our body is different every day, our mood is different, the weather changes, the person practicing next you may be different from the day before, all these seemingly small factors make the practice different every time. Yes, our body moves through the same routine, and yet how we feel about it during each practice is different and that is what makes it far from boring.

28. Its all about baby steps

Especially when we first start practicing we tend to notice big changes in our practice. Things gradually but surely start becoming easier. And this is when we tend to get hooked to the practice. And this is when we notice that by practicing in a steady and consistent manner, our body and our mind begin to change and embrace the positive effects this practice can offer.

29. There is an emphasis on hands-on adjustments

Whether in a led class or a Mysore class, the teacher walks around the room and offers verbal and physical adjustments. Adjustments are done generally for 3 reasons:

  1. Avoid injury
  2. Help the practitioner go deeper in to a pose
  3. Improve alignment

If you are unsure of physical adjustment feel free to discuss this with your teacher. Additionally, offer feedback to your teacher if something feels good or if something causes pain.

30. Ashtanga Opening Chant and Closing Chant

Ashtanga yoga practices generally start with an opening and a closing chant. The opening prayer offers gratitude to the teachers for this practice and the closing prayer is an offering of all the beautiful energy built in the practice back to the world.

Ashtanga yoga opening mantra
Ashtanga yoga closing mantra

My favorite verse from the closing mantra is:

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

This may be translated as:

May all beings everywhere be happy and free

For more information, check out my article on The Meaning of the Ashtanga Opening Chant (PLUS the Ashtanga Closing Chant)

31. The importance of Dristi

It is very easy to get distracted in a yoga class. The people, the sounds, the lights. And this is where the drishti really does help make our practice a personal practice, even when in a room full of people.

Our drishti helps us block out external distractions and deepen our practice by directing our attention inward. A steady gaze on a still point helps us become fully present in the moment.

32. Ashtanga yoga can also mean the 8 limbs of yoga

Ashtanga Yoga translates to 8 limbed yoga as taught by the great sage Patanjali. Patanjali was the author of the Yoga Sutras, more commonly known as The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. These are considered to be one of the foundational texts of classical yoga philosophy, which were written in Sanskrit, an estimated 2000 years ago. 

When we refer to Ashtanga yoga as a physical practice we refer to the practice taught by Shri T Krishnamacharya commonly known as “the father of modern yoga”. He re-developed the Ashtanga yoga practice and taught it to Shri K Pattabhi Jois, who went on to make it popular in the US and then around the world.

33. It is different from any other style of yoga

If you like analysis like this, and want support getting started with Ashtanga Yoga, my new course, Ashtanga Yoga for Beginners, might be just the place for you. Click here to get on the waiting list!

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Alexia Koletsou

Alexia Koletsou is a Level 1 Authorized Ashtanga Yoga Teacher with a Ph.D. in Science Communication. She received her blessing to teach Ashtanga Yoga in 2019, from the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India, where she has had the honor of practicing with R. Sharath Jois multiple times over the years. She is the owner of her own Shala in Greece and now shares her knowledge on yogamyoldfriend.com and her YouTube channel Alexia K Yoga.

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