What Is Ashtanga Yoga? (And How To Start)

Ultimate guide to ashtanga yoga
Home » Ashtanga Yoga » What Is Ashtanga Yoga? (And How To Start)
The Ultimate Guide To Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga is a practice that came all the way from Mysore, India. Shri T. Krishnamacharya commonly known as “the father of modern yoga” developed this practice and then taught it to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who went on to make it popular in the US and then around the world.

That was over 80 years ago, and since then there has been an incredible rise in the number of Ashtanga yoga practitioners around the world.

In this article, I’m going to try to answer the most commonly asked questions about this practice.

I will cover the following in this article:

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding yoga practice that follows a set sequence of poses. We are guided by the breath in and out of each pose as we flow through the practice. There is a set sequence of poses and this is what sets Ashtanga yoga apart from most other types of yoga.

One of the most interesting parts of Ashtanga Yoga is that there are two ways to look at this practice. One is Ashtanga yoga as a physical practice and the other is the Sanskrit meaning and the philosophy behind it:

The Sanskrit meaning of Ashtanga Yoga

The term Ashtanga Yoga derives from two Sanskrit words: Astau which means eight and Anga which means limb.

And so Ashtanga Yoga translates to eight-limbs of 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. 

Ashtanga yoga as a physical practice

Ashtanga Yoga is a dynamic and physically demanding style of yoga. It is a set sequence of postures linked together by the breath. This flow of postures is designed to purify, stretch, and strengthen our body and in time purify and balance the mind.

There are three main points of the practice that help cultivate awareness of the body and senses and together help the practitioner achieve deep internal consciousness. These are:

  • The practice of breathing – Ujjayi breathing (also known as breathing with sound)
  • Postures – Asanas
  • Gazing point – Dristi

Learn More

If you would like to know more, I would highly recommend Kino Macgregor’s book The Power of Ashtanga Yoga where she explains both the practice and the philosophy of this practice.

The Ultimate Guide To Ashtanga Yoga

This was me in Mysore, India in 2017

Is Ashtanga Yoga for Beginners?

Ashtanga yoga is indeed for beginners. However, keep in mind that getting started with Ashtanga can feel a bit intimidating at first. The reason for this is that Ashtanga yoga follows a set sequence of postures and whilst practicing we use a specific type of breathing. With practice, both can be learned.

Any yoga shala that teaches Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is most likely to also offer an Ashtanga for beginners course so be sure to check that out.

The ashtanga system asks us to have a consistent practice in order to build physical strength and help the practice become a moving meditation. With time and regular practice, we may even be able to move on to more advanced series.

Learn More

Definitely check out my detailed guide for Ashtanga yoga beginners if you are new to Ashtanga yoga and looking for more information.

What is Ashtanga Primary Series?

There is a clear structure to an Ashtanga Yoga class. And the beauty of it is that ashtanga yoga is always practiced the same, anywhere you practice in the world.

I have practiced it in Scotland, Greece, France, Finland, Indonesia, and India (at the ashtanga yoga research institute led by my teacher R. Sharath Jois). The teachers and perhaps their main points of focus main differ however the practice as a whole is always the same.

In general, when we refer to Ashtanga yoga we generally mean the Ashtanga primary series. The Ashtanga primary series is also known as yoga chikitsa which means yoga therapy.

This is what all beginners start with and this is generally what many people will practice when they do their Ashtanga practice.

The sequence has been designed in such a way that each posture provides a necessary foundation for the postures that follow. And so the more experience we gain, the stronger and more flexible our body becomes, the more postures we then get access to and then add to the practice.

And so let’s have a look at what happens in the Ashtanga primary series.

We start with the Ashtanga opening chant

This is normally carried out in a call and response manner, which means that the teacher chants a line and the students then repeat.

The opening mantra offers a blessing of gratitude to all the teachers of the lineage that have enabled the practice to continue.

If you would like to find out more about the Ashtanga opening chant then check out my article: The Meaning of the Ashtanga Opening Chant (PLUS the Ashtanga Closing Chant)

Ashtanga yoga sun salutation

Surya Namaskar – Sun Salutation A & B

After the chant, we then move on to focus on the breath, which will then guide us through the rest of the physical practice. The breathing can be considered deep breathing, which is also called ujjayi pranayama.

We then start off the practice with the sun salutations. Regardless of how experienced or not we are, each practice begins with the Sun Salutations.

  • Sun Salutation A – 5 times
  • Sun Salutation B – 5 times (or 3 usually)

Each vinyasa is a breath-movement flow, where each movement has the same duration as each inhalation and exhalation.

Standing poses

We then move on to the standing poses and stay in each of these for 5 breaths.

These standing postures generally focus on balance and alignment, as well as gravity-assisted flexibility increasing postures.

Seated poses

We then move on to the seated postures where we also stay for 5 breaths.

They generally involve hamstring and hip openings and can be varied depending on one’s flexibility. Between each of the seated postures, we practice a vinyasa, read here for more information on what vinyasas are in the ashtanga yoga method.

Sirsasana also known as headstand at the end of the ashtanga primary series.

Finishing Sequence

The finishing sequence starts with backends and then moves on to shoulder stand and headstand. Or at least an attempt towards these poses!

Savasana (corpse pose) marks the end of the Ashtanga primary series, where we are given time to help the heart rate steady and the breath to return to its usual, calm rhythm.

As a side note, in some ashtanga classes, we even practice nadi shodhana (also known as alternate nostril breathing) before savasana. For more information on the benefits of this pranayama practice, check out my article Nadi Shodhana Pranayama: 8 Science-Based Benefits.

Learn More

Check out this practice video of Ashtanga yoga for beginners.

The Ultimate Guide To Ashtanga Yoga

This is me in Mysore, India in 2019

The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute

Pattabhi Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (KPJAYI) in 1948, in Mysore India. Since then hundreds if not thousands of students from all over the world have traveled to practice there now under the guidance of Sharath Jois, Pattabhi Jois’s grandson.

The KPJAYI as we knew it has now been rebranded and is now called the Sharath Yoga Centre.

However, Pattabhi Jois’s daughter, Saraswati has kept the original name and runs the KPJAYI Shala, also in Mysore, India.

I have been lucky enough to have practiced at both centers. For more information, feel free to reach out and I’d be more than happy to share my experiences!

Bandhas in yoga

Bandhas are energy locks that are located in different parts of the body.

There are three main bandhas in yoga- mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, and Jalandhara Bandha. All three bandhas can be engaged and activated. Each bandha has the potential to improve your yoga practice. In ashtanga yoga we mainly focus on mula bandha and uddiyana bandha.

For more information, check out my article: The 3 Main Bandhas in Yoga and How They Can Improve Your Practice

What is Ashtanga Short Form?

Ashtanga short form is when we practice just one section of the primary series. This is also referred to as half primary series.

An Ashtanga yoga practice generally takes 90 minutes to practice in its entirety. Of course, this may be too demanding for a beginner, in which case we cut out part of the practice.

The same is true if we are short on time.

And so for example, if I only have 30 minutes, then instead of not practicing at all, I may choose to practice Ashtanga short form which may include sun salutations, standing postures, and the finishing sequence.

Similarly, the ashtanga half primary series is also ashtanga short form.

However, when we refer to ashtanga half primary we generally mean practicing all the seated postures all the way to Navasana and then doing the closing sequence.

Learn More

Check out my article The BIG Difference Between Half & Full Primary Ashtanga Series.

What are the Benefits of Ashtanga yoga?

Not surprisingly, Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is practiced by thousands of people around the world. This is a reflection of the many benefits this practice has to offer.

Indeed, before developing a regular yoga practice, I used to go to the gym a few times a week. And then with time, the Ashtanga yoga practice started pulling me in more and more up until the point I stopped going to the gym, and Ashtanga became my daily asana practice.

Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a physically demanding practice that may help keep your thoughts at bay. And so here is an overview of some of the benefits of this asana practice, which were actually found in academic studies:

  1. Increase In Strength – During our practice we turn up our internal heat and ask the body to move through a variety of weight bearing poses, considered as difficult poses, such as plank pose, lower plank pose, and downward-facing dog.
  2. Increase In Flexibility – This may come as no surprise given the many forward folds, twists and chest openers in this practice.
  3. Improvement In Wellbeing (Depression & Anxiety) – Yoga as a whole has been found to have positive effects on wellbeing and inner peace, by calming down the nervous system. Based on a study carried out in 2017, Ashtanga yoga can be used as an intervention to improve psychological wellbeing.

There are more benefits to add to this list. Some are science-based and others are from my experience of practicing Ashtanga yoga for over 10 years, which many people may relate to.

Learn More

Click here to learn about the 10 wonderful benefits of Ashtanga Yoga.

The Ashtanga Practice as Yoga Therapy

The ashtanga yoga primary series is called Yoga Chikitsa in Sanskrit which can mean yoga therapy. Through a daily practice that involves flexion, expansion, twisting, and inversions, we aim to purify the body and neutralize imbalances.

What are the Ashtanga Chants?

In most Ashtanga yoga classes, you will most likely hear the ashtanga opening chant at the very start of the class and the Ashtanga Closing Chant at the end of the class.

Both are generally chanted in a call and response manner. This means that the teacher chants each line and then the students repeat.

Those new to the practice tend to just listen in. However, with time it is encouraged to join into the melody and vibration created in the practice space.

Ashtanga Opening Chant

The Ashtanga opening chant offers gratitude to the lineage of teachers who have enabled this ancient practice to survive over the years. If you have ever experienced it, you may have noticed that it helps to cleanse the energy of the practice space and prepares the mind for the practice.

And this experience really does help set the practice apart from just an exercise class.

Ashtanga Closing Chant

The Ashtanga closing chant isn’t chanted as regularly as the opening chant. And it’s a shame as it really is a beautiful mantra that helps bring the practice to a peaceful end.

Learn More

Check out my article on The Meaning of the Ashtanga Opening Chant (PLUS the Ashtanga Closing Chant)

What is Ashtanga Mysore Style?

Something that sets Ashtanga yoga apart from other styles of yoga is that it can be taught two ways:

  • Led class – This is how yoga is generally taught. The teacher guides the class through the sequence of poses.
  • Mysore style class – This is unique to the Ashtanga yoga method. In an Ashtanga Mysore class, each practitioner flows through the set sequence at their own pace, following the rhythm of their own breath. At first, this can seem intimidating for a beginner. And yet, practicing in Mysore style classes can be very freeing as it slowly becomes a more internal practice and we are guided by our own breath.

Learn More

Check out my article on Ashtanga Mysore Style: What Is It & Why It May Change Your Life

Vinyasa vs Ashtanga, What is the Difference?

Ashtanga yoga and vinyasa are two popular types of yoga. They are both physically demanding and both will help you develop strength and flexibility. One big difference is that Vinyasa doesn’t follow a fixed set of postures and allows room for creativity.

What is their main difference?

Well think of it this way: In Ashtanga, we have a set sequence of poses which means that we practice the same poses in each practice. On the other hand, in a Vinyasa class, the teacher may pick and choose from those poses (and many others) and this way create a different sequence each time.

And so in an Ashtanga yoga class you know you are always going to practice the same set of poses, while in a Vinyasa class it can always be different.

And that is just one of the differences!

Learn More

If you would like to find out about all the differences I have been able to identify, then check out my article: Ashtanga vs Vinyasa Yoga: The 9 Main Differences

Is Ashtanga the Hardest Yoga?

Ashtanga is hard and can be considered the hardest yoga for many people. On a physical level, it is hard because it is a dynamic form of yoga that helps build strength and flexibility. On a psychological level, it is hard because it follows a set sequence of poses, so each class is the same.

However, the opposite may be true also!

For example, the fact that each class follows the same set of postures makes it easy for many people. Me included!

And so Ashtanga yoga is able to attract people who like to know what is coming. And indeed, there is beauty in that, as the poses may be the same. However, we are not the same each day and that is what makes the practice a chance for a rediscovery every day.

Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Power yoga are all considered to be the hardest types of yoga.

If you are wondering what their differences are and how they compare to each other, then check out my articles:

The Ultimate Guide To Ashtanga Yoga

The Ultimate Guide To Ashtanga Yoga

What is the Ashtanga Intermediate Series?

The Ashtanga Intermediate Series is the second series of the system that comes after the Primary Series. This is a very demanding sequence as the postures involve deep backbends, twists, leg-behind-head poses, which help open the energy channels and enable prana to flow more freely.

And so once the practitioner is ready, they may progress to the Ashtanga Intermediate series.

Learn more

Check out my extensive Ashtanga Intermediate Series Ultimate Guide.

What are the Best Ashtanga Yoga Books?

I have been practicing for over 10 years and I have been teaching it for 7 years. So you can imagine, that in that time I have collected quite a few books!

Ashtanga yoga books come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some may focus on anatomy, while others may focus on the philosophy of the practice. Some may be about a particular series while others may cover all topics of interest to an ashtanga practitioner.

For a list of the best Ashtanga yoga books, check out The 23 Best Ashtanga Yoga Books.

All books mentioned cover one or more of the following categories:

  • The Primary Series
  • The Intermediate series (also known as the secondary series)
  • Pranayama
  • Anatomy
  • For Women specifically
  • Supplementary and helpful guides

What are the Best Ashtanga Yoga Mats?

There are so many yoga mats to choose from nowadays.

And yet, not all are suitable for a dynamic practice such as Ashtanga. Ideally, we want a yoga mat that has an excellent grip so that we’re not sliding around in downward-facing dog in particular. Additionally, it’s a good idea to go for a yoga mat this thick enough (at least 4mm) so as to protect our joints.

A did a little survey of Ashtanga yoga practitioners to find out what yoga mat they would recommend.

For a list of the yoga mats they recommended, check out The BEST Yoga Mats for Ashtanga Yoga: Ashtanga Teacher review.

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!

Related articles:

You may also like