Updated: Jan 16, 2022
Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic practice where you flow through a set series of yoga poses (asana).
Unlike many stereotypes of yoga being a gentle and slow practice, Ashtanga is quite a physically intense practice. It involves a lot of active movement and transitions that include jumping between postures.
Ashtanga yoga is also one of the few yoga styles that focuses on balancing strength and flexibility. At the same time as being a physical practice, Ashtanga focuses on the breath, concentration and controlled movement.
Focus on your breath
The breath can be seen as the starting point for your Ashtanga yoga practice. Your breath acts as a guide as you move through a series of specific movements linked with your breath (vinyasa).
Since the breath is such an important aspect of any yoga practice, you want to ensure that your ability to breathe in a given yoga pose is given more importance than physically getting the body into a specific asana.
Remember, as long as you’re aware of your breath you’re practicing yoga.
The breath of fire (Ujjai breathing) is a specific breathing technique that’s used throughout the entire Ashtanga yoga practice.
This breathing technique involves equalising the length and intensity of your inhale and exhale, and bringing a soft sound to the breath. The sound of the breath is created by slightly constricting your throat, and allowing the air to swirl at the back of your throat.
Take a look at Irene’s guided video tutorial on Ujjai breathing below to get more familiar on how to apply this breathing technique.
Build the length of your practice up gradually
Although in Ashtanga there are six series that progress in the level of difficulty, the Primary series—which is the first of the Ashtanga series—is both physically and mentally challenging, and takes several years of practice to get familiar with.
Therefore, when you first start learning Ashtanga yoga it’s useful to start practicing the first part of the Primary series, and then slowly adding additional poses to your practice as you get familiar and experienced with the first part of the sequence.
This traditional way of teaching Ashtanga, to students individually and gradually is known as Mysore style self-practice.
The Ashtanga Primary series begins with a series of sun salutations and standing poses. When learning this for the first time you could start with 15 minutes of sun salutations.
Then as your body and breath feel more comfortable, and the mind starts to learn the sequence you could start to gradually lengthening your practice over time adding on the series of standing poses.
These will strengthen your body and open the areas that feel tight, setting you up for the more challenging asanas—like intense hip openers, arm balance and backbends—that come later in the Primary series.
Use practice aids and support from a qualified Ashtanga teacher
To begin with the best way to learn the sequence of asanas and vinyasa transitions found in the Primary series is from an Ashtanga teacher.
You might choose to start practicing at home to a guided beginners Ashtanga video in order to get familiar with the pace, flow and sequence of yoga poses.
Once these are well-known you can start to challenge yourself to learn the sequence and transitions off by heart and begin practicing more independently.
For this stage of practice, it can be helpful to have a practice sheet in front of you for reference, and over time see if you can become less dependent on the practice sheet.
Below you can find Irene’s guided Ashtanga practice for beginners, which includes all the sun salutations, standing poses (with beginner modifications) and the last three poses from the finishing series.
If this feels too much to begin with you can start practicing along to the beginning part of the video and build up over time as you feel stronger in your breath and body.
You can also access this beginner Ashtanga practice sheet which shows all of the poses covered in the above video. Why not print this practice sheet out and have it close by when you practice at home?
Although guided video tutorials and practice sheets can be helpful starting points for your Ashtanga practice, nothing substitutes personal guidance from a qualified teacher.
It can be very motivating to practice Ashtanga in a group led class, self-practice Mysore session or one on one private class.
In these classes you get to practice together with others, be guided through the practice by an experienced teacher and receiving personal cues on how to approach the poses, vinyasa transitions and breath.
Good luck and happy practicing!
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