ashtanga: an effective self-help technique

Ashtanga yoga is well-known but of all the schools of hatha yoga it is probably the most widely misunderstood.

One of the hardest things for people to comprehend is Mysore style, or self-practice. To look at the class time on the schedule you’d be forgiven for thinking Mysore students start every day with a gruelling three or four hour yoga marathon. Looking into the Mysore room, you might also think it is full of free-stylers who somehow (perhaps even magically) know what to do next.

You might also have heard that all led ashtanga classes are really hard or super strict, a sort of yoga boot-camp.

Of course none of these pictures paint a true representation of the Ashtanga practice, which is one of the most straightforward self-help techniques on the planet. The reason for this? It’s as simple as learning to count.

It is usual, when talking about Ashtanga yoga, to differentiate between self-practice and led classes, as if they are two completely separate entities. As with most things in life it’s far more helpful to look at that which unites rather than divides us.  Whether the students are working at their own pace, or waiting for instructions, all Ashtanga yoga practice is led. Actually the better word to use here is counted.

vinyasa – the heart of the practice

At the heart of the practice is the principle of vinyasa. The literal translation of this Sanskrit word is “to carefully place”. In the context of one’s physical practice it means matching breath to movement. Many people think vinyasa refers to those rather photogenic “jumping” or “floating” transitions between postures. In fact every movement of every practice is a vinyasa. The movements have been carefully placed in a precise order, to maximise their therapeutic potential. The first thing everybody learns to do in an ashtanga practice is the “surya namaskar” or sun salutation, which is the perfect way to illustrate vinyasa. Especially since it is repeated several times.

Repetition is a key component of Ashtanga yoga as it helps the student to commit the vinyasa to memory, enabling him or her to be self-sufficient. This doesn’t just mean being able to practice anywhere (although that can be very handy on a business trip, hundreds of miles from your favourite yoga studio). There is a powerfully meditative aspect to the practice when you start to remember it by heart. Self-practice draws the mind to three points of attention (known collectively as the tristhana). Firstly, the breath, secondly, the direction in which you look and thirdly, the positions you hold, inherent in which are the vinyasa. This principle is not unique to self-practice, it can be applied to led classes as well.

The main difference between led classes and self-practice is that in the Mysore room, the carefully ordered vinyasa are broken down into short sections which are learned incrementally. People often talk about learning the practice posture-by-posture but actually it is taught movement by movement, breath by breath. At first the practice is very short and repetitive. Over time, students may learn longer and more complex sequences. The teacher doesn’t just help the student with difficult postures but reminds him or her of the correct vinyasa. Don’t forget, we are talking about carefully keeping everything in its rightful place. Not just our bodies but also our awareness.

The history of led classes in ashtanga

The led or counted class has always had a key role to play in the traditional practice. At this point it is worth looking at a bit of Ashtanga history to see the origins of these counted classes. When people describe self practice as “Mysore style” it is a deferential nod to the city in south India where Krisna Pattabhi Jois honed and developed the therapeutic sequences or “series” we recognise today. Jois called his shala the Astanga Yoga Research Institute. At first he researched by teaching handfuls of people in his own home. The room held a maximum of 12 students. In the 1970s the first foreign students began to arrive. Before long the practice had developed an international reputation. Jois moved and expanded his shala to accommodate the growing numbers. He also travelled to Europe and the Americas. By now, some of his students were teaching in their own countries. On his early tours, Jois would give demonstrations of the practice, counting the vinyasa aloud and explaining the benefits of various postures. Then he began to teach counted classes. These provided a way of sharing the method with people who couldn’t necessarily get to Mysore. Jois died in 2009 having taught for 70 years. The baton was passed to his daughter Saraswathi and grandson Sharath. The research continues.

It sometimes surprises visitors to Mysore that the traditional home of Ashtanga is not a museum to its founder but a living, breathing experiment. As more and more people, from more and more corners of the globe discover the practice, research continues into the best (i.e. most therapeutic) way of disseminating it widely.

Small changes take place here and there to the physical aspects of the practice. Mostly to the sequencing. More breaths here or less there. Sharath Jois has notably made additions to the seated poses at the end of the finishing sequence. Recently I witnessed someone ask him why he was changing the practice. “I’m not” he said, “the practice is the tristhana. The goal of the practice is stillness of mind. I can’t change yoga.”

Each week students in the city of Mysore are guided through a counted class. It’s not just a chance be reminded of the vinyasa, or for Sharath to tweak the count. It’s also a crucial recitation of a practice passed via the oral tradition.

A full, counted Ashtanga class is like nothing else in existence. The names of the postures and their numbered order is recited with a rhythmic precision, in Sanskrit. Whilst this might seem a bit “olde worlde” on the face of it, there are a few reasons why the class works best done this way. Firstly, it allows the count to be understood internationally. Moreover, just as classical Greek is the language of modern medicine, Sanksrit is the language of yoga. There are westernised versions of the posture names, but they are quite often not as expressive nor even as descriptive as the originals.

The rhythmic poetry of a sanskrit count

The Sanksrit numbers have a rhythm and a poetry all of their own as well. They are a little hypnotic when intoned at a steady pace. You can attend this type of led class at triyoga, and it will be listed as a level 2 – 3 class because it best suits those with enough experience of the practice to literally go with the flow of the count. It is a long one, 90 minutes or thereabouts. But students, especially newcomers, are not expected to do all of it. Those already learning self-practice can stop at the point up to which they have learned in the Mysore room. Some people might choose to stop when they are tired or to accommodate an injury. Taking ownership of how long or how intensely you  work is a crucial part of creating a sustainable practice.

triyoga also offers shorter led classes (most of which are 60 to 75 minutes). These are open level. Beginners can try them and they are handy for anyone who is curious about Ashtanga but unable to attend the traditional Mysore sessions (it’s necessary to run these in the early morning to allow for the flexible start times and varying lengths of people’s practices).

The biggest difference between a fully counted class and an open level led class is that in the latter, the teacher will provide more instruction along with the count, making things easier to understand for newcomers. That said, these classes are an excellent opportunity to experience the flow of vinyasa. Here are a few things you can expect to find in led classes and a few tips on how to get the most out of them.

Because repetition is such a vital component in Ashtanga, you will find roughly the same sequence  is used in all the led classes. These sequences feel like a bit of a maze at first but don’t let that put you off. If you’re trying Ashtanga for the first time I highly recommend you schedule two or three classes in your first week. The vinyasa of the sun salutes and the standing sequence are actually quite easy to pick up and you’ll very quickly get the opportunity to “go with the flow”.

If you can’t make it to three classes try a little self-practice at home. A few sun salutes followed by sitting and observing the breath is a great practice!

don’t compare

Although the sequences are the same, your practice doesn’t need to look like your neighbour’s. There is no one size fits all in an Ashtanga class. Listen out for modifications, which will help you navigate safely. As well as giving you personalised versions of more difficult poses, the teacher may  be telling you where to direct your gaze. This will stop you looking round the room, which too often leads to unfavourable comparison! This tendency applies especially to flexibility. There is absolutely no need for you to be flexible to benefit from or enjoy this practice. In fact one of the reasons Ashtanga classes are so good for beginners or athletes (and their tight hips and hamstrings) is that much of the class focuses more on core stability and stamina than on being “bendy”.

Ashtanga is a dynamic form and most people get sweaty and tired whilst practising. You are not expected to push through this tiredness as you would whilst training for a sport. In fact keeping control of the breath is such a crucial aspect of the practice that if you start to pant you should slow down or stop until you get the breath back to a steady rhythm. A yoga class is a non-judgmental place and no one is expecting you to be a superhero.

On the subject of breathing, you’ll notice quite early on that the teacher prescribes inhaling or exhaling with each movement. This is fairly easy to follow. It’s a little trickier in held postures. The teacher says breathe five times here or ten times there. Then, just as you are on your third exhalation he or she is off again. You’re not expected to perfectly match the teacher’s count. In fact you should find a pace of breathing that really works for you. If you’ve never tried it before, make this simple exercise your next pre-class warm up (you don’t need me to tell you that stretching before a class is pointless and potentially injurious do you? Besides, the sun salutes will do all of that).

Sit cross legged on the mat. Close your eyes but visualise the tip of your nose. Now inhale for a count of three seconds. Exhale for the same. Slowly build up the length of each inhale and exhale, going up to seven or eight seconds. Then come back down the scale. Somewhere in there is an interval which feels very natural to you. This might be your practice breath. Try it in your first sun salute, especially the first time you hold downward dog.

You don’t have to be tired to benefit from taking down the pace a little. Because of its onus on repetition, an Ashtanga class can become a place where experienced practitioners go into auto pilot mode. If you find yourself racing ahead of your neighbour and maybe even the teacher, you might have stopped listening. Just as there is no one size fits all for students, the same goes for teachers and if you charge ahead you could be missing a nuanced vinyasa or a crucial tip.

Right at the beginning of this post I said the practice was as easy as learning to count. In many ways it’s about learning to listen. Listening to the rhythm of the count and all it has to teach us, if we don’t let our mind and all its chatter get in the way; but most of all, listening to our breath and keeping it steady. It doesn’t really matter what the class is called, what level it is, where in the world it is….this is the aim of all yoga, for this is the way to peace.

Tom teaches Ashtanga on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12.45pm in Shoreditch.

Did you know we offer over 25 different styles of yoga on our schedule? To showcase the variety, we’ll be highlighting different styles each month throughout the year – and we’re starting 2018 with ashtanga yoga. Get to know each style with exclusive content right here on our blog and with our special offers: this month you can bring a friend for free to any ashtanga class at triyoga. 

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