Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

ASHTANGA VINYASA YOGA

Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is the practice of classical yoga postures & it is the device & that ties the wind to the body through the “thread of the breath”. In this system, the breath becomes the key to the focusing of the mind.

In a direct translation from the ancient Sanskrit word Astanga, ashta means ‘eight ‘while anga means ‘limb’ or ‘stage’. The renowned Indian sage Patanjali writing more than two thousand years ago, assigns eight limbs to the tress of Yoga- each limb being a stage or step along the path to self-realization. The eight steps of Yoga as under:

  1. Yama - Moral codes
  2. Niyama - Self-purification and study
  3. Asana - Posture
  4. Pranayama - Breath control
  5. Prathyahara - Sense control
  6. Dharana - Concentration
  7. Dhyana - Meditation
  8. Samadhi - Contemplation, Self-realization or a state of bliss

 

Observing the eight limbs in the practice of Ashtanga Yoga is crucial if you are to taste the fruits of the tress of Yoga. Yogi Sri K. Pattabhi Jois often says “Do your practice and all is coming”. He does not mean that enlightenment wills just happen if you practice. As a result of devoted practice.

Ashtanga vinysa yoga is a traditional yogic method. It is a very fine yoga method, having its roots firmly established in the Indian culture since time immemorial.

Yoga has its seeds in the beginning of time, yet it still continues to evolve. It is a live, breathing art, inspired from the depths of nature; Ashtanga is a unique form of Physical Yoga that places emphasis on the flowing energy of breath, body and mind to cultivate inner core strength. Its primary instrument is the body which is led through a sequence of yoga postures (Asanas).

Shri K. Pattabhi Jois introduces this Ashtanga Yoga because, it is through the demanding discipline and practice of Asana that students began to observe and understand the importance of breathes control.

Ashtanga yoga is helping many people throughout the world to balance mental, physical and spiritual pressures and stresses posed by the modern world we live in today. The traditional method of teaching is passing down the method directly from Guru to Student.

In Ashtanga Yoga we can say “one percent is theory and ninety-nine percent is practice”. Daily practice of Ashtanga Yoga brings the many benefits and rewards. Ashtanga Yoga is far more than mere exercise. It is responsible for their stamina, focus, feelings of well being their toned physical bodies and peace of mind.

The feature that truly distinguishes Ashtanga Yoga from the other forms of Yoga practiced today is its unique movement/ breathing system or vinyasa. Movement through the sequence of poses (Asanas) is responsible for producing heat, which in turn, produces sweat. The sweat is both cleansing and purifying, initiating the release of toxins retained within the superficial fat layers of the body. As students progress more deeply into the practice, toxins held in the deeper layers of muscle tissue and internal organs are also released, resulting in a healthy, toned and flexible body.

The power of breath cannot be over estimated, since it is the key to this system of yoga. The breath is energizing, calming and meditative. The breath is called Ujjayi: its sound volume and rhythm are powerful. It draws the mind in on itself and in so doing, yolks mind and body together. It is the breath, bandhas and dristis (the three core techniques of Vinyasa) that, when applied together, bring about the physical and the meditative aspects of Ashtanga Yoga. The practice itself (once the student is experienced enough to stop thinking about which asana comes next) becomes a moving meditation. But this grace can lonely become real when all the aspects of the practice come together in harmony.

THE ELEMENTS OF ASHTANGA YOGA

The distinguishing elements of Astanga Yoga and its practice are woven together with the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to create Sadhana - a complete spiritual practice, these elements are:

  1. Vinyasa - Breath-synchronized motion
  2. Ujjayi Pranayama - Victorious Breathing
  3. The Bandhas - Inner locks
  4. The Dristis - Gazing points

 

As the breath ad body flow together as one, tapas (internal heat) is generated and begins a process of purification. The practice, layers of bodily existence is cleansed, transforming deep-rooted patterns to liberate the body, mind and heart.

The Vinyasa Method

The essence of the vinyasa element of Ashtanga Yoga is a synchronicity of body movement & breath. In Vinyasa the breathing technique called Ujjayi initiates the movement, and then movement and breath flow as one. The motion of breath is the inspiration of the body and propels the body into action & it is the essence of Ashtanga Yoga, vinyasa teaches us to move in harmony with the subtle & profound power of our breathing. Its movement’s skywards with the inhalation and its surrender earthwards on the exhalation. Vinyasa or breath synchronies movement is the external expression of the internal motion of the breath. Through breath the life energy of Prana is carried throughout the body.

Master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, describes the system of vinyasa as a yoga mala. Mala means Garland or Rosary, and in this sense, instead of garland of flowers or rosary of prayers, vinyasa creates a garland or rosary of yoga postures, thread together through the flow of breath. Thus his motion of the body is inspired by the motion of the breath. (Above yoga movements with vinyasa are described as being like a mala, or garland of flowers, link together by the breath).

The natural motion of the breathing carries our body through the practice. The breath, softly lifting us up and releasing us down, motivates of our body to flow in and out of the postures. This creates a continues stream of movement in which body and mind are linked. The uniting of breath and motion symbolizes the union of the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness. By becoming windful of our breathing & its natural rhythm, we move into the full realness of yoga. This is because conscious linking of body, mind & breath as we move through the postures cultivates continuous concentration (dharana) on the flow of asanas. This deep attention to the breath creates a quietening of the senses (pratyahara), the pathway for the meditative state of contemplation & meditation (dhayana), which leads us towards the blissful union of the soul with the divine (Samadhi). Yama & Niyama can be more readily understood & absorbed as the body & mind become open & liberated through these practices.

On a physical level, vinyasa builds & maintains the heat of the body, allowing for the deep releasing stretches of the body in the asanas, while stoking the digestive fire to further the internal benefits of each posture. Another important aspect of vinyasa is that it enables us to develop our self practice, so that we may flow at our own pace, moving to the rhythm of our own breath, drinking ourselves on every level deeper & deeper into meditation.

Vinyasa begins with Surya Namaskara (Sun salutation): the rise & fall of the breath carries the flow of the body from the posture to posture. Through the standing asanas, we surrender into each posture with the exhalation, & move out of the posture with the inhalation. Even as we are in the stillness of each posture, the breath continues to flow, opening & releasing the body further with every breath.

TO PRACTICE VINYASA

Within seated asanas, a half vinyasa is practiced between each side of the posture in order to neutralize the body. After completing a sitting posture on both side & before entering into the next new posture, a full new vinyasa is practiced. The full & half vinyasa sequences take their inspiration from Surya Namaskara, which incorporates pranayama (breath control), asanas (postures of body), Dristis (focus points) & Bandhas (locks or seals.)

It is for this reason that the flowing sequence of postures that is Surya Namasakar from the bedrock of the physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga.

As you flow through your practice, pay attention to the detail & alignment of each posture. Just as words are strong together to create a sentence, so the postures are linked to create a sentence, so the postures are linked to create the vinyasa. However, if the words are not pronounced coherently, the meaning of the sentence is lost. If the postures are not formed correctly, there will be no internal understanding, & your practice will make no sense.

Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi Pranayama encourages full breathing, so that oxygen and life can enter into our lungs and permeate every cell of the body. The word ujjayi is composed of two Sanskrit roots: ji, which means “to conquer or to be victorious”, and the prefix ud, meaning “bondage”. Thus Ujjayi is the method of breathing that conquers bondage and liberates the mind. The breathing practice of

Ujjayi creates a soft resonating sound as the breath is drawn through the back of the throat on its way down into the lungs. This enables us to listen consciously to our breathing, and to tune into our life force and vital energy as our breathing washes in and out of our body. The sonorous sound of Ujjayi breathing becomes a gentle mantra (sacred thought or prayer) on which our mind can focus, while creating a rhythm and flow for our body to follow as we move from asana to asana.

TO PRACTICE UJJAYI PRANAYAMA

Sit in any comfortable position, keeping your back straight and spine lengthened. Now relax your body without slumping, and draw your focus downwards or allow your eyes to close completely. Bring your awareness to your breath entering and exiting through your nostrils. Allow your breathing to become deep, slow, rhythmic and calm. Now take your awareness to your throat: fell your breath softly brushing through the back of your throat on both your inhalation and exhalation.

Now begin to contract the glottis gently by moving the well of your front throat in towards your back throat, so that a soft internal sonorous sound resonates from the throat to the heart on your inhalation, and from your hear to your throat on your exhalation,. The sound will resemble that of a whispering breeze or the gentle breath of a sleeping baby. The resonating vibration of the breath ripples internally rather than being projected or pushed outwards.

If you have difficulty at first in creating the sound of Ujjayi pranayama, practice by inhaling and exhaling through your mouth while whispering “hhaaa”at the back of your throat with each in and out breathes. As your practice of Ujjayi pranayama deepens, be aware of the polarity of energies contained within each cycle. The inhalation draws energy in to inspire our body to flow upwards. The exhalation releases energy downwards, connecting us to gravity and the earth.

Bandhas

There are three bandhas which are considered our internal body locks, prescribed in the different postures. The bandha is a sustained control action of a group of muscles that assists the practitioner not only in retaining a pose but also in moving in and out of it. The mula bandha, or root lock, is performed by tightening the muscles around the pelvic and perineum area. The udiyana bandha, often described as bringing the navel to the base of the spine, is a contraction of the muscles of the lower abdominal area - this bandha is considered the most important bandha as it supports our breathing and encourages the development of strong core muscles. Jalandhara bandha, throat lock, is achieved by lowering the chin slightly while raising the sternum and the palate bringing the gaze to the tip of the nose.

The Sanskrit word bandha means “to bond, catch hold of or lock”, and this is exactly physical action involved in the creation and practice of the bandhas. These bandhas, or locks, are created by gently yet powerfully specific parts of the body to seal in the vital energy (prana) of the breath and redirect the pranic flow into the susumna nadi, which is the subtle pathway of the spine. Once energy begins to flow through the susumna, spiritual awakening begins.

Each bandha helps to dissipate psychic knots (called granthis) within the subtle body that block the free flow of prana ascending along the susumna, thus hindering meditation and ultimately liberation. On a physical level, the bandhas form the core strength of the body and are engaged throughout the practice to provide the internal support.

Here in Ashtanga we are using mainly uddiyan bandh while doing the vinyasa.

UDDIYANA BANDHA

The Uddiyana means “to fly upwards” and it relates to the fact that the drawing in of the abdominal muscles causes the diaphragm to rise. Within the subtle body, uddiyana bandha causes pranic energy to fly, like a great bird soaring upwards, along the susumna nadi into the top chakra, bringing enlightenment and ultimate union. Uddiyana bandha may be practiced sitting cross-legged, or in Sidhasana (accomplished posture), or in Ardha Padmasana or Padamasana (half or full lotus).

  • Draw your spine up straight and place your hands on your knees. Relax your body and cast your gaze downwards or close your eyes to internalize your focus.
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nostrils.
  • Now strongly exhale through your mouth, whooshing your breath out to empty your lungs completely.
  • Retain the exhalation and scoop your stomach in, contracting your abdominal muscles inwards and upwards while locking your chin down on to your collarbone notch (jalandhare bandha). Allow your shoulders to rise slightly as you firmly straighten your arms by pressing your palms down on to your knees. Do not strain and only hold for as long as is comfortable.
  • To release uddiyana dandha, relax your abdomen, bend your elbows, softening your shoulders down, lift your chin and inhale slowly and gently. Let your breathing return to normal before practicing uddiyana again.

However, during your asana practice it will not be possible to engage this lock to such an extreme, as it would constrict your breathing. A subtler lift upwards and inwards of the abdomen as you practice will enhance your breathing, helping you to draw your breath deeply into your back and side ribs rather than into your stomach. This will improve your lung capacity and strengthen your entire body. Be careful not to become tense as you engage uddiyana bandha. Let your abdominal muscles softly curve inwards as your breath flows into your back.

Drishtis

Drishti, or focused gaze, is a means for developing concentrated intention. The most common is Urdhva, or upward gazing, where the eyes are lifted, with the spine aligned from crown to tailbone. This technique is employed in a variety of postures.

There are, in total, nine drishtis that instruct the yoga student in directing his or her gaze. Each pose is associated with a particular drishti. They include:

  • Angusta ma dyai: to the thumb
  • Broomadhya: to the third eye, or between the eyebrows
  • Nasagrai: at a point six inches from the tip of the nose
  • Hastagrai: to the palm, usually the extended hand
  • Parsva: to the left side
  • Parsva: to the right side
  • Urdhva: to the sky, or inwards
  • Nabichakra: to the navel
  • Padayoragrai: to the toes

 

The drishti allow our wyes to rest on one point, helping to prevent our mental focus from being distracted during yoga practice by other visual stimulations and their associations; this helps us to develop one-pointedness- where the focus is concentrated on one single point. With practice this induces higher states of concentration that promote mental energy, awareness and introspection.

For this reason, drishtis are also often used individually as tools in meditation practice. We therefore draw upon this meditative aspect to create tranquility of mind and purity of inner vision, in order to reflect on your true nature as we move through the yogasanas.

Having a steady focal point also gives orientation and balance to the body in the postures, and helps to align the neck through the head position. The changes of drishtis throughout Surya Namaskara (Sun salutation) health the body’s directional flow, cultivating physical and mental clarity. Drishtis also strengthen the eyes muscles and helps to improve the eyesight - another practical physical benefit.

THE PRACTICE SESSION:

The traditional method of learning the Ashtanga System of yoga was one to one. – A single student working with his or her Guru. Each asana or posture was given individually to the student when that student was deemed ready to receive it. More recently, however, two main methods of teaching have evolved. The firsts the “Self –Practice Method” in which the teacher introduces the practice, imparts information, monitors the individual’s progress, & physically corrects the postures. The second method is the “Traditional Counting Method”, which is suited to students/who have reached a level whereby they can practice the complete primary series, or yoga chikitsa by themselves. The purpose of the counting methods is to extend the breath so that the correct vinyasa can be achieved & to deepen the focus of individual practitioners. Through this, an understanding of the complete system develops. The understanding, experience, strengths & stamina gained from these two methods filters back into each individual’s personal self-practice.

This style of yoga is characterized by a focus on vinyasa, or a dynamic connecting posture, that creates a flow between the more static traditional yoga postures. The vinyasa 'flow' is a variant of Sūrya namaskāra, the Sun Salutation. The whole practice is defined by six specific series of postures, always done in the same order, combined with specific breathing patterns (ujjayi breathing).

A standard Vinyasa consists of the flow from chaturanga, or plank, to chaturanga dandasana, or low plank, to urdhva mukha svanasana (Upward-facing dog), to adho mukha svanasana, or Downward-facing dog. The purpose of vinyasa is to create heat in the body, which leads to purification of the body through increased circulation and sweating. It also improves flexibility, as well as tendon and hard tissue strength, allowing the student to practice advanced asanas with reduced risk of injury.

There are six series altogether. Each sequence typically begins with 10 Sun Salutations and the standing poses. This is referred to as the "opening sequence". The student then moves to either the Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, B, C, or D, depending on his or her skill level, finally closing with a set of inverted postures, referred to as the "finishing sequence". Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally taught in Mysore style (supervised self practice), where each student moves through the practice at his or her own pace and level. In the West, it is more common to find classes devoted to a specific series, and guided by an instructor.

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