What is Ashtanga Yoga? A Beginner’s Guide

Are you curious about Ashtanga yoga and what it entails? Ashtanga is a rigorous form of physical yoga that emphasizes the synchronization of breath with a series of postures. Each posture is held for a specific number of breaths, creating a continuous and flowing practice.

The Ashtanga method was developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India in the early 20th century and has gained popularity around the world. It consists of six series of postures, each building upon the previous one, with the first series known as the Primary Series. Ashtanga is also known for its use of vinyasas, a series of movements that connect postures and help to create a smooth, graceful flow. With its focus on both physical and mental discipline, Ashtanga provides a challenging and rewarding practice for yogis of all levels.

Origin of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga is a modern form of yoga that has become incredibly popular in recent years, particularly in the Western world. This style of yoga has a rich history that dates back many centuries, with its roots tracing back to the ancient Indian sage Patanjali.

The term “Ashtanga” refers to the eight limbs of yoga, which are the foundation of the practice. These include yama (moral codes), niyama (self-purification and study), asana (postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense control), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga work together to promote physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga was popularized in the 20th century by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who developed the system of yoga known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Jois began studying yoga at a young age and in the 1930s, he began teaching Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore, India. As Ashtanga Yoga gained popularity, Jois became one of the leading figures in the world of yoga, and his teachings spread throughout the world.

The practice of Ashtanga Yoga emphasizes the integration of breath with movement, and the use of vinyasas (flowing sequences) that connect each pose in a continuous movement. Ashtanga Yoga is a physically demanding practice, which can help improve strength, flexibility, and endurance. It also has a strong focus on meditation and breath control, which can help calm the mind and reduce stress.

Overall, the origin of Ashtanga Yoga can be traced back to ancient India, where it was developed as a system for promoting physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Through the work of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga has become one of the most popular styles of yoga in the world, offering a practice that promotes both physical fitness and inner peace.

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Principles of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga is rooted in a set of principles that make it a unique and powerful practice. These principles are derived from the ancient text of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which is considered the foundation of yoga philosophy. In the context of Ashtanga Yoga, these principles guide the practitioner towards a deeper understanding of the practice and the self.


Tristhana is a combination of three elements, namely, asana, vinyasa, and drishti. Asana refers to the physical postures, vinyasa refers to the synchronized movement and breath, and drishti refers to the focus on a specific point. Together, these three elements form the foundation of Ashtanga Yoga practice and help to purify the body and mind.


Breathing is an essential component of Ashtanga Yoga. The practice emphasizes deep, fluid, and mindful breathing, which helps to regulate the nervous system, increase oxygenation, and remove toxins from the body. The breath is synchronized with the movement of the body in a continuous and flowing practice, creating a moving meditation.


The bandhas are internal locks or muscular contractions that help to control the flow of energy within the body. In Ashtanga Yoga, there are three primary bandhas, namely Mula Bandha (Root Lock), Uddiyana Bandha (Abdominal Lock), and Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock). These bandhas, when engaged correctly, create a foundation of stability and strength within the body, allowing for deeper and safer asana practice.


Drishti refers to the focused gaze or point of concentration during the practice of asana. In Ashtanga Yoga, each pose has a specific drishti, which helps to cultivate concentration, focus, and awareness. By focusing the gaze, the practitioner can quiet the mind and direct the energy towards a specific point, creating a sense of grounding and stability.

As you can see, the Principles of Ashtanga Yoga create a powerful and transformative practice. By incorporating these principles into your practice, you can cultivate a deeper understanding of your body, mind, and spirit, leading to increased strength, flexibility, and overall well-being.

The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga is a traditional form of yoga that emphasizes the practice of a series of postures, synchronized with breath, called vinyasa. However, this is just one aspect of a complex philosophy that encompasses much more than just physical exercise. In fact, Ashtanga Yoga is built upon a framework of eight limbs, and each one of them plays a critical role in the practice. Here is an overview of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga:

1. Yama

Yama refers to the ethical principles that govern the behavior towards others, and it includes five components: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (continence), and Aparigraha (non-coveting).

2. Niyama

Niyama refers to the ethical principles that govern the behavior towards yourself, and it includes five components: Saucha (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to a higher power).

3. Asana

Asana refers to the practice of physical postures, which are designed to purify the body and prepare it for the next stages of the practice.

4. Pranayama

Pranayama refers to the practice of control of breath, which is believed to be the bridge between the body and the mind.

5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara refers to the practice of withdrawing the senses from external stimuli, in order to turn the attention inward.

6. Dharana

Dharana refers to the practice of concentration, in which the attention is focused on a single object, such as the breath or a specific point in the body.

7. Dhyana

Dhyana refers to the practice of meditation, which allows the mind to become calm and clear, and attain a state of inner peace.

8. Samadhi

Samadhi refers to the ultimate goal of yoga, which is the state of enlightenment, or union with the divine.

To fully practice Ashtanga Yoga, one must incorporate all eight limbs into their routine, as they build upon each other and lead to a complete integration of body, mind, and spirit.

Physical Practice of Ashtanga Yoga

The physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga, also known as Asana, involves a series of poses, each with its unique benefits and challenges. Here’s what to expect when practicing Ashtanga Yoga:

1. Sun Salutations

The practice usually begins with a set of five Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara A), followed by five repetitions of a second series (Surya Namaskara B). These sequences warm up your body and prepare it for the more intense poses to come.

2. Standing Poses

The next sequence includes standing poses, which help to strengthen your legs, improve your balance, and increase your endurance. Some of the poses you might encounter are the Warrior series (Virabhadrasana I, II, and III), Triangle Pose (Trikonasana), and Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana).

3. Seated Poses and Finishing Sequence

After the standing poses, the practice moves to seated poses. These postures promote flexibility, improve your hip mobility, and help to strengthen your back muscles. Some of the seated poses you might encounter are the Lotus Position (Padmasana), Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana), and the Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana). Finally, the practice ends with a set of inverted poses and a deep relaxation period, also known as Savasana, to restore your body and mind.

4. Breath and Movement Synchronization

In Ashtanga Yoga, the breath and movement are synchronized. You inhale as you move into a pose, and exhale as you move out of it. This synchronization helps to develop your lung capacity, improves your stamina, and calms your mind.

5. Repetition and Progression

Ashtanga Yoga is a repetitive practice, which means you’ll practice the same sequence of poses every time you come to your mat. This repetition helps you to focus your mind, improves your muscle memory, and allows you to progress in your practice as you become more skilled at each pose. The practice also includes six series, each one building upon the previous series and increasing in difficulty.

Overall, Ashtanga Yoga is a physically demanding practice that requires commitment and dedication. However, with each practice, you’ll develop strength, flexibility, and mental clarity that will help you both on and off your mat.

Breath and Movement in Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga is a physically challenging practice that combines breath control with specific postures to create a flowing, dynamic sequence. The practice focuses on linking each movement with a specific breath, known as vinyasa, which creates a rhythmic and meditative flow.

Breathing is a fundamental element of Ashtanga Yoga, and adheres to a specific pattern of inhales and exhales throughout the practice. The breath used in Ashtanga is known as Ujjayi breath, which involves breathing through the nose while creating a slight restriction in the throat. This restriction creates an audible sound that helps to regulate the breath and focus the mind.

In Ashtanga Yoga, each movement is initiated by an inhale or exhale, which creates a continuous flow of movement and breath. This breath-movement connection helps to strengthen the body, improve flexibility, and release tension. The emphasis on breath control also helps to bring awareness to the present moment and calm the mind.

The combination of breath and movement in Ashtanga Yoga creates a moving meditation, allowing for a deeper connection between the mind and body. Through the practice, the practitioner learns to synchronize the breath with movement, and over time, this connection becomes second nature. This allows for a deeper meditation and creates a sense of internal focus, calm, and clarity.

In summary, breath and movement are integral elements of Ashtanga Yoga. The practice focuses on linking specific movements with breath control to create a moving meditation, improve physical strength and flexibility, and calm the mind. The continuous flow of breath and movement creates a sense of internal focus, allowing for a deeper connection between the mind and body.

Ashtanga Yoga is a powerful and dynamic yoga practice that offers numerous physical and mental benefits. In this section, we’ll dive into some of the top benefits of Ashtanga Yoga.

Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga

1. Improves Strength and Flexibility

Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding practice that involves flowing through a series of poses in a specific sequence. These poses work all the major muscle groups in the body, improving overall strength and flexibility.

2. Reduces Stress and Anxiety

Ashtanga yoga incorporates deep breathing techniques that help to calm the mind and reduce stress and anxiety. The practice also helps to release tension in the body, promoting a sense of relaxation and ease.

3. Boosts Immunity

Ashtanga yoga helps to stimulate the lymphatic system, which is responsible for removing toxins and waste products from the body. This helps to boost the immune system and improve overall health and well-being.

4. Increases Focus and Mental Clarity

Ashtanga yoga requires concentration and focus as you move through the poses. Over time, this helps to improve mental clarity and focus, leading to a greater sense of calm and productivity throughout the day.

5. Enhances Breathing

Ashtanga yoga emphasizes deep, rhythmic breathing, which helps to strengthen the respiratory system and increase oxygen flow throughout the body. This can lead to a greater sense of energy and vitality.

6. Develops Discipline and Self-Awareness

Ashtanga yoga is a challenging practice that requires dedication and discipline. The commitment to a daily practice cultivates self-awareness and helps to develop a deeper understanding of your own abilities and limitations.

Overall, Ashtanga yoga offers a host of physical and mental benefits. Whether you’re looking to increase strength and flexibility, reduce stress and anxiety, or improve focus and mental clarity, this powerful yoga practice has something to offer.

Ashtanga Yoga for Beginners

If you’re new to Ashtanga Yoga, it’s essential to approach it with an open mind and patience. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Find a Qualified Teacher

It’s vital to learn from a qualified teacher to avoid injuries and achieve proper alignment. Look for a teacher who has completed the Ashtanga Yoga teacher training program and is registered with Yoga Alliance. They should be able to guide you through the primary series, make adjustments, and offer modifications to accommodate your level of flexibility and strength.

Start with Sun Salutations

Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) are an essential part of Ashtanga Yoga and help warm up the body. The most basic variation of Sun Salutations includes eight postures, four each on the right and left sides. Practice them daily for about a week or two until you feel comfortable before moving on to additional postures.

Practice Regularly

Consistency is key when it comes to Ashtanga Yoga. Try to practice at least three to six times per week. If you’re short on time, it’s better to do a few postures rather than skipping practice altogether.

Use the Breath

Breathing is a crucial aspect of Ashtanga Yoga and helps create a moving meditation. The breath should be deep, smooth, and even throughout the practice. Focus on inhaling and exhaling through the nose and coordinating the breath with each movement.

Don’t Push Yourself too Hard

Ashtanga Yoga is a challenging practice, and it’s essential not to overdo it. Listen to your body and respect its limits. Avoid pushing yourself beyond your edge or forcing yourself into a posture. Instead, work slowly and safely, and eventually, your body will become more flexible and strong.

Practice in a Quiet Space

Ashtanga Yoga is best practiced in a quiet, peaceful space to help quiet the mind and stay focused. Try to eliminate any distractions, such as music or TV, and create a calming environment to enhance your practice.

Be Patient and Kind to Yourself

Ashtanga Yoga takes time and practice to master. Don’t expect to achieve perfection in one session. Be patient and kind to yourself, and remember that each practice is an opportunity for growth and self-discovery.

Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga is a unique approach to practicing yoga that emphasizes self-practice over a led class setting. As the name suggests, this style originated in Mysore, India, under the guidance of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and has since spread to yoga studios around the world.

In a Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga class, students are given a set sequence of postures to work on at their own pace. The teacher provides individualized instruction and adjustments to help each student deepen their practice and progress through the series. This approach allows students to work at their own level, and to develop a consistent, self-motivated practice.

Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga is different from a traditional led class in several important ways. Firstly, students are not led through the sequence as a group, but work on postures independently. This means that the class size can be quite large, as each student is working at their own pace. Additionally, the teacher is not instructing the sequence, but is instead providing individualized guidance and adjustments to each student.

Another key difference with Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga is the focus on breath, movement, and meditation. In this style, the breath is used as a tool to deepen each posture and link together the sequence. The postures are also coordinated with a specific gaze point and internal focal point, which helps to calm the mind and deepen the meditative aspects of the practice.

Overall, Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga is a challenging and deeply personal practice that encourages self-exploration and discipline. By working through the sequence at your own pace, and with individualized guidance from the teacher, you can deepen your practice, improve your alignment, and gain a greater understanding of the mind-body connection.

Ashtanga Yoga and Mindfulness

Mind-body connection is a central principle of Ashtanga yoga, which emphasizes the importance of mindfulness and mental focus during practice. Ashtanga yoga involves a series of physical postures (asanas) that are synced with the breath, and this synchronization requires a high degree of focus and attention.

As you move through the practice, you will be required to pay close attention to your breath, your body, and the specific alignment and movement of each asana. This heightened awareness and concentration can bring about a state of mindfulness that can have many positive effects on your mental and emotional wellbeing.

Practicing Ashtanga yoga can help you develop a greater sense of calm, clarity, and centeredness, which can carry over into other areas of your life. By cultivating mindfulness on the mat, you may find that you are better able to manage stress, overcome negative thought patterns, and stay focused and present in your daily activities.

In addition to these mental benefits, Ashtanga yoga can also have a positive impact on your physical wellbeing. The practice is known for its ability to build strength and flexibility, and regular practitioners may see improvements in their posture, balance, and overall health.

If you’re interested in exploring the mind-body benefits of Ashtanga yoga, it’s important to approach your practice with patience and an open mind. Ashtanga can be challenging, both physically and mentally, and it may take time to see the full benefits of the practice. But with dedication and consistent effort, you may find that the mindfulness and physical wellness you experience on the mat become an integral part of your daily life.

The Conclusion:

To summarize, Ashtanga Yoga is a discipline that involves a vigorous physical practice, combined with focused breathing, meditation, and introspection. It emphasizes the importance of maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle, and strives to unlock the full potential of the mind and body.

Through its transformative practice, Ashtanga Yoga can provide numerous benefits, including improved physical fitness, reduced stress levels, enhanced mental clarity, and increased spiritual awareness. Its structured approach challenges practitioners to push their limits, confront their fears and limitations, and discover their inner strength and resilience.

However, it’s important to remember that Ashtanga Yoga should be practiced with care, under the guidance of a certified teacher who can ensure proper alignment, prevent injury, and provide support and encouragement. Patience, dedication, and consistency are also key factors in achieving success in this practice.

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced practitioner, Ashtanga Yoga offers a challenging and rewarding journey towards self-discovery and growth. By embracing its principles and incorporating its teachings into your daily life, you can cultivate a greater sense of well-being, inner peace, and self-awareness, and become a better version of yourself.

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