Ashtanga Yoga is an ancient system. It is thousands of years old and has been expounded upon even in the puranas, from previous yugas. There is nothing contemporary or new age about it, the method is old school and timeless. In relatively recent times the method was recorded by Vamana Rishi (in the Yoga Kurunta), and then carried by Sri Rama Mohan Bramachari to Sri T. Krishnamacharya and his disciple Sri K Pattabhi Jois (Guruji).
How graced are we to have access to these ancient teachings - and that Guruji brought it to us with all his heart, soul, and unconditional love!
Ashtanga means Eight Limbs and Yoga means Union. In simple english, the eight limbs are about ethical living, integrity in personal choices, practice of posture, engaging the breath to channel the eternal life force, detaching the senses and turning inward, one-pointed concentration of the mind, the experience of non-duality, and ultimately merging with the Divine.
Through using a specific combination of techniques as we practice, these limbs awaken within us as we journey back to our original Truth. On the way, the mind is gradually tamed and we embody more and more genuine happiness. The only catch is that we need to practice! Guruji often said, “Anyone can practice...only lazy people not practicing! Ha ha ha...” He also said 'Practice, and all is coming'.
Four specific techniques are always used in the practice: Ujjayi pranayama, Mula and Uddiyana Bandha, Dristi, and specific Vinyasa. Out of these four, the breath is the foundation. Really, the only prerequisite for practice is that we can inhale and exhale. Hence, anyone who is alive can practice!
Historically, the teachings were passed down from guru to disciple, teacher to student, one-on-one. There were no “guided yoga classes”, except for demonstration. From a practical standpoint, for those who are new to this tradition, it is worth noting that the classical Ashtanga method of teaching/learning is quite different from what has likely been experienced in today’s “studio” classes. The slow, teacher-to-student, pose-by-pose method is known as “Mysore style” (named after Mysore, South India where Guruji taught). If coming from a “mass class” world, this way of learning could potentially take some getting used to. But the Mysore style classes also allow the newer practitioner more confidence in establishing a home practice. It is very important to learn from a qualified teacher who is capable of meeting each student where they are, really.
The guided series classes are more suited to those who have integrated the Mysore style teachings and have familiarity with the postures and the sequence. These guided style classes are also referred to as 'led' sequences.
In addition to Mysore style and guided classes, Shakti Sharanam offers a weekly Fundamentals & Refinements class, which provides a thorough introduction for new practitioners and reminds more experienced practitioners of the roots of the tradition and the universal yogic principles.
The Ashtanga Yoga sequences are divided into three different categories: Primary (Yoga Chikitsa), Intermediate (Nadi Shodhana), and Advanced A, B, C (Sthira Bhaga).
Yoga Chikitsa literally means “Yoga Therapy”, which detoxifies and realigns the body. Nadi Shodhana means “Nadi Purification” and opens and cleanses the nadis and nervous system. It is important that one spends much time refining the Primary sequence before adding Intermediate postures. Sthira Bhaga translates as “Strength and Grace”, which it both demands and refines.
Guruji said that the Primary sequence is householder yoga, appropriate for
anyone; Intermediate is only for very serious practitioners and teachers; and Advanced only for demonstration, which is why even an advanced practitioner keeps coming back to the earlier sequences in their practice.
As in other world traditions Ashtanga gives special attention to the day of the Full and New Moons. Energy runs strong at these times, and supports more devotional and subtle practices. So these days are generally considered to be a 'day off' from asana practice. Most larger Ashtanga schools do not hold classes on these days. At Shakti Sharanam, regularly scheduled classes are held and the time is utilized for theory, satsang, chanting or restorative practice. In Crestone, there is also a traditional fire ceremony conducted at the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram on these days.
Ladies Moon Days
Or 'Ladies Holiday', refers to women's menstruation time. During bleeding time, energy demands a downward flow. Since the Ashtanga techniques cultivate an upward flow, practice is contra-indicated during this time. Generally three days off, but this certainly varies for individuals. This 'down time' is not unique to Ashtanga, most other spiritual traditions follow similar protocol.
Again, since the asana practice cultivates an upward flow of energy, and digestion/elimination demands a downward energy, it is best to practice with empty bowls and bladder. Ideally, 3-4 hours is allowed after a meal, but it is important to hydrate in between practice times. However, avoid drinking right before or during class.
During practice, toxins are being eliminated through all of our organs including our skin. Hence, bathing before practice is important (not to mention in courtesy to other practitioners and teachers). As an added courtesy to those who follow a Sattvic lifestyle, abstinence from garlic, onion, meats, marijuana and alcohol before attending class will always be appreciated.