Ashtanga differs from other forms of yoga through the use of Vinyasa (synchronization of breath with movement), Ujjayi breathing (Pranayama), Bandhas (energetic locks) and Dristis (concentration points) in combination with the practice of Asanas (body positions) in a fixed series. These elements help the practitioner to stay focused during the entire practice and create a deep meditative state. Adjustments or physical corrections are an important part of Ashtanga classes. Experienced teachers do not just give verbal instructions, but use their hands to correct the student's position or deepen it through stretching and lenghening.
Ashtanga Yoga is a life philosophy that creates a healthy body and mind. When practiced correctly, it gradually allows the practitioner to realize his full potential at all levels of human consciousness - physical, mental, and spiritual. By practicing this discipline regulary and with devotion, one gains both mental and physical stability and finds inner balance. Through regular practice we achieve control over the senses and a deep awareness of ourselves. This leads to equanimity and happiness, inner peace and balance and supports our self-knowledge and self-realization. The Series of Asanas not only heal the physical body, but also the mind.
The Ashtanga series
Ashtanga Yoga knows up to six different series, which are traditionally taught in the so-called Mysore style. The physical demanding series connect static positions with the fluid movements of Vinyasas, relaxing the body from the previous position and preparing for the next one. These series have to be learned slowly and with patience. Those who suffer from physical limitations should initially practice the "First Series" in a condensed and simplified form until the body and mind are ready to go through to the full program.
The First Series (Yoga Chikitsa = Yoga Therapy) detoxifies the body and creats flexibility. It is suitable for everyone. The Second Series (Intermediate Series or Nadi Shodana = cleansing of the energy channels) was recommended by P. Jois for yoga teachers. It focuses on purification and opening of the energy channels and the nervous system. The Advanced Series A, B, C and D (summarized under the name Sthira Bhaga = divine tranquility or stability) serve, according to Jois, mainly for demonstration purposes and are suitable for people with a high level of physical flexibility who are looking for further challenges. At this level, one experiences the joyful freedom of the body that one usually only possesses as a child. This experience can be very liberating and satisfying.
The Series place great value on the mobility of the spine, in which the spinal cord runs along. Therefore, the exercises have profound effects on the central nervous system and influence brain functions. Asanas are therefore also helpful with mental health problems, as they often manifest themselves in physical form, e.g. through blockages, tight muscles or organic discomfort. With a regular yoga practice, the physical blockages and tension dissolve through the increasing mobility of the body, and the nervous system gets harmonized. Even if we come to a yoga class in great mental stress, we forget our problems after a short while, because the mind has to concentrate on the breath and the exercises. It "forgets" to continue thinking about the problems because it has to focus on the present moment.
In this way, mind and soul can recover and relax, we gain distance and clarity about our problems. That's why many people leave a yoga class feeling well-balanced and refreshed. The problems do not disappear, but we find new strength to deal with them. The soothing effect on the mind dissolves internal and external tensions and allows a deep, not just physical recovery.
Ashtanga means literally "eight-limbed" and was outlined in the book The Yoga Sutras by the Indian sage Patanjali about 2000 years ago. Patanjali defines the goal of yoga as "controlling of the mind activities" and the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga work together to reach this goal.
Yama and Niyama form the moral and ethic base for the yoga practice. The physical practice of Asanas make the body healthy, strong and flexible. In addition of cleansing the body and a purification of the mind the breathing exercises of Pranayama lift the practitioner to a higher spiritual level.
These first four limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are called outer yoga as they prepare mind and body optimally for the other limps. The limps of the inner yoga – Pratyahara (withdraw of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Shamadhi (enlightenment) – work on the spiritual and intellectual development of man as they discipline the mind and create harmony between body, mind and soul.