In this episode of The Wholisitc Greatness Podcast, I take you into my personal practice of Ashtanga Yoga. Movement is key to wholistic health and wellness and Ashtanga yoga has been my “go to” since 2015. It has transformed me in mind, body, and soul. It has connected me with my body awareness beyond physical. Although I have been practicing yoga since 2004, Ashtanga embraced my heart and I have never been the same. As a Christian, this practice, especially the chants and language, can be seen as a type of religion. This could not be further from the truth. I explore this topic and much more in this post and podcast. I’m so glad you are here to further your #wholisticgreatness. Let’s talk Ashtanga.
When I entered my 40s, like most, I wanted the next 40 years to mean as much as the first 40 years. I had three children out of diapers and able to feed themselves, which meant I could focus on me just a bit more. My heart yearned for something “just for me”. I loved the practice of yoga and wanted to go deeper into this beautiful movement. There was an Ashtanga Yoga Instructor training offered at the studio I practiced at the time, as well as another form of yoga training, and knew I wanted to become a teacher. I took the opportunity and dove deep into both practice’s philosophies and listened to my body when I moved through the asanas. Ashtanga was the winner and I haven’t looked back.
This post is inspired simply by my love for the practice. I am not a guru, I am not an advanced practitioner, and I will always be a student to this practice. We are all students no matter what level we are practicing. This is why I love this practice. No ego.
This post and podcast are simply to outline what the practice of Ashtanga Yoga is briefly. It is to give you a peak into my “why”. At the end of the post, I have given links to all the practitioners I consider advanced and my teachers. I am grateful for the internet. Mentors and inspiration at your fingertips!
To be honest with you, I was quit nervous getting into Ashtanga Yoga. I am a devoted believer in Christ and I claim and spread the good news that He is the one true God. So, practicing a form of yoga that chanted mantras in sanskrit in the opening and closing of the practice created a lump in my throat. Through prayer and petition I decided not to chant and use this time to meditate on the Spirit himself. I Om in the beginning of the practice to ground myself, then I meditate. I invite him in the space, in my heart, and in my practice.
Whether you agree with me or not, it is no matter. It is my practice and how I choose to practice. This is where I am led.
I ultimately chose this practice for three specific reasons: the movement (vinyasa and asanas) , the breath (the pranayama), and the bandhas.
The movement is a set of asanas that are linked together with vinyasas (a flowing sequences of movements). Together, the asana and the vinyasa create each set series of practice. It is the same each time. Some don’t like this. I do, however. I love the predicability, I don’t have to think and I only can build upon each asana. It is right with my mind and body.
Breath, or pranayama, is very telling on and off the mat. Ashtanga yoga keeps a general principle of steady and even inhales and exhales. In his book Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois recommends staying five to eight breaths in a posture, or staying for as long as possible in a posture. The breath tells so much about where I am in my practice. I can walk into the studio and find myself in short quick breaths that indicate something emotional inside. I then, can tune in and begin the controlled breath, calming my nervous system and getting my heart and breath in check. There are other practices of pranayama that I won’t go in detail here, but the exploration of pranayama is worth it.
Bandhas are one of the three key principles in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, alongside breath and drishti (gaze). There are three main bandhas which are considered internal body locks: Mūla Bandha; or root lock at the pelvic floor (drawing in the perineum), Uḍḍīyāna Bandha; drawing back the abdomen, 2 inches below the navel, and Jālaṅdhara Bandha; throat lock, achieved by lowering the chin slightly while raising the sternum.
I actually find myself practicing Mula and Uddiyana bandha even when not practicing asana. Even Pattabhi Jois who has brought Ashtanga to the US has this to say: ( this is a literal translated quote) “You completely exhale, apply mulabandha and after inhaling you apply uddiyana bandha. Both bandhas are very important… After bandha practice, take (your attention) to the location where they are applied and maintain that attention at all times, while walking, talking, sleeping and when walk is finished. Always you control mulabandha”.
I was in ballet and tap and a young child and eventually drill team. I loved dance and the bandhas bring me back to the posture my teachers would try to drill into us dancers, but better. I carry myself completely differently and love it. I hold myself up with my breath and bandha every day. Shad and I laugh because you know when I have been driving his car. The seat is found straight up. It is a comfortable place for me, thanks to the bandhas.
Ashtanga Yoga is a highly structured vinyasa-style class. There are six (some claim seven) Ashtanga asana series and each student must master every pose of the first series before moving onto the second series, and so on. Ashtanga yoga is believed to be an ancient form of the discipline that was rediscovered by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century. Some say he developed the sequences that make up the series. Ashtanga Yoga came to the west through students of Sri Pattabi Jois, who passed away in 2009 after establishing his yoga center in Mysore, India.
Ashtanga Yoga translates as “eight-limbed yoga” and refers to the eight limbs outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra, which include moral and ethical guidelines, postures, breath work, sense withdrawal, concentration, and meditation.
This form of yoga is intensely physical and athletic. Ashtanga yogis practice a prescribed set of asanas, channel energy through the body using bandhas (locks), and concentrate on singular points using (gaze) in asanas. It is not meant to teach yourself. It is a practice where you have a teacher. A mentor. A guide.
Let’s review each of the series.
The sequence itself is a progression of postures which promote both strength and flexibility. It begins with forward bends before moving on to twists, hip openers and backbends. These postures and the vinyasas between them build internal heat. It is said that the practice has significant benefits on a number of levels. Mentally, the primary series builds willpower, focus and mind-body awareness. Physically, it strengthens, improves flexibility and detoxifies the organs. Energetically, the poses clear obstacles to free the flow of energy in the nadis, or energy channels of the body.
The Ashtanga yoga method of practicing the primary series is to memorize the postures, and practice them six days per week, following the rhythm and counting of the yogi’s own breath, rather than a teacher. This is said to encourage introspection and focus. See below, where Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is instructing of advanced practitioners through the primary series, #goals.
The focus is on back bends, which benefit the spine and open energy channels that let prana (breathe) flow. The series also includes hip openers and some headstands.
The second series begins with noose pose and then flows into heron, followed by a series of back bends, including locust, frog, bow, side bow and camel poses. The back bends provide a range of benefits, including improving posture, opening the heart center, and improving lung function. The back bends are followed by counterbalance poses and then deep forward bends, which assist nerve cleansing and increase blood flow to the spine, lungs and heart.
The inversions that follow – mostly headstands – detoxify the internal organs and build confidence. The series ends with paschimottanasana, a calming forward fold.Again, the video below demonstrates the intermediate (second) series with Sri K. Pattabi Jois guiding.
The third series of Ashtanga yoga, also called the advanced A series, is a sequence of postures that work with gravity and are designed to calm the mind and strengthen the body. The third series is one of four sequences that comprise the advanced series, which is known as sthira bhaga, or “divine stability.”
All levels of Ashtanga yoga asana practice begin with two versions of Sun Salutation and a standing sequence, and they all end with the closing sequence. In between, the yogi performs one of six series, which increase in difficulty.
The third series of Ashtanga yoga builds on the first two series, known as the primary and intermediate series. The focus continues to be on energy flow, with additional emphasis on flexibility, strength and concentration. The series sets the yogi on the path to the ultimate goal of Self-realization.
Arm-balancing poses are key components of the third series, requiring the yogi to work with gravity to maintain stability.
The third series also includes intense backbends such as viparita dandasana A and B, viparita shalabhasana, rajakapotasana and eka pada rajakapotasana. The backbends open energy channels and stretch the spine. The video below demonstrates the third (advanced A) series with Sri K. Pattabi Jois guiding.
The fourth series of Ashtanga yoga, also sometimes referred to as the advanced B series, is a sequence of asanas that strengthen the body, increase flexibility, calm the mind and build inner strength. The fourth series is the second of four sequences that together are known as sthira bhaga, or the advanced series. Sthira bhaga is a Sanskrit term that means “divine stability.”
Regardless of the level, all asana practice in Ashtanga yoga begins with two variations of Sun Salutation and a standing sequence, followed by one of the six series and ending with the closing sequence.
The sthira bhaga series of Ashtanga yoga, including the fourth series, builds on the the primary and intermediate series. The first of the sthira bhaga series, also known as the third series or advanced A series, continues Ashtanga’s focus on energy flow, but adds more emphasis on flexibility, strength and concentration. The fourth series mixes more difficult poses with meditative poses, continuing and further developing the advanced series’ emphasis on inner strength. The goal of the fourth series is to move the yogi along the path to the ultimate goal of Self-realization.
The fourth series of Ashtanga yoga includes backbends and a number of poses with one or two feet behind the head, in addition to the meditative poses. The video below demonstrates the fourth ( advanced B) series with Kino MacGregor practicing. #stunning
The fifth, advanced C, series of Ashtanga yoga is an advanced sequence of postures, or asanas, designed to improve body and mind. It is the third of four sequences that together are known as sthira bhaga, or the advanced series. Sthira bhaga is a Sanskrit term meaning “divine stability.”
The asana sequences in this series have evolved over the years. They consist of the primary series, the intermediate series and the advanced series, which used to be composed of two sequences, advanced A and advanced B, or the third and fourth series. Through several incarnations, the Ashtanga advanced series was spread out into the third, fourth, fifth and sixth series. The fifth series is sometimes referred to as advanced C.
Regardless of the level, all asana practice in Ashtanga yoga begins with two variations of sun salutation and a standing sequence followed by one of the six series; it ends with the closing sequence. While the primary and intermediate series tend to be universal, the asanas used in the fifth series can vary depending when the particular series was developed or taught. Like all Ashtanga series, the fifth series builds on the skills learned in the prior series and adds more challenging poses interspersed with easier postures.
A focus in the fifth series of Ashtanga yoga are the many handstand vinyasas and other inversions. Such poses include: taraksvasana A and B, eka hasta vrksasana, uttana salabhasana A and B, vrksasana, viparita chakrasana, urdhva prasarita padasana A and B, and tiriang mukha utthita trikonasana, among others.
The sixth, advanced D, series of Ashtanga yoga is the most advanced sequence of postures that comprise asana practice in this structured form of yoga. Some say that only one person has ever advanced to the sixth series, Sharath Rangaswamy, the grandson of K. Pattabhi Jois, who developed the modern Ashtanga series of postures. Others, however, claim to practice what is known today as the sixth series and even to have learned it from Jois.,
What is not disputed is that the asana sequences have evolved in the modern era, as series were added or existing series split into several series.
The Ashtanga yoga vinyasa series today consists of primary (first series), intermediate (second series) and four levels of advanced series, which are collectively referred to by the Sanskrit term sthira bhaga, or “divine stability.” Each series includes challenging and restorative poses performed in the same order each time, but each series of vinyasa is increasingly more difficult than its predecessor. The goal of vinyasa in these series is to strengthen body and mind.
Like all Ashtanga practice, the sixth series starts with two different sun salutations and a standing sequence; it ends with the same closing sequence. Between the standing and closing sequences, the yogi follows the flowing sequences of poses that comprise the series. Unlike in the primary and intermediate series, the postures in the sixth series are not universal. The makeup of the vinyasa and the order of the poses can vary depending on when it was originally learned. The sixth series, though, tends to include difficult backbends, handstands and other inversions that require advanced flexibility and balance.
It is said that there is a seventh sequence in the Ashtanga series called the “Family Life.” Paraphrasing Ty Landrum……
“In this series we learn to be present to others, we learn to nurture and support them giving them space to become who they are. It is a balance. Loving attention is the very essence of the embodied yogic consciousness. An experience that stays with us when we open our eyes. Our unconditional love is awakened. This is the yoga of relationship.”
By far, the mysore experience is my favorite right now and what I crave the most. I love to be around others that have embraced this practice. I love to move with them and have a teacher guide me specifically. I grow so much in this setting.
The mysore style of yoga asana practice is the way of teaching within the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga tradition as taught by K. Pattabhi Jois in the southern Indian city of Mysore. This method differs from the usual way of teaching yoga. The class is not “led” as a whole, but rather all instruction is one-on-one within the group class setting. Students practice their own portion of the Ashtanga sequence of asanas at their own pace. The teacher assists each student individually by giving physical adjustments & verbal instruction. It is glorious. Below is a video of what a mysore class would look like.
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois has said that “It is not your history, but you presence on your mat that matters.” I have personally cried many of tear on my mat. I call it therapy. To move is to heal. Letting the past play out and allowing the present to be bigger than the past. To learn from the past, yet embrace the present. It is truly a practice for me to keep my mind in the present some days as I have healed my heart. It is a haven when today gets hard. It is a form of worship some days, a form of release on others, and a form of celebration most days. I am so very grateful that this practice found me.
“It is not your HISTORY, but your PRESENCE on your mat that matters.” -Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
I have also learned alot about my body awareness. Not just what is where, but a sort of subconscious awareness that as made me better for it. I have learned that there are three teachers in the practice of Ashtanga Yoga: the teacher, injury, and breath. I have learned alot from my teachers, but I have also learned to trust myself. I listen to my breath, I respond when things don’t feel right (in my body, and spirit). One of the things I often tell my own students is to “Make sure you are listening.” Our bodies tell us so much if we just listen.
“There are three teachers in the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. The teacher, injury, and breath. Make sure you are listening.”
Richard Freeman has a beautiful way of explaining how we wake up to our souls. “You are waking up to what is really happening….until you really feel compassion for all the “beings” within you, you are going to be unhappy.” Although I am not looking for happiness, I am looking for peace with all my “beings”. The emotions that live within me. I want to address them all. I want to see them all and give them attention they need and deserve. This has brought me peace.
“You are waking up to what is really happening….until you really feel compassion for all the “beings” within you, you are going to be unhappy.” – Richard Feeeman
Getting to teach Ashtanga yoga is a gift. To share the gift of healing of the mind, body, and soul through movement has been an honor not only to my body but to the people I get to serve. I have seen first hand the healing that takes place if we just show up in surrender.
Ashtanga is an athletic form of yoga, so if you have a previous injury, I would express caution as you approach this practice. With any form of exercise, it is recommended to consult your physician prior to participating in Ashtanga Yoga.
I have online mentors that I follow and learn from on the daily through podcasts, articles, and videos. Here are a few of my favorites:
I am Claudine Phillips, a Registered Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist who in recovery from Hashimotos Thyroiditis and other autoimmune diseases. I journal, vlog, and podcast my experiences to help you find your healing as well. I termed the phrase #wholisticgreatness to embrace spiritual, emotional, and physical health in order to achieve complete recovery. I share my research and protocols to provide inspiration, tactics, and strategies so that you, too, achieve the best life you could image! Is that you? Then let’s do this! I can be found speaking locally and nationally, journalling and vloging my research and protocols on this site, and connecting with you on my podcast The Claudine Phillips Show and on all the socials at @claudinephillips. I can’t wait to connect!