Ashtanga yoga was developed by K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. This style of yoga is a flowing, vinyasa style and is based upon the hatha yoga style developed by Varnana Rishi. Ashtanga is Sanskrit for eight limbs, which is in reference to the eight yoga limbs, found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Pattabhi Jois published a treatise on ashtanga yoga in 1958 and students in the west began arriving in Mysore in the early 1970s in order to learn first-hand how to benefit from the style of yoga that he had previously written about. Even after Pattabhi Jois died in 2009, his grandson Sharath taught ashtanga to study with the master and deepen his understanding of the methods.
One of the primary focuses of ashtanga yoga is vinyasa flow, which includes mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, drishti and ujjayi breathing. All of these are a form of breathing techniques designed to control the flow of energy throughout the body. These include taking significant exhales of air and transferring the air into different parts of the body, including the abdomen and pelvic floor. There are three locks to control energy flow as well as the deep spiritual breathing. This is a form of relaxation yoga that can provide a significant amount of inner peace as well as many other benefits.
The practice of ashtanga yoga involves six different series, which are worked through and completed at an individual pace. The first series is the most popular and is called Yoga Chikitsa. This is yoga therapy and will not only realign the spine, but detoxify the body and build strength and stamina. There are 75 poses to go through and will take between an hour and a half and two hours to complete. Sample poses include the sun salutation, standing and seated poses, backbends as well as inversions. There will also be moments of relaxation to ensure the breathing is maintained throughout the asanas.
The second series is the Nadi Shodana. This series is designed to purify the nervous system. It will cleanse and strengthen the nervous system and channel energy through the body. This series can only be introduced when one has achieved a strong base with regard to the first series. It follows along the same progression as the primary series, but new poses are introduced as well.
There are also four advanced series, which are called Sthira Bhaga, Sanskrit for divine stability. Pattabhi Jois had originally created two advanced series, but later went back and divided them again into four series to ensure they were more readily available to a larger number of people. The poses found in these series include a number of difficult arm balances and should only be attempted by those who are advanced.
With many benefits of ashtanga yoga, students will be able to see an improvement in their health and well-being. This style of yoga requires a significant amount of breath synchronization as well as a progressive series of postures. These postures will produce intense heat throughout the body as well as a purifying sweat that is known to detoxify organs and muscles. The primary benefits are improved circulation as well as a calm mind and strong body.
Ashtanga yoga can be practiced by anyone of any level of fitness, though everyone is to start in the first series and go at a pace that is comfortable for them. Doing so will ensure that students receive all the benefits without advancing too quickly into poses that one is incapable of striking and holding.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras by Sri Swami Satchidananda (October 15, 1990)
Yoga Mala: The Original Teachings of Ashtanga Yoga Master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (North Point Press, 1999)