What does Astanga mean?
The word Astanga literally means eight limbs, as outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, an early systematized structural framework for yoga practice. Patanjali can be seen as a pioneering psychotherapist who described in detail the functioning of the human mind and showed a logical path to liberate it. According to Patanjali, the path of yoga consists of eight steps. The steps are Yama (how we relate to others), Niyama (commitments to ourselves), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense control), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (absorption). The practice of the third limb, the physical yoga postures (‘asana’), stabilizes body and sense organs, and leads towards a steady mind. It is usually seen as the foundation and gateway for the practice and development of the other steps. Practicing Astanga ultimately means practicing all of the eight limbs.
What are Yamas and Niyamas?
The Yamas and Niyamas are observances, behaviors and commitments of yoga students, which offer a common-sense guidelines that lead towards the state of yoga and a happier life. The five Yamas are the observances and behaviors which regulate how we relate to others. They are Ahimsa (Non-violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Restraint) and Aparigraha (Non-grasping). The five Niyamas are commitments to ourselves, and principles that we should follow in our daily life. They are Saucha (Cleanliness), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Austerity), Svadhyaya (Self-study) and Isvara Pranidhana (Surrender). When you find yourself struggling (on or off the mat) the answer is most likely found in Yamas and Niyamas as outlined in Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
What is Tristana?
Astanga yoga utilizes a three-fold approach called Tristana. Tristana consists of correct breathing technique, the posture/asana (including the use of bandhas - activation of core muscles) and dhristi, gazing point. Through this method practitioners develop control of the senses and a deep awareness of themselves. The importance of breath in this process cannot be overemphasized. By cultivating the breath rather than just achieving postures, the practice brings us into deeper contact with ourselves.
What is Vinyasa?
In Astanga yoga the postures (asanas) are linked together through flowing movements and all the movements are synchronized with the breath. The Sanskrit word Vinyasa refers in Astanga yoga to breath synchronised with movement. When breath and movement is synchronised, and the bandhas are activated, strong internal heat is generated. This process builds up lightness and strength in the body.
What is Primary Series?
Primary series is the first series of Astanga yoga. The Astanga system contains six series of postures: Primary series, Intermediate series and Advanced A,B,C and D series. The Sanskrit name for Primary series is Yoga Chikitsa and it can be translated as Yoga Therapy. The series is designed to align, strengthen and heal the body. The Intermediate Series is called Nadi Shodhana, meaning nervous system purification. The Advanced Series are collectively known as Sthira Bhaga or steady strength. Primary Series is the foundation for all the other series, and for all of the practitioners it offers a life-long companion.
What is an authorized Astanga teacher?
Astanga is an authentic tradition that is passed down directly from teacher to student. There are no official teacher training programs that transform a person into an Astanga teacher. After years of practice and regular visits to the KPJAYI, the source of Astanga yoga, a practitioner may be granted the permission to teach. When looking for a qualified Astanga teacher, authorization or certification is a way to see the connection to the source, as well as years of committed practice and in-depth self-inquiry under the guidance of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois or R. Sharath Jois. This dedication ideally translates into a deep understanding of the practice. There are different paths to become a teacher, but no teacher training course can ever replace personal long-term (ideally at least 10 years), daily practice under a guidance of an experienced teacher.
How often should I practice?
The traditional way to practice Astanga yoga is six days a week. We recommend to practice at least a minimum of 3 times per week and work towards 6 times per week. It's good to remember that practice doesn't have to be perfect, it doesn't have to be sweaty or to even last long. It doesn’t have to be super deep, super strong or super in any way. It just needs to happen often enough. Show up with whatever body and mind you have, and at least simply sit, breathe and observe for a little moment. When you practice often (even if some practices are short) you build up steadiness of mind and start to experience the deeper and meditative changes both in your practice and daily life. In addition to strength, flexibility and stamina, a regular practice builds up focus, patience, relaxation, and an ability to function in a healthier way in the world, and hopefully you’ll also gain an improved sense of humor.
“Practice once a week, and you’ll get sore. Practice three times a week, and you’ll get fit. Practice every day and you will transform your life.”
I’m not flexible, can I practice yoga?
Yoga is for everybody‚ just come as you are and you will find that the practice will, among other things, make you more flexible. You also might learn to be more at peace with some of the limitations, and that’s actually when they sometimes start transforming in surprising ways. Through practice we often find that the biggest obstacle is not inflexibility or weakness in the body, but rather an inflexibility of mind. Ideally we can find the courage to change the things we can, learn to accept the things we cannot change, and have the wisdom to know the difference. The practice itself is adaptable to fit everybody’s needs and Mysore teaching is always individual.
Why do I need to follow the sequence?
In Astanga yoga each posture builds from the previous one, and is a preparation for the next. Following the sequence moves one safely through the series and prevents from focusing only on strengths while avoiding weaknesses. This develops a physically balanced practice. By moving beyond the mind’s preferences, virtues of patience and acceptance are also cultivated. Steadfastness and following the tradition doesn’t mean being hardheaded or forgetting the importance of sensibility. The sequence is universal but its approach varies according to individual needs.
In many modern approaches that are not based on the traditional series, people often tend to gravitate toward what their mind thinks they should be doing or would like to be doing, and the practice becomes easily self-indulgent. The classical lineages guarantee ideally a transmission of the most essential experience of yoga, which otherwise can easily be missed in the shadow of the ego.
How and when do I move on in my practice?
The general guideline is that the next posture in the sequence should be added only after reasonable stability is obtained in the previous asana. What is important to remember and learn through the practice is that moving on is much more than doing more advanced postures. The progress should be safe and build up humility and non-attachment. It is usually difficult to handle more postures if you cannot handle the ones you are already working on, or if you cannot handle staying where you are. The best way to progress and move forward is always to master what you are doing now, and focus on doing the basic things in a more advanced way.
Do I have to practice early in the morning?
In the morning the mind is more peaceful and the day still quiet. The early morning is called 'brahma muhurta', and it’s considered as the most auspicious time to practice. The traditional morning Mysore practice allows you to flow through the rest of the day feeling energized and uplifted. It is easier to practice in the morning with an empty stomach and calmer mind, but whenever you decide to practice, stick with it, be consistent, prioritize your energies and avoid excuses. As long as you keep on showing up yoga will grow within you. This takes practice, and, for many it is the hardest part of the practice.
What about pain or injuries?
You may feel pleasant soreness at times, but the aim is not to do the postures in the same way every day or push to the point of injury. The practice gives an opportunity to listen and respect the signals the body is giving you. With any pain or injuries, whether they are related to the practice or outside events, a qualified teacher can always give you a specific modification or consideration on what to do and how to proceed. Practice itself is an effort toward steadiness of mind and it’s not about performing the postures in a perfect way. By respecting the limitations and focusing on the quality of the breath, you will start inviting more awareness and balance into your practice. That leads to one of the main benefits of yoga: to experience healing in body and mind.
Why do we chant a mantra at the beginning of class?
We chant the traditional opening chant in every Mysore class. Regardless of where students are in their practice they will be asked to stand up and repeat the mantra together via call and response. We chant the mantra to respect the long lineage of practitioners before us. Chanting also helps us focus and tune together into the right mindset and ‘vibration’ for the practice. You are free to abstain from the chant if you wish, but the minute or two it takes offers an opportunity to focus and be grateful, which is after all the main message of the opening chant.
Why does practice make me feel emotions?
In addition to the healthy development of the body, Astanga yoga will focus and calm the mind. This system works on deep and subtle levels and, at times, certain memories, experiences or emotions from the past will arise. This is healthy and natural part of the process. Each negative experience we have gone through lodges itself inside our bodies as blockages. In order for us to be freed from these experiences, we must let them resurface again through the practice and go through them once more, in a final farewell.
What about diet?
Eating healthy and nutritious food is an essential part of yoga, and regular, long-term practice will make you more sensitive and capable of sensing the relationship between the food we eat and our overall sense of well-being. Usually regular practice makes people effortlessly turn towards lighter and healthier choices and often that means reducing or cutting processed foods, junk foods and meat, but following any diet or lifestyle discipline is not essential in order to practice yoga. The same diet does not work for everyone and if you make radical, sudden changes, it may cause stress on the body. Changes should always be organic, non-dogmatic and non-fanatic.
Is yoga a religious practice?
People come to yoga from all different backgrounds. Yoga does foster a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself in a way that is compatible with different beliefs, traditions and philosophies. It is not bound to any religion, nor does it ask us to believe in anything. It is a well-tested practical tool for those who want to genuinely know themselves better, live a more conscious life, and are willing to cultivate the courage to change and grow.
Is Astanga enough to make me fit?
Astanga makes you fit, healthy, flexible and strong, and you don’t need to add any physical activities to the regular practice in order to build up physical fitness. Astanga also complements many sports or exercise routines and it is perfectly fine to continue with other kinds of physical activity while incorporating Astanga yoga into your daily life. In fact, the flexibility, strength and focus gained through yoga can help improve other activities. In addition to meditational techniques, the practice itself is a balanced mix of strength, endurance and aerobic training.
What if the practice doesn’t always feel fun?
Sri Swami Satchidananda has answered this clearly on his commentary on Yoga Sutra 1.30: “Yoga practice is like an obstacle race; many obstructions are purposely put on the way for us to pass through. They are there to make us understand and express our own capacities. We all have that strength, but we don’t seem to know it. We seem to need to be challenged and tested in order to understand our own capacities. In fact, that is the natural law. If a river flows easily, the water in the river does not express its power. But once you put an obstacle to the flow by constructing a dam, then you can see its strength in the form of tremendous electrical power.”