This glossary of the basic Astanga yoga terms is to offer additional understanding of the main elemants of the practice. For new students of Astanga yoga the information may feel overwhelming and totally impossible to apply at first, but do not worry too much in the beginning, just be aware of all this. Slowly over years of practice everything will come together like the pieces of a puzzle.
Breath is at the very heart of Astanga yoga and cannot be overemphasized. Learning the correct technique takes often some time, and the only key to mastering the breath is through the practice itself. However, following these basic guidelines can help you to pay attention to the right things:
Always cultivate equal quality and ratio, and never hold your breath. If you don’t know what else to do at least keep on breathing. Movement always follows the breath and never sacrifice your breath for the stretch. Breath is also a tool to build up focus and awareness and to make practice a meditation. In physical level it is the most vital process of the body having an effect on the functioning of each and every cell. Proper breathing is connected to healthy functioning of our entire system.
Mula Bandha means root lock, and it gives physical support, an extra lift and together with uddiyana bandha helps us to direct the breath, energy, correctly. Mula Bandha is activated by contracting the pelvic floor muscles, which happens naturally at the end of an exhalation, as the inhalation starts.
To get the feeling, you can imagine that you need to urgently go to the toilet, but there isn’t one around, and you’re probably already using mula bandha. Stopping the flow of urine when in toilet also may give you similar sensation and can help you to strengthen pelvic floor muscles.
Over the time mula bandha should become more subtle, almost energetic, and it doesn’t require anymore much physical effort. First you may need to contract and hold the muscles around the anus, but what you really want is to isolate the center point of the perineum.
In the beginning just holding the bandhas is difficult, but with practice and gently reminding yourself they become a natural, integrated part of the practice. Both mula and uddiyana bandha remains continuously activated throughout the practice.
Uddiyana Bandha refers to abddominal lock, gently drawing the lower stomach inwards. That happens by activating the transverse abdominal muscles.You don’t need to suck your belly in, but find a little bit of toning roughly 10 centimetres below the navel. If you activate the mula bandha correctly, you’ll find the essence of the uddiyana bandha almost automatically.
Uddiyana bandha literally means ”flying up”, and it is to give lightness while mula bandha connects us with the ground. During the breath both bandhas are connected and both are necessary to support correct breathing. To some degree both bandhas are natural reflexes, like in lifting up a heavy object. Bandhas are known also in many other traditions, and for example dancers, singers and athletes know their power and use them, under different name though, as an aid to gain support and steadiness.
Drishti means gazing point, which is a means for developing concentration and focus. In yoga philosophy this relates to the fifth and sixth limbs of yoga (pratyahara, sense withdrawal and dharana, concentration). Each asana is associated with a particular drishti and there are in total nine drishtis that instruct us to direct the gaze:
When we teach you a new posture we usually mention also the correct drishti. Very soon you will start finding the logic and intuitively knowing what is the correct gazing point. In many postures you can let your gaze move in the direction of the stretch, and often where the head moves the gaze will follow in the same direction. One important point is that the gaze should always remain soft and eyes free of tension.
If you cannot remember the dhristis, don’t worry. What is important at first is that you consciously cultivate focus and not allow your gaze and thoughts be all over the room.
Eventually, with a lot of practice the postures, the breathing and the drishti comes together and a meditative state is induced as we practice. That is tristana.
Vinyasa refers to the breathing and movement system. In Astanga yoga it is used as a synonym to synchronizing movement with breath while following a specific sequence of postures. Vinyasa connects the individual postures together and the breath runs evenly through the movements.
Vinyasa is the foundation of the practice creating strength, flexibility, internal heat and focus. According to Astanga tradition the vinyasa has been practised in this way for thousands of years.
Basically each movement has it’s own vinyasa count, each asana a specific number of vinyasas and the states of postures are pauses in the flow of the movement. The Guided Primary series classes each first Sunday of the month introduce you to the traditional vinyasa count.
Primary series is the first series of Astanga yoga. The Astanga series of Pattabhi Jois 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 purify, strengthen and heal the body. Learning the series takes usually anything between one year and a lifetime, or more. The learning process itself is extremely logical:
The sun salutations, six fundamental poses and finishing sequence are the essential building components of the practice. They are also universal to all the practitioners: regardless the level or what series the person is practicing these sequences are always the same. Practice always starts with sun salutations and fundamental standing postures, and closes with the finishing sequence.
Genarally bear in mind that moving on is much more than doing more advanced postures and the best way to progress is always to master what you are doing now, and focus on doing the basic things in more advanced way. It is normal to want to move ahead, but even the healthy ambition should be balanced with awareness of present moment and acceptance of staying with what is.
Sources and further reading:
R. Sharath Jois: Astanga Yoga Anusthana
Matthew Sweeney: Ashtanga Yoga As It Is
Gregor Maehle: Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy
”Do your practice and all is coming.” ― Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
”Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” ― Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
"Astanga yoga is 99 percent practice, one percent theory." ― Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
”Everyone can practice Astanga yoga. Except lazy people.” ― Sri R. Sharath Jois
"Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is." ― Bhagavad Gita
“The mind is restless and difficult to restrain, but it is subdued by practice.” ― Bhagavad Gita
“Asana practise is for 2 hours. Yoga practise is for 24 hours.” ― Sri R. Sharath Jois
”When the mind is quiet, the asana is correct.” ― Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
”This is not a gym, you are not here to work out. You are here to bring peace to yourself, to know who you are.” ― Sri R. Sharath Jois
”With practice anything is possible.” ― Sri R. Sharath Jois
“The mind acts like an enemy for those who do not control it.” ― Bhagavad Gita