As many know, I am a devout Ashtangi of nearly 10 years, practice up to third series, have spent 2 years of my life in India (including 18 months in Mysore), and yet, I still have never practiced with the guru himself, Sharath Jois. It is my intention in the coming years to practice with him, however, before it never seemed to matter to me.
Ashtanga is known as the hardest style of yoga, and rightly so. It requires you to twist your body into some of the craziest positions, with legs behind the head, deep backbends, and extreme arm balances. On top of this, there is the philosophy of the Tristhana method which includes the use of breath, bandha (energetic lock), and dristhi (gaze point) that you need to focus on in each pose, not to mention the continuous vinyasa.
Watching a video of someone practicing or looking through a book of the postures may deter someone, but in fact, Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is one of the best methods for a beginner to learn. This is because of the way in which it is taught. It is not taught like a traditional yoga class where the teacher stands up front and demonstrates the poses while talking you through them. Each student comes in at their own level and the teacher instructs them privately in a group setting. This is called “Mysore-style” because it originated in Mysore, India under the lineage of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who studied with the grandfather of modern postural yoga, Krishnamacharya.
Ashtanga vinyasa always starts and ends the same way, with some minor differences once you move past the primary series. There are apparently 6 series, but most of the top athletic Ashtangis only practice up to the fourth series, and the sixth is completely unknown.
Everyone starts with the primary series, which is called yoga chikitsa in Sanskrit. This means physical cleansing. Each practice begins with 5 Surya Namaskar A (sun salutations) and 3-5 Surya Namaskar B where you add chair pose and warrior 1 with 3 vinyasas. Surya namaskar makes up the basis of vinyasa and is what most modern-day vinyasa is based on.
Once a student has the stamina to make it through the surya namaskars, they are then taught standing poses which are not that different from most standing yoga asanas (posture) perhaps besides some minor technical differences. They include forward folds, triangle pose, twists, balancing, and warrior poses.
Then you move on to the seated sequence. The teacher in the beginning will only teach a few poses to the new student and then give them a few poses in the finishing sequence, so it will be a shorter practice. Again, the end of an Ashtanga practice is generally the same except differs slightly as you advance.
The purpose of the primary series is to work on the primary curves on the spine, mostly in the thoracic, and stimulate the digestive system for health and well-being. However, what makes this sequence so unique is the athletic lifting up and jumping back vinyasa in between each side of each posture. Most students need to modify in the beginning by rolling over their knees or using blocks to lift up. The theory behind this is that it reduces apanic energy (the downward current of energy) to move upward through the spine.
Most of the postures are forward folds and hip openers. The hips must be open for the spine to lengthen. So, it builds strength and flexibility at the same time. Many people practice what is called “half-primary” which ends at boat pose done 5 times!
After boat poses comes a series of quite difficult postures, including one called supta kurmasana where you are to put both legs behind your head, fold forward and bind your hands behind your back. Most students need physical adjustments into this pose and therefore Ashtanga Mysore-style yoga is a very hands-on adjustment style of yoga. So that is something to consider if you are comfortable with that before starting the practice.
At the end of the sequence, you then move on to backbending. Generally, it is 3-5 wheel poses. Once you master how to drop back from standing into wheel pose and come up as well as all the other poses of the primary series, you are moved on to the second series, sometimes called the intermediate series or Nadi Shodhana. It means energetic cleansing.
It starts off with a deep twist and contains many intense backbends, leg behind-the-head postures, arm balances, and 7 headstands at the end! Not for the faint of heart. However, some teachers outside of Mysore, India will allow students to practice the beginning of the second series to prepare the spine for backbending because primary does not.
After backbending, an advanced student may then learn how to “tick-tock”. This is where they go into a handstand scorpion and fall into a backbend and then flip back over repeatedly.
Some advanced students will work on “catching” which means they try to catch their calves from a standing backbend. Pretty intense!
The Finishing Sequence
After the backbending, there is a much-needed forward fold. Then everyone finishes with shoulderstand, plow pose, some additional inversions, fish pose, headstand, and full lotus. Then you take rest in savasana for as long as you want.
Most Mysore-style studios will offer “led” classes once per week where everyone practices primary series together in the traditional Sanskrit count. Most poses are held for 5 breaths with a few exceptions. It is a great way to make sure you are not rushing through your practice and feel like a community with your fellow Ashtangis.
The third series gets even crazier with more leg behind-the-head poses (including standing up!), headstand arm balance transitions, splits, and deep backbends. It’s been said that the primary series is for the student, the second series is for the teacher, and the third series is for the crazy people! The third series is known as “sthira bhaga” or supreme bliss but can also be translated as mental cleansing.
Get Started with an Ashtanga Practice
This article contains affiliate links to my products.