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What is Ashtanga yoga? The benefits of this challenging yoga practice

Stacy Lu,Shelley Dawson   

What is Ashtanga yoga? The benefits of this challenging yoga practice
LifeScience5 min read
  • In Ashtanga yoga, you perform the same set of poses, in the same order, for the same breath count.
  • Benefits of Ashtanga yoga include improved well-being, increased strength, and a calmer mind.
  • Ashtanga yoga poses include forward fold, extended side angle, and extended triangle.

Of the many yoga forms, Ashtanga has a reputation for being one of the most athletic.

Founded in India by K. Patthabi Jois in 1948, a classic Ashtanga routine demands fitness, flexibility and focus, which can create a calming, yet sweaty form of moving meditation.

If you're interested in the practice here's what you need to know from how often you should practice to the purported benefits.

What is Ashtanga yoga?

Like Vinyasa or power yoga, Ashtanga yoga involves poses that flow from one to the next.

However, what sets Ashtanga apart is that you perform the same poses, or asanas, in the same order, for the same breath count, every time you practice. Vinyasa yoga, by comparison, is more flexible involving different poses in various orders.

The full routine, called the primary series, lasts around 90 minutes. Every movement you make has a corresponding inhale and exhale as well as a visual focal point called a Drishti.

For example, before beginning a forward fold, exhale fully as you bend, looking past your nose as you go and holding the pose for exactly five breaths before moving to the next pose.

The combination of intense movement and focus helps stabilize your mind and mood, says Karen Kelley, an authorized Ashtanga teacher and owner of Mysore Phoenix, a yoga shala, or studio.

Because the primary series can be challenging to learn and practice, even if you're fit, beginners should start with classes called Mysore. During a Mysore class, people can drop in any time and take themselves through the series at their own pace while a teacher makes any modifications, says Michael Joel Hall, an authorized Ashtanga teacher and founder of Functional Ashtanga, a virtual yoga studio.

You should strive to practice six days a week at home or in a studio, even if you are not able to do the full routine at first.

Benefits of Ashtanga yoga

Some potential benefits of Ashtanga yoga include:

  • Calms you. Controlling your movements, breath patterns, and gaze all at once increases concentration and helps calm your autonomic nervous system, which controls heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure.
  • Improves well-being. A small 2017 study found people who did Ashtanga twice a week for nine weeks reported improved self-esteem as well as reduced depression and anxiety symptoms.
  • Strengthens muscles. A small 2012 study of healthy premenopausal women found that those who practiced Ashtanga twice a week increased their leg muscle strength after eight months compared to women who didn't do yoga.
  • Promotes healthy eating. A 2009 study of mostly white women found regular yoga practice was associated with mindful eating. Mindful eating, also known as intuitive eating, is an alternative to dieting where you pay close attention to hunger cues to determine when and what to eat.
  • Eases pain. In a 2017 study, predominantly low-income people who did yoga once a week for 12 weeks reduced their chronic back pain as much as people who did physical therapy.

Five Ashtanga poses to try

These poses are part of the Ashtanga primary series sequences, which is the full 90-minute flow.

When practicing, flow from one pose to the next, exhaling as you bend into them and holding each for five full breaths.

Use the suggested modifications to make the poses less challenging if you're just starting out.

1. Forward Bend

How to do it:

  1. While standing, place your feet parallel and hip-width apart.
  2. Bend from the hips.
  3. Place your hands on the floor next to your feet.
  4. Focus your eyes towards the tip of your nose.

Quick tip: If you aren't flexible enough to touch the floor yet, place your hands on yoga blocks or on your shins as you work toward reaching the floor in this challenging stretch.

2. Extended Triangle

How to do it:

  1. While standing, place your feet 3.5 to 4 feet apart, with your right foot turned out and left foot turned slightly inward.
  2. Extend your arms to the side in a T shape.
  3. Bend at your hips to the right, reaching towards your right toe.
  4. Focus on the fingertips of your raised hand.

Quick tip: Place your hand on your outer thigh, calf, or yoga block if reaching your toe is too challenging.

3. Extended Side Angle

How to do it:

  1. While standing, place your feet about 3.5 to 4 feet apart, with your right foot turned out and left foot turned slightly inward.
  2. Bend your right knee to a 90 degrees angle.
  3. Bend to the right and place your right hand outside of your right foot, or gently on the right thigh.
  4. Swing your left arm straight over your head, in line with your body.
  5. Focus eyes on the fingertips of your raised hand.

Quick tip: Place a yoga block under your resting hand to support your lunge.

4. Wide Legged Forward Fold

How to do it:

  1. While standing, place your feet parallel about four feet apart.
  2. Bend forward at your hips.
  3. Reach hands behind your back with an option to lace your fingers together.
  4. Keeping your back straight, continue to bend forward until your head is pointing toward the floor.
  5. If your hands are clasped behind you let them hang over your head.
  6. Focus eyes on the tip of your nose.

Quick tip: Rest your head on stacked yoga blocks or books to ease the stretch.

5. Intense Side Stretch

How to do it:

  1. While standing, place your right foot 2.5 to 3 feet in front of your left and about hip-width apart.
  2. Bend at your hips over your front leg.
  3. Keeping your back as straight as possible, reach towards the floor on either side of your right foot with both hands.
  4. Focus eyes on the toes of your front foot.

Quick tip: Place yoga blocks under each hand if reaching the floor is difficult.

Insider's takeaway

Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic, set sequence of poses, breathing, and focal points. A typical 90-minute routine demands a high level of strength and flexibility, but you'll be rewarded with increased concentration, fitness, and well-being.

Beginners can tap into a unique group class style called Mysore, where everyone does as much of the routine as they can at their own pace. Because it's a fixed routine that you can memorize, Ashtanga is a great practice for people who like to do yoga independently or at home.

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