What is Ashtanga Yoga? A Beginner's Guide

Feb 2021

3 mins read

Literally translated, Ashtanga means 8 limbs – a phrase which originated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Sutras are the first codified text on Yoga, and the 8 limbs refer to the path a yogi must follow to find enlightenment or attain internal purification.

What are the 8 Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga?

1. Yamas

Positive life practices such as non-violence and truthfulness.

2. Niyamas

Practices of self-discipline like meditation and mindfulness.

3. Asana

The physical practice of Yoga – what you experience in a Yoga class or in your personal practice at home.

4. Pranayama

Breathwork practices to master the body through calming or excitatory practices.

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5. Pratyahara

The withdrawal of senses to focus more clearly on your internal landscape.

6. Dharana

Single focus meditation – an evolution of the Niyamas.

7. Dhyana

A further deepening of the meditation practice, this limb encourages a state of complete meditation with almost no thoughts.

8. Samadhi

A state of bliss or enlightenment.

Is Ashtanga Yoga hard?

Ashtanga as we know it was derived from ancient teachings and popularised by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois during the 20th century, and focuses on the asana, or physical practice, of Yoga.

This iteration is a challenging form of Yoga and focuses on increasing strength through many planks and weight-bearing postures. Flexibility is another key element as each Ashtanga class will include every type of posture – forward folds, backbends, twists, balancing postures, and inversions – for the maximum benefit to your practice.

Cardiovascular fitness is encouraged through constant movement and the inclusion of Sun Salutations – a dynamic sequence of 11 postures performed between each static pose. Through this, you will build endurance, but make sure to complete an active recovery workout after an intense Ashtanga class to help your muscles feel less fatigued.

What is the difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga?

Vinyasa Yoga

Vinyasa is the style of Yoga you are most likely to encounter in a Yoga class and has gained immense popularity recently. Vinyasa simply means “flow” or a transition between movements.

There are many forms of Vinyasa – such as slow flow or Power Yoga – but they will generally share characteristics such as a focus on uniting movement with breath, smooth transitions between postures, and athletic classes.

Ashtanga Yoga

The main difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa is that Ashtanga is a set sequence. Ashtanga has three main series – primary, secondary, and advanced – with the advanced series being broken up into four sequences.

The primary series consists of 41 asanas and takes around 90 minutes to complete, making it longer than your average Vinyasa class.

The practice of Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga, in particular, is not entirely focused on the physical. These sequences are often referred to as moving meditations due to their repetitive nature. Once you learn the flow of postures you are able to be guided by your breath with minimal external cues. This reliance on your breath and inward attention relate to one of the limbs of Yoga – Pratyahara.

This may seem intimidating for beginners, but this form of Yoga is perfect for all levels! The set sequences will move from a warm-up and take you through some basic asana before building on your flexibility and strength to move towards more challenging poses at the end.

There are many forms of Yoga, from the slow and deliberate Restorative Yoga to the fast and dynamic Ashtanga and Power Yoga, and there is no “wrong” version of Yoga. This practice is personal and multifaceted, and I encourage you to discover what suits you best and allow your body to lead you through this journey.

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Tanya Shiels

I was introduced to the practice of Yoga, almost 15 years ago, purely for the physical benefits and was captivated by it. I began to discover the deeper aspects of the practice and has since then I've made it my mission to bring the joy of Yoga to as many people as possible.