Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

I’m sat on the floor, legs straight out in front, and I’m reaching forward to hold my feet and develop a good stretch in the back of my legs, when the yoga teacher slowly lies down on top of me and forces my face much closer towards my legs and I’m thinking to myself “This is a yoga class?”

Personally speaking, the intensity of the practice is a key feature of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (Ashtanga). A class starts gently with the group breathing together, using a form of yogic breath known as Ujjayi Breath to help you to focus on the practice. After 10 breaths the physical practice begins and doesn’t stop for (usually) at least an hour. During that hour practitioners perform numerous physically demanding poses, flowing through Downward Dog, Chaturanga Dandasana and Upward Facing Dog into various standing, seated and twisting poses. It is physically demanding and, at times such as when your instructor is lying on top of you pushing you into a deep forward bend, intense.

You may be familiar with the idea of “runner’s high”, which can be described as “a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a reduced ability to feel pain”. Although this response to exercise is not yet fully understood it is known to occur during long-duration rhythmic exercise, which is a fitting description of an Ashtanga class. I certainly experience moments of joy, usually when I’m having to push myself to continue rather than sit back on the mat and take a rest.

The physical contact between student and teacher is another key feature of Ashtanga and one that surprised me at first. My background is mostly in Iyengar Yoga, so I’m used to getting hands-on corrections from teachers, but not like an Ashtanga correction. An Iyengar teacher might correct the placement of a limb in an asana such as Trikonasana, or pull your hips up and back to encourage a ‘good’ Downward Dog. But an Ashtanga teacher may well get much closer than that and push you to places that you perhaps couldn’t reach by yourself. Trust is very important.

From an historical perspective, the practice of Ashtanga developed at around the same time as Iyengar. The person who originally codified Ashtanga, K. Pattahbi Jois and the originator of Iyengar yoga, B.K.S Iyengar, where both students of Krishnamacarya in the early 20th Century. Whereas Iyengar, who suffered with ill-health through much of his early life, developed a style focused on the precise practice of asana supported by the use of props, Jois developed the flowing vinyasa style which he eventually called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

If there is a criticism to be made of Ashtanga, it is perhaps that it often overlooks the ‘proper’ form of an asana. However, I should make it clear that I’ve practiced Iyengar yoga for nearly 20 years and simple believe that there is a right and wrong way to do poses. Seek out a good Ashtanga teacher and you should still receive instruction about how to do your standing poses, just don’t expect to hold them for 3-4 minutes at a time. It may be the case that Ashtanga yoga is focused on ‘doing’ yoga, whereas Iyengar yoga is focused on ‘learning’.

Ashtanga is a great style of yoga to practice if you’re looking for a physical challenge and a way to improve your strength, flexibility and cardio-vascular fitness. It would be very challenging to start a class with no previous experience in yoga, but a good teacher will take into account different levels of ability (not simply related to experience) and support the development of your yoga practice. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have found such a good teacher (Christine at Bristol Yoga Centre) who helps make the practice of Ashtanga such a joyful experience.


First you breathe in

It started with Guy Martin in Russia, or at least a programme about Guy Martin in Russia. Rather than being suspicious of Russian people Guy got on really well with them, which got me thinking. Specifically about Systema, a Russian martial art I’d read about years ago.

After a spot of googling I came across the website of a guy called Matt Hill, a Systema instructor based in Wiltshire. I watched a few of his videos and they totally flipped my idea of what a martial art is and what Systema is all about. A lot of Matt’s videos focus on breath. It made me think about yoga from a different angle.

So, it actually starts with Sukhasana. Just about every yoga class I go to or teach starts with sitting cross-legged. This is usually followed by instruction to “sit up straight” and “pull your shoulders back”…

But, I thought, what if I just try to create the pose from the breath? After repeatedly starting my practice like this I find that it really helps me to bring my focus to my practice straight away. And it’s a focus and awareness that remains throughout. I start by sitting cross-legged but without any conscious effort to do anything regarding posture. Instead, I start yogic breathing, deep down into my abdomen and allow my ribcage and chest to fill with air. This action naturally extends the spine and lifts the chest. A few repetitions asserts the extension and then I focus on using the exhalation to relax my shoulders, neck, groin, hips, knees… As my next extends and my chin comes towards my chest I feel a good connection to and awareness of my breath.

I try to maintain this throughout my practice to see what it brings. It’s certainly brought new insights into Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). And it’s brought a new appreciation for Balasana (Child pose) and Adho Mukha Virasana (Face-down Hero pose).

In Balasana I focus on breathing into my back and minimise any expansion of my chest, which I monitor through the pressure between my chest and thighs. Likewise, in Adho Mukha Virasana I focus on expanding my ribs sideways using the pressure between my ribcage and inner thighs as a guide. I also like to come up onto fingertips of my hands as they extend forward as it helps my thoracic spine to extend.

The ability to controlling my breathing and direct into different areas of my body has done wonders for the development of other poses. By breathing into my back ribs I have found a much improved ability to go deep into forward bends. It also helps with twists like Parivrtta Parsvakonasana where breathing into the front body becomes very compromised and spending anytime in the pose very difficult without being able to use the back to breathe.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring Sun Salutations through breathing, any insights from which I’ll be happy to share.