The Heart of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga


Most people who have heard of yoga will by now have become aware of ashtanga yoga.

It is the form with the high profile promoted by such celebrities as Sting, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Gerri Halliwell. It is the style that has made yoga seem cool and acceptable to those who have always considered yoga for middle-aged ladies and draughty village halls. No longer simply sitting in lotus posture and ˘om-ing÷, todays ashtanga yogis are building muscle tone, improving stamina and getting an aerobic workout, along with discovering how to become increasingly more stress-free.

In general the word yoga means to yoke, and in this case we are yoking energy. The kind of energy that we lose through lack of concentration, stress and physical discomfort.

These issues all take our thoughts away from what is real and important in our lives.

This can be found through a relaxed body and mind, bringing us inner peace, enabling us to more effectively deal with all that life can throw our way.

The philosophy behind ashtanga yoga teaches us that to find concentration and a relaxed, calm state of being, we must first deal with the physical body. Therefore we take our bodies through a sequence of postures, each one preparing us for the next. These postures, or asanas, stretch each muscle, work each joint, progressively, over time, improving the all round health of the body. The body is treated holistically and the yoga practise works on the skeletal, muscular, respiratory, physiological, nervous and energy systems of the body.

In ashtanga yoga the postures are always practised in the same sequence and the practise is built up slowly, over time.

It is important to learn to ˘listen÷ to the bodyĂs needs and learn where the limitations are, in this way being able to gently move the boundaries of ability, as and when you are ready to do so.

There are certain tools which encourage us to develop this skill.

One is the breath. A particular kind of audible, conscious breathing is practised throughout. Another tool is body locks, or bandhas. A way of holding the belly to protect the lower back, tone the pelvic floor and guide energy up the spine.

Also using the gaze point, or drishti, where the eyes are always directed towards a point of focus so that the mind does not become distracted by looking inside. All of these tools take time to develop and can seem like a lot to remember as a beginner. It is usually through constant reminders of the teacher, and then your inner teacher, that these tools will become as second nature.

One problem that many people experience when practising this particular form of yoga is competitiveness. We learn from very early on to be competitive with our siblings, at school, in the job market, in sports, and it can be hard to realise that , not only do we not need this attitude in yoga, but that it can be damaging, sometimes manifesting in injury.

Often in a large class we will be tempted to look around the room at others to see if they are more bendy or stronger than we are.

Or when coming onto our mat for our self-practise we may be frustrated by not feeling as energetic or flexible as we did last week or last year.

This is all competitiveness, with ourselves and others. When we become aware that this is what we are doing, this is the moment to simple drop it and draw our awareness back into the present. The tools are in place to enable us to do this.

Ashtanga is often seen as a purely physical yoga.

In the beginning when we are struggling with our lack of upper body strength or cannot reach our toes and our bodies ache for days after the class, it can very much seem so.

With commitment to practise and being prepared to adapt postures to make them enjoyable and comfortable, we can move onto a deeper level, where there are mental and spiritual benefits to be found.

The way of breathing in this form means that we are constantly working the intercostals around the rib cage to free these muscles, allowing a sense of expansion to come into the chest. The more we are able to free this area the higher the breath will be taken up into the heart area of the chest. In this way we are massaging our heart with our breath, continuing to open up the whole of this area. This has a very strong effect physically and emotionally. This is the moment at which the practise of ashtanga begins to become yoga of the heart. At this point there is no need for competition or to strive for a greater level of attainment in the practise. This where surrender to trust in the process of your practise, and your ability to lovingly care for yourself begins, and yoga starts to happen.

The challenge is to stay with the practise until realising this moment.

It does not suit everybody and there are may other forms to explore.

However, with a good and caring teacher, ashtanga yoga should be accessible to all body shapes and sizes and ages from seven to seventy and beyond.