Notes on the Practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

Origins

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was created by the Indian yoga masters, Dr. Krishnamacharya and Mr. K. Pattabhi Jois in the early 20th century. In the early 1970s, Americans David Swenson and Nancy Gilgoff visited the city of Mysore, India and began their studies with Mr. Pattabhi Jois. Today, it is one of the most popular styles of yoga and it will likely endure. I love the style because the result of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practiced as a meditation on the body and as calisthenics exercise is the calm awareness of a meditator and the body of a gymnast.

Differentiation

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Power (AKA Flow) Yoga are significantly different. The best way to explain the difference is that Ashtanga is akin to calisthenics and gymnastics whereas Power/Flow is most similar to aerobics. The key differences between Power Yoga and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are:

  • In Ashtanga, poses are held for 5 breaths. In Power Yoga, the student moves briefly into one pose and then moves into another with little to no time spent holding still.

  • In Ashtanga, poses are set in a simple in sequence of performing a pose on one-side and then on the other, then performing a vinyasa, then onto the next pose. In Power Yoga, many varied poses are set in one continuous sequence with transitions in between.

  • Ashtanga is a set curriculum of poses so there is no invention beyond making choices to abbreviate the practice due to time constraints or the ability of the student. In Power Yoga, the instructor may write their own sequences.

  • Ashtanga eventually asks for self-led practice (known as Mysore style) of a student whereas Power Yoga encourages attending instructor-led classes.

  • Traditional Ashtanga contains no warm up exercises prior to Sun Salutation A. Power Yoga offers warm up exercises.

The Long View

I suggest approaching Ashtanga as a curriculum to be learned and practiced over a long period of time. If certain poses are physically impossible in the near term, then skip them for now (or ever) so that you can practice and enjoy what is accessible and what is challenging. Spend time in the poses and really sense them. Try to understand what the muscles and bones are asked to do. When both the mind and the body understand, beautiful shapes and movements arise.

In Moderation

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is best practiced in the morning, 3 days per week or less. Traditionalists insist on 6 days per week, but that advice quickly leads to injury due to the stress of repetitive movement patterns. Other exercises, such as calisthenics, weight lifting, and cardiovascular exercise are recommended for the other 3 to 4 days of activity.

Awareness

Yoga is a wonderful vehicle for sensing and developing the body. Due to the domination of the visual sense in our daily lives, people often have little attention in their bodies. Yoga practice can become a meditation on the organic body and the means to develop the qualities of strength, flexibility, and resilience. Therefore, I say the primary metric of success in yoga practice is the growth of awareness, not the achievement of some pose or even strength.

Do Not Harm

Ahimsa - A principle of yoga is expressed in Sanskrit meaning “Do not harm.” I place safety first. I will stop a class if I observe unsafe movements in order to clearly explain the how and why of safe movement. When adjusting, I rarely use significant force. Instead, I provide a light touch and verbal cues so that the student moves herself into the correct posture. Ultimately, I wish that a student should be healed and strengthened by each yoga practice.

Correction

Yoga is not a panacea. Yoga will not miraculously cure all ailments. That is also to say, repetitive practice of yoga will not necessarily correct problems in the body. Oftentimes, individualized corrective exercise is needed for most people in order to address muscle imbalances, areas of weakness, and past injuries. With these exercises as a supplement, yoga is an excellent system of exercise for almost everyone.

Tempo

The metronome that determines the tempo of the yoga practice is one’s own breath. This is meaning of the word “vinyasa”, movement to the breath. The breath and movement should be as regular as possible. Each person’s rhythm is unique, so I encourage you to honor your own rhythm. You will likely hear me praise the most slowly moving students.

Isometric

Held yoga poses are isometric exercises in which muscles are intentionally held in coordinated tension with one another with little to no movement in the joints. This is achieved through holding still in a yoga pose for a period of time in order to intentionally contract the muscles against the resistance of gravity and leverage. Conscious contractions to strengthen the neuromuscular system and integrate the mind and body

Moon

I suggest that you lead (step back) with the left foot during the period of lunar waning (from Full Moon to New Moon) and with the right during period of lunar waxing. The purpose of this advice is the prevention of repetitive stress injuries. It is part of the Ashtanga Yoga tradition to abstain from practice on the days of the Full Moon and the New Moon, but observation of this is optional.

Michael Perkola

United Yoga Company, LLC, 1940 Fountain View Drive, Westside, TX, 77057