What is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?


This is one of the Teacher Trainee's essays that I wanted to share with everyone.  I think it is a well written and detailed description of Ashtanga Yoga that may be of interest to some of you. 
Thank you to Mia for allowing me to share her essay!!


What is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?


Yoga in the west is often just practised for fitness and although this is a good way to start, this is just a small, although not insignificant, part of what yoga is. Yoga is traditionally a spiritual practice. It involves the control of body and breath combined with spiritual study and moral practices which in turn are stepping stones towards higher concentration and then meditation and finally, for some, a higher state called samadhi which is a state of bliss or ecstasy.
When you start Ashtanga vinyasa yoga you will begin to learn a dynamic and challenging set of postures which increase both strength and flexibility. As a beginner you will start by learning to coordinate your movements to your breath. You will learn a particular kind of breath for use during the whole practice - Ujjayi (or victorious) breath. This is performed by partially contracting the glottis (lid of the throat) which creates friction and heat and slows the breath in order to focus our attention inward. The sound of the breath should be calming and not too aggressive. 
As you advance in the practice you will learn to use bandhas which are closely linked to the breath, in particular Mula Bandha (root lock) which involves tightening the muscles around the pelvic floor and which is used to move the prana (life force) up the spine, keeping heat and energy in the body and Uddiyana Bandha in which you concentrate on bringing your naval towards your spine (contraction of the lower abdominals) and which keeps the pelvis safe and the core strong. During the practice the gaze is focused on specific points of the body in order to aid concentration - these points are called Drishtis. The practice commences and finishes with the chanting of mantras in sanskrit.
Ashtanga yoga has several “series” of postures. Most people find there is enough in the first or Primary Series (Yoga Chikitsa) to keep them working for many years! The Intermediate Series (Nadi shodana) and advanced series (Sthira Bhaga) require yet more flexibility and control. All practitioners, except for beginners, start their practice with the 10 sun salutations and the standing postures and finish with backbending and a series of finishing postures followed by savasana (corps pose). The term vinyasa refers to the dynamic flow of the postures aligning movement and breath. 
Ashtanga yoga differs from other styles of yoga because it involves learning the series of postures and practising them in order. This enables practitioners to go to a “Mysore” class. This is where you do your own practice at whatever level you are at and at your own speed which is regulated by your breath. The teachers will quietly make adjustments and give advice but do not actually lead the class. Mysore classes (named after the town in India where Pattabhi Jois, who popularized Ashtanga yoga, taught) are dynamic and create a collective heat and energy in the room which helps you in your individual practice.
Ashtanga means eight limbs. The postures (or asanas) are only one of these eight limbs, the others being Yama (restraints), Niyama (observances), pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (withdrawing of the mind from the senses), dharana (concentration), Dhyana (deep meditation) and Samadhi (bliss). 
The yamas, by which you need to try to live if you are to advance along the yogic path, are very similar to the moral teachings of buddhist philosophy and for that matter many religions, namely non-violence or non-harming in thought, word or deed, truthfulness to others and to yourself, non-stealing (which includes not over-consuming), chastity (which does not necessarily mean being celibate but rather keeping sexuality within the confines of a loving relationship), non-greed (resisting the temptations of advertising and consumerism, not exploiting other people...). In other words, trying to be the best person you can be, trying to live your life respecting the people around you and our planet and realizing that small acts of goodness are important and do affect the world around us.
The niyamas involve being clean in both body and mind and learning inner happiness. The aim is to reach a state of equilibrium where we are not thrown completely by the bad things that may happen. Obviously there are sad times and happy times and they will affect how we feel, but we should try to maintain an inner peace in spite of everything. The asana practice purifies the body but we should also keep a careful eye on what we consume to keep our body free of toxins. Self-study is also important so that we learn about ourselves and can reflect and evolve to be a better person. Faith is also included in the niyamas, this can be faith in a god if you are religious or otherwise faith that even when you try hard to live a good life and you are making an effort to change for the better, the final outcome of any given circumstance is beyond your control and you have to surrender to that and have faith that there is a reason for everything and not feel frustrated or angry or sad.
Pranayama involves learning exercises for the control of your breath. As I explained, we start with Ujjayi in Ashtanga yoga but there are many other techniques to learn. Your breath during the practice should be long and even and not too shallow or labored.
The three limbs which follow (pratyahara, dharana and dhyana) are the path towards the final state of Samadhi or bliss. By ceasing to be attracted and fascinated by the external world you can gradually turn inwards and focus until you are able to free yourself of distractions and concentration becomes meditation and through meditation you can reach Samadhi.
There is so much to say on the subject of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, and there is a great deal of literature which you can study - ancient texts on which yoga is based, as well as modern day books going into the philosophy behind the yoga. Here I have just concentrated on giving a basic explanation of the practice itself as I understand it.

Mia Dehé