Updated: May 2, 2020
Ashtanga is a traditional style of yoga based on set sequences of postures. You move through part or all of the sequence with your breath to find a moving meditation, and over time the practice will strengthen and purify your body and mind. The first sequence is called the Primary Series, but don’t let the name fool you! It is extremely challenging, both physically and mentally, and most people who practise ashtanga will spend years, if not their whole lives working on this sequence.
The key ingredient to ashtanga is the breath. Each breath is linked to a specific movement or posture and so really it is the breath that leads the practice. We use a strong and steady breath with sound, often referred to as ujayi breath. The soundtrack of the breath helps to keep the mind focused, and on a physical level, the powerful breath creates heat and energy in the body, helps to rid the body of toxins and improves functionality of the lungs. If you are new to ashtanga, it can be quite difficult to focus on your breath as you often have a lot of other things to think about! But over time, you will learn the sequence and be able to let your breath guide you, creating a moving meditation.
In led ashtanga classes, there typically won't be much verbal instruction. You'll often be guided into postures, particularly in beginners' classes, but once you are there you will be expected to hold the pose for a count of 5 breaths (or more, depending on the pose). Although this silence can be a little daunting at first, for me it's what really makes it a meditative practice. You don't have to think about anything, you can simply 'be' in the posture and be aware of your breath. The count to 5 becomes a familiar and soothing rhythm and gives you space to connect with yourself.
Whilst the practice of ashtanga can be physically demanding, it really isn't about the postures. There are many physical benefits to ashtanga and it's what initially draws many people to the practice, but people tend to stick with it for the mental benefits. Throughout the practice, you're asked to keep your breath, and therefore your mind, calm and steady. When you are faced with discomfort (but not pain) in a posture, you sit with it and keep breathing. This discomfort can be physical, mental or emotional and is often a combination of all three. Everyone's limits are different, so it really doesn't matter which postures you are practising or what your posture looks like - you are simply observing your own body and mind. You're training the mind to be focused, to face discomfort or difficulty and remain calm. It is much easier to keep the mind calm in comfortable situations, but it is much more useful to learn how to stay calm in moments of difficulty, which is why the postures are supposed to challenge us. We learn all of this on the mat, so that we can apply it off the mat: when stressful or difficult situations arise in life, your mind and body already know how to stay calm.
As well as training ourselves to stay calm in moments of difficulty, ashtanga also teaches us awareness of ourselves. The sequence of postures remains the same and is the constant, which means you become aware of any changes in yourself. For instance, you will know if you are feeling distracted, focussed, tired, energetic, vulnerable or irritable. We learn to listen to our body and emotions and accept whatever our practice is that day without any judgment. You'll begin to notice patterns in your mind as you practise too, which often tells you a lot about your attitude in general life. Maybe you lack discipline, push too hard, give up too easily, compare yourself to others, become impatient, get frustrated or feel scared. Whatever it is, chances are you'll notice it in your practice. Once you know the habits of your mind, it is much easier to work with them or change them.
The other two main elements that go alongside the breath are drishti and bandhas. Drishti is the gazing point: each posture has a set gazing point, such as the nose or the thumbs. Similar to the breath, the drishti helps to keep the mind focused: the idea is that if the gaze is still, it is easier for the mind to become still. Bandhas are energetic locks within the body, and the two we use most in ashtanga are mula bandha (root lock at the base of the spine) and uddiyana bandha (upward-flying lock found in the deep lower abdominals). They can be quite difficult to get your head around to start with, but in a nutshell, they prevent energy from escaping the body and they also stabilise the core and prevent injury. More to come on bandhas another time!