Ashtanga Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide for a Transformative Practice

Ashtanga yoga is a vigorous style of yoga that has become incredibly popular. It builds strength, flexibility, and stamina through a set sequence of poses linked with breath. Practicing Ashtanga regularly can lead to improved health, reduced stress, and a greater sense of well-being.

This in-depth guide will provide you with everything you need to know about Ashtanga yoga, including its origins, benefits, poses, breathing techniques, and tips for getting started.

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga yoga is a specific system of yoga developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. It links powerful, athletic flows and sequences of poses with breath control techniques called Ujjayi Pranayama.

The term “Ashtanga” comes from the Sanskrit words “ashta” meaning eight and “anga” meaning limb. It refers to the eight limbs of yoga outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras as a step-by-step path to enlightenment.

Ashtanga yoga focuses primarily on the third limb which is asana, the physical poses of yoga. It combines a set sequence of poses with vinyasa movements that smoothly transition from one pose to the next using breath.

Some key features that characterize Ashtanga yoga include:

  • Set sequences – Ashtanga follows six established pose sequences that progressively increase in difficulty.
  • Vinyasa – Each movement is linked to an inhale or exhale to create flow.
  • Ujjayi breathing – Ocean sounding breath done throughout practice.
  • Bandhas – Engaging energy locks to direct energy flow in the body.
  • Drishti – Focused gaze points for attention and concentration.

Ashtanga is an athletic, sweat-inducing practice. The sequences vigorously build core strength, flexibility, balance, and stamina.

Origins and History of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga draws inspiration from ancient yoga texts yet was developed as a contemporary system by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009). Jois is often affectionately referred to as “Guruji” out of respect.

In 1927 at age 12, Jois met his guru Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and began studying under him. Krishnamacharya is widely regarded as a leading figure who revived interest in yoga by developing new systems.

Jois continued studying with Krishnamacharya for over 25 years. In 1948, Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. Here, he refined and codified the sequences of Ashtanga yoga that are still taught today.

Key milestones in Ashtanga history include:

  • 1964 – First book “Yoga Mala” documenting Ashtanga is published by Jois.
  • 1970s – Ashtanga spreads internationally as western students like David Swenson visit Jois’ institute.
  • 2002 – Guruji’s grandson Sharath Rangaswamy Jois joins as director and lead teacher.

Today, Ashtanga yoga continues to grow in popularity around the world thanks to senior teachers who studied directly with Jois and teach what is often called “Mysore-style” Ashtanga.

6 Established Sequences of Ashtanga

The practice of Ashtanga yoga follows a set order of poses that become progressively more challenging. There are six established sequences:

Primary Series: Yoga Chikitsa

This foundational first series cleanses the body and realigns the spine. It establishes core principles and poses. The Sanskrit name “yoga chikitsa” means yoga therapy.

Key poses: Surya Namaskar A & B, Standing poses, Seated poses, Finishing poses

Intermediate Series: Nadi Shodhana

The second series purifies the nervous system by opening energy channels. It introduces more difficult backbends and leg-behind-head poses.

Key poses: Standing backbends, Leg-behind-head poses, Supported drop-backs

Advanced Series A: Sthira Bhaga

Builds on the basics with greater strength and grace. Sthira bhaga means stability and integration.

Key poses: Kukkutasana, Kuladandasana, Ganda bherundasana

Advanced Series B: Prana Flow

Energizes with advanced inversions and arm balances. Cultivates breath awareness and prana flow.

Key poses: Pincha Mayurasana, Karandavasana, Vrishchikasana

Advanced Series C: Pure Fire

Invigorates the body and mind with deep backbends. The Sanskrit name is tithi bhagah, meaning to look within and be free.

Key poses: Krounchasana, Laghu Vajrasana, Kapotasana

Advanced Series D: Stillness in Form

The sixth and most advanced series. Achieving deep stillness and insight.

Key poses: Vrschikasana, Hanumanasana, Samasana

The sequences build progressively, so newcomers start by learning Primary Series and the basics before moving to more advanced levels. It’s common to keep practicing Primary while adding on Intermediate postures over time.

10 Benefits of Regular Ashtanga Yoga Practice

Here are some of the main benefits you can gain from a regular Ashtanga yoga practice:

  • Increased flexibility – The sequences build muscle elasticity and joint range of motion.
  • Improved circulation – Twisting poses and inversion increase blood flow throughout the body.
  • Core strength – Dynamic transitions engage core abdominal muscles.
  • Weight loss – The vigorous style burns major calories to help shed pounds.
  • Stress relief – Moving meditation calms the mind and nervous system.
  • Injury prevention – Ashtanga increases joint stability to prevent injuries.
  • Detoxification – Profuse sweating releases toxins and revitalizes.
  • Lowered blood pressure – Deep breathing and inversion poses reduce hypertension.
  • Better posture – Acorrectly aligned spine improves posture.
  • Self-confidence – The challenge of Ashtanga builds discipline and self-esteem.

Regular practice yields cumulative effects over time for increased health, vitality, and mindfulness. Even beginners can experience the power of Ashtanga.

10 Fundamental Ashtanga Yoga Poses

Ashtanga sequences contain anywhere from 60 to over 100 poses each. They comprise the key families of asanas like standing poses, arm balances, forward folds, twists, backbends, and hip openers.

Here are 10 of the most essential beginner poses to know:

Surya Namaskar A

The Sun Salutation A sequence warms up the body and establishes the vinyasa flow between poses. Linking movement and breath.

Surya Namaskar B

A variation of Sun Salutation A with chair pose instead of forward fold. Strengthens the legs.

Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

Engages the leg muscles while opening the chest and shoulders.

Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle)

Twists the spine, stretches the sides, and improves balance.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)

Foundational inverted pose to build strength and flexibility.

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)

Stretches hips, thighs, and core with a balancing backbend.

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog)

Backbend pose that expands the chest and abdomen.

Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

Key arm balance to build strength. Modifications like kneeling are common.

Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel)

Energizing backbend done with hands and feet on the floor to lift the torso up.

Savasana (Corpse Pose)

Rests the body completely between sequences and at the closing of class.

Mastering these 10 basic poses and the coordinated breath will establish the essential skills of Ashtanga in coordination, strength, flexibility, and breath control.

4 Key Components of Ashtanga

Beyond just the physical postures, Ashtanga yoga incorporates these vital components:


Vinyasa is the smooth flowing sequence between poses, connecting each movement to breath. The inhale initiates the motion while the exhale carries you deeper into the posture.

This constant flow builds internal heat, purifies the body, and creates a moving meditation. Even transitional movements are done consciously.

Ujjayi Breathing

Ujjayi breathing involves constricting the throat slightly to create an ocean sound as you inhale and exhale. This breath technique engages the diaphragm and creates internal heat.

The steady rhythm of the breath keeps you focused in the present moment throughout the practice. The sound resonates within to have a calming, meditative effect.


Bandhas are energetic locks created by engaging certain muscle groups. They direct the flow of energy through the body to aid concentration.

There are 3 main bandhas used:

  • Mula Bandha – Root lock by drawing pelvic floor muscles upward.
  • Uddiyana Bandha – Navel lock by drawing lower abs back towards the spine.
  • Jalandhara Bandha – Throat lock by dropping the chin slightly.

Bandhas take time to master but are key to proper energy flow in Ashtanga.


Drishti means gaze or focused eye position. Each posture has a prescribed drishti point to stabilize balance, concentrate the mind, and deepen awareness.

Common drishti points are the nose, navel, thumbs, or up to the sky. Keeping a steady gaze increases precision.

How to Get Started With Ashtanga Yoga

If you want to get started in Ashtanga yoga, here are some tips:

Take a Class

Trying a beginner’s Ashtanga class is the best way to learn the sequences correctly. Be sure to let the instructor know your skill level. Many studios offer Mysore-style classes where you work individually at your own pace.

Invest in Props

Using blocks, straps, and blankets can help modify poses as you build strength and flexibility. Props help perfect alignment and prevent strain or injury.

Start Slowly

Ashtanga can be intense if you jump full force into the Primary Series. Build a solid foundation by starting with Sun Salutations A and B. Master the basics before advancing.

Focus on Breath

The steady ujjayi breathing technique can be challenging at first. Stay focused on maintaining a smooth, even breath throughout every movement and transition.

Be Patient

Progress takes time and consistency. Stick with a regular practice allowing at least 20-30 minutes daily to experience the powerful benefits. Setting micro-goals helps measure improvements.

Try a Home Practice

After learning proper technique from an instructor, maintain your own home yoga practice. Excellent Ashtanga yoga videos are available when classes are not accessible.

With dedication and patience, Ashtanga yoga can transform your strength, flexibility, and inner peace. Seek out quality guidance and take time to establish a solid foundation before advancing. Stay motivated by remembering the incredible mind-body benefits you will gain.

Frequently Asked Questions on Ashtanga Yoga

Is Ashtanga yoga good for beginners?

Yes, if taught correctly, Ashtanga can be suitable for beginners. Always start gradually with the basics and seek individual guidance from instructors at your skill level. Building proper alignment, strength and awareness prepares you for more advanced poses.

How often should you practice Ashtanga yoga?

Ideally 3-5 times per week to progress and maximize benefits. Daily practice is encouraged but listening to your body’s needs for rest is also crucial. Consistency is key, even if some days are shorter or lighter.

How long does it take to complete the Primary Series?

For beginners, completing full Primary Series with proper form and breathing may take 1.5-2 hours. With regular practice, the duration drops to around 90 minutes. Advanced students may complete it in 60-75 minutes. Work at your own pace.

What should I wear for Ashtanga yoga?

Wear comfortable stretchy yoga clothing that allows movement without restriction. Form-fitting tops and shorts made of breathable fabrics work well. Bring a yoga mat if practicing on carpet. Some also practice barefoot though clean socks help grip mats.

Is sweating normal during Ashtanga?

Yes, profuse sweating is common and beneficial in Ashtanga. The heat and exertion flush toxins from the body. Be sure to stay hydrated by drinking water before, during and after practice.

With dedication and proper guidance, Ashtanga yoga can provide incredible strength, flexibility, balance, and inner calm. Allow your practice to progress gradually by mastering the basics first. Over time, the sequences will unlock your body’s full potential and create a moving meditation promoting mindfulness and well-being.