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Ashtanga yoga, Power Yoga or Ashtanga vinyasa yoga

Power or Ashtanga yoga is a "sweaty, aerobic form of yoga" taught by Mysore master K. Pattabhi Jois. It is often touted as "a workout that can change your life if you can survive it." It is often characterized as a yoga with a boot camp flavor.

For centuries, the term ashtanga yoga has been used to refer to the eight-fold system of practice prescribed by the sage Patanjali. K. Pattabhi Jois’ version of ashtanga yoga emphasizes a vigorous approach to the asana (posture) and pranayama (breath control) components of classical ashtanga. To avoid the confusion with traditional ashtanga yoga, some people refer Jois’s system as Ashtanga vinyasa yoga or as power yoga.

Heart of Ashtanga Yoga:

The core Ashtanga practice consists of six progressively difficult series of linked postures, each requiring between 90 minutes to three hours to complete

The structure of Ashtanga makes you repeatedly go through an entire spectrum of postures, some of which are displeasing or difficult. The series work like a combination lock. If you do the right poses in the right order, the mind and the body automatically open up.

Each series unlocks a particular aspect of the body and mind. The primary series called yoga chikitsa (yoga therapy) realign and detoxify the physical body, particularly the spine. It also builds a foundation of considerable physical strength, especially important to balance out the overly flexible students who are often drawn to hatha yoga practice. The intermediate series, nadi shodana (cleansing of the nadis or river or channels), purifies and strengthens the nervous system and the subtle energy channels that link the seven chakras.

The four advanced series (originally taught as two series, but subdivided to make them more accessible) are collectively known as sthira bhaga (divine stability). These sequences take to new heights the strength, flexibility, concentration, and energy flow cultivated in the first two series.

A typical astayoga class will begin with a Sanskrit prayer. When the chanting dies away, your teacher will remind you to deploy the three central techniques in the Ashtanga arsenal: ujjayi breathing, mula bandha, and a variation of uddiyana bandha.

Ujjayi breathing (the victorious breath) is a classic pranayama technique in which the breath passes across the back of the throat with a sibilant hiss. Used throughout the Ashtanga series, it keeps the breath steady and controlled and draws the minds attention inward, facilitating meditation in motion. Details.

Mula bandha (root lock) is a traditional hatha yoga energy-raising practice, although most schools don’t employ it during asana practice. Mula bandha draws the awareness to the core of the body, intensifying and drawing upward the energy at the base of the spine.

Uddiyana bandha (upward lock) kicks in almost automatically as a side effect of a strong mula bandha. The lower belly below the navel sucks inward, firming the abdomen and drawing the breath up to expand the rib cage, chest, and lungs. (The diaphragm, however, does not harden, but continues to move freely.) Over time, uddiyana bandha actually helps increase lung capacity.

All three of these techniques - ujjayi breathing, mula bandha, and uddiyana bandha - are to be practiced continually throughout the Ashtanga series: in itself a challenging exercise in concentration. One of Pattabhi Jois’ favorite slogans is "Ashtanga yoga is 99 percent practice, one percent theory." As David Williams, an Ashtanga teacher on the Hawaiian island of Maui, explains, "Before you’ve practiced, the theory is useless. After you’ve practiced, the theory is obvious."

With the breathing established and the locks engaged, you’ll begin a series of Sun Salutations to warm up the body. One of the central principles of Ashtanga yoga is tapas, or heat: the more you sweat, the better. Studios are generally kept hot, and the nonstop flow of demanding postures ensures profuse perspiration. The heat loosens the muscles, helping prevent injury and making it easier to melt into the postures. The physical heat and purification is intended to intensify an inner, spiritual fire that burns through ignorance and delusion, ultimately consuming the ego in its flames.

Once the standing poses are completed, you’ll be sufficiently warmed up to commence the sequences that are unique to each series. Although each series comprises a balanced workout, each has a particular focus: The 30-odd postures of first series, for example, concentrate predominantly on forward bends, while second series emphasizes deep backbends, foot-behind-the-head postures, and seven variations of Headstand.

Every series ends with the same cool-down sequence of finishing poses, which includes Shoulder stand, Headstand, Bound Lotus, seated meditation, and a lengthy rest in Savasana, or Corpse Pose. Finishing poses balance out the body and return the metabolic rate to normal, allowing the nervous system to absorb the benefits of the practice.

Don’t Overdo It

One of the real danger in Ashtanga Yoga is that students may try to overdo and get hurt in the process. The exercises are quite demanding and have to be done in series, one flowing into the next. It should be learned at the expert guidance of a teacher. Some poses are quite brutal and may not be suitable to all. Be aware of your physical limitations in performing these exercises. Some practitioners have modified the series to make it more adaptable to a wide range of audience. The traditionalists scorn this idea.

And ultimately, the most difficult challenge in Ashtanga practice is not the mastery of specific poses, but the mastery of the mind. What counts is not the ability to stand on the hands or drop into a backbend, but the ability to keep the mind steady and the heart joyful, no matter what posture you’re in. Ashtanga is about seeing God continuously, wherever you gaze.

In the end, it is all worthwhile. The bliss brought by this yoga is to be experienced.

"Then there are those moments that make it all worthwhile. I’m carried on my breath like a leaf on the wind: folding, arching, twisting, bending, leaping lightly from one posture to the next. My body tingles with energy; my mind is quietly absorbed in the hypnotic rhythm of practice. The poses seem strung on the breath like prayer beads on a mala; I enter each one to the best of my ability, savoring the silky stretches, the pleasurable ache of muscles taxed to their edge."

Anne Cushman, Yoga Journal, January/February 1995

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