Ashtanga Vinyasa is a dynamic and intensive yoga practice. It has an important distinctive feature: the vinyasa.
Vinyasa is a specific asana (pose) sequence which is performed along with Ujjayi breath (a breathing method achieved by narrowing the throat to a thin slit). Vinyasas incorporate the concept of breath and movement integration. Only when the Asana, Pranayama (Ujjayi breath) and Drishti (focus on a certain point) concepts are followed the practice is considered to be complete.
Asanas in Ashtanga practice are performed sequentially and continuously. They are all linked through vinyasas. During the practice, Ujjayi breath and Drishti must be exercised. The practitioner must apply Bandhas (energy locks) and preserve the meditative state (realizing that you are only here and now).
The Vinyasa is an anatomically useful transition between asanas. Through vinyasa we realign our body and generate strong heat within, thereby reducing the risk of injury. Vinyasa, combined with Ujjayi breath and Bandhas, ignites the inner fire that causes profuse sweating. Through sweat we purify your body, causing a feeling of lightness and strength at the end of practice. Vinyasa balances the breath and ensures smooth circulation of blood throughout the body. When ones entire attention is focused on correct vinyasa calculation, the practice becomes concentrated, the breath rhythmic, the body strong and the mind calm.
Our breath is the conductor between our mind and body. During yoga practice your breath must be deep and smooth. Your body must move in rhythm with your breath, which positively influences the consciousness and soothes the mind. Ujjayi breath means the Victorious Breath. It is characterized by a hissing sound, which occurs in the larynx when the throat slit is narrowed. The Ujjayi breath enriches blood with oxygen and the body fills with energy. The Ujjayi breath should not be confused with Ujjayi pranayama(during Ujjayi pranayama the throat slit is narrowed a lot more and breath becomes even more vigorous). While practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, the breath must be smooth, soft and deep. If you feel breathless during the practice, it means that you use a very hard Ujjayi breath and your effort should be reduced. Breathing should not distract you from the practice; it should fill your body with energy and give you strength.
This is the focused gaze.
There are 9 drishtis:
1. Nose or nasagrai drishti
2. Upwards or urdhva drishti
3. Third eye or ajna chakra drishti
4. Hand or hastagrai drishti
5. Thumbs or angustha madyai drishti
6. Right side or parshva drishti
7. Left side or parshva drishti
8. Navel or nabe drishti
9. Foot or padayograi drishti
Bandhas affect prana (inner body energy) by not allowing it to dissipate. They concentrate and direct the prana to Nadi (subtle nerve channels). Bandhas are the energy locks of yoga practice, and serve to organize redistribution of the body’s weight. Bandhas protect the internal organs, improve stability and strengthen the deep muscles.
There are 3 kinds of Bandhas:
1. Mula Bandhas – the root lock
2. Uddiyana Bandhas – abdominal lock
3. Jalandhara Bandhas- chin lock
Only the first two locks are used in Ashtanga yoga. Jalandhara bandha is used only in pranayama practice during kumbaka (breath-hold). In some asanas chin is directed to the chest and resembles Jalandhara bandha, but there is no need to hold the breath.
Bandhas are always used with different intensity. Usually they are very mild but in some asanas they are to be compressed to the limit. Do not overdo it and always carefully track their intensity.
There are three series of asanas in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga.
1. Yoga Chikitsa
The primary series is called “yoga therapy”. Through this sequence we detoxify our body. At first glance it may seem that if Yoga Chikitsa is the first series, it must be the simplest of all, but it is not true: Yoga Chikitsa is the most difficult series. Here one begins the habit of daily practice and forms the system in which one will practice. After all, the following series are nothing but new asanas integrated into the system that has already been built during the first series.
2. Nadi Shodhana
The second series focuses on nadi (subtle nerve channels) purification. Nadi is our conductor between the physical and mental body. By removing the blocks and restoring harmony of body and mind, we understand our true nature. Nadi Shodhana, the intermediate series is the energy component of our entire practice.
3. Sthira Bhaga
The advanced series of Ashtanga yoga, Sthira Bhag is the “play with gravity”. It is the ultimate balance of gravity and strength. Sthira Bhaga is divided into three more series (some sources divide it in to four parts).
One must never practice the next series before the previous series are mastered.