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Ashtanga Yoga Revealed
Page 3: The Ashtanga Practice

The heart of Ashtanga practice is the six series of linked postures which last anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours. Most people only get as far as the first two series, the Primary Series, or Yoga Chikitsa and the Intermediate Series, or Nadi Shodana. Yoga Chikitsa is the foundation and meant to detoxify the body. Many Forward Bends are included. Nadi Shodana cleanses the energy channels, and back bends are involved. The four advanced series were originally only two, but they were eventually divided up into four because of their inherent difficulty. Collectively these are known as Sthira Bhaga and those who accomplish them have an extraordinary amount of strength, flexibility - and humility (Norman Allen, who leads a much simpler life than most of his fellow Ashtanga leaders, has accomplished all six series). Keep in mind you aren't just flailing about in these postures - they're all controlled, and they're held for five breaths. Linking the breath to the moves is what Vinyasa (flowing posture) is all about. Ashtanga is sometimes called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (and occasionally you'll also see its alternate spelling, Astanga).

(Article continued below.)

Pranayama, or breathing, is one of two additional aspects which are crucial to Ashtanga. The specific pranayama performed is Ujjayi, in which the breath is inhaled and exhaled through the back of the throat, making an echo-like sound (some call it the "Darth Vader" breath). The other important practice involves the bandhas, or locks - tensing up certain points of the body to control and enhance energy flow. The two locks most often used are the Mula Bandha, or root lock, located around the perineum (between the sex organs and the anal orifice). The second lock is Uddiyana Bandha, or Upward Lock, in which the lower part of the belly, below the navel, tightens. Uddiyana Bandha happens almost automatically when practicing Mula Bandha, which should be held all through Ashtanga practice... plus the Ujjayi breathing, of course. Obviously, Ashtanga will teach you concentration! There's also a third lock, the less-discussed chin lock or Jalandhara Bandha.

An Ashtanga Yoga class begins by chanting a Sanskrit prayer. Sun Salutations are practiced to warm up the body (and usually Ashtanga is practiced in a warm room - although it's not as hot as a Bikram Yoga class). Then comes the series of poses for whichever level of Ashtanga is being taught. Every Ashtanga class ends the same way - with a cool-down consisting of Shoulderstand, Headstand, Bound Lotus and a good, long Shavasana. A class that does not include all these elements is not Ashtanga Yoga in the strict sense of the term. Serious enthusiasts practice six days a week. Saturday is the classic Ashtanga day of rest, and practice is also avoided when there is either a new moon or a full moon.

Because Ashtanga Yoga is so strenuous, it is possible to wind up with some pretty nasty injuries. There have been stories of over-eager instructors hurting their students while adjusting them. But the truth is that most injuries that happen during Ashtanga Yoga are the fault of the student himself. The students that Ashtanga draws in are often go-getters who tend to be ambitious. Sometimes they push themselves far harder than they should, and that's when they get hurt. That is why humility and patience are so important in Ashtanga practice. And while Ashtanga doesn't have the precision of Iyengar practice, it is very important to get the technique down - the combination of breathing, locks and Asana. The proper technique, combined with the proper attitude, will keep injury at bay.

The best aspect of Ashtanga is its ability to teach you about yourself. It is not an easy Yoga style, and it will bring out all your frustrations, delusions of grandeur and petty emotions. The only real way to progress is not by becoming more strong and flexible, but by conquering these negative ego traits first. If you master your ego, the strength and flexibility will follow. Always remember - you outer world is only a reflection of what is going on inside you!

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