The first record of Ashtanga yoga occurs in the Yoga Korunta, an ancient yoga glossary-cum-manuel written by the sage Vamana Rishi. This system of yoga, which translates to “eight-limbed yoga” in Hindi, after the eight limbs of yoga described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is a form of hatha yoga that emphasizes vinyasa, the unity of posture, breathing, and gazing points, or dristhis. Unlike many systems of yoga, poses performed during an ashtanga series are never stationary; indeed, as much attention is paid to the transitions between poses as to the poses themselves. Because there is so much movement, you will sweat a lot in an ashtanga class. This is a good thing—ashtanga asanas are designed to purify the body and increase flexibility and muscle mass. There are six series in the ashtanga system:
- Yoga Chikitsa, the beginning series, is a theraputic series whose 75 standing, seated, inversion, and back-bend poses focus on spine realignment, detoxification of the body, and strength-building. and students move through them independently.
- Nadi Shodana is the intermediate series, and is meant to purify and strengthen the nervous system and balance the body’s energy. Like yoga chikitsa, nadi shodana consists of sun salutations, standing, seated, inversion, and back-bend poses, but with more, and more challenging, variations.
- Sthira Bhaga is the collective name for the four advanced series, which are devoted to difficult arm and head balance and extreme flexibility, (poses include the contain poses like the Kaundinyasana and Ganda Bherundasana) and are suitable only for very experienced students.
Depending on your ability level, you may opt for a teacher-led Ashtanga class, (common in the first two series) or a Mysore, or self-led class, where you move through the series independently, with the teacher and other students around to offer advice.