Defnition of ashtanga
The Sanskrit term Ashtanga translates as “eight limbs” and traditionally refers to the eight limbs of Raja Yoga. Raja yoga, also known as Royal Yoga was first defined by Pantanjali in his famous work The Yoga Sutras written most probably around the 2nd century CE (Yoga: A Yoga Journal Book, Linda Sparrowe). These eight limbs consist of 1) Yama 2) Niyama 3) Asana 4) Pranayama 5) Pratyahara 6) Dharana 7) Dyana 8) Samadhi.
As can be seen, asana, the word referring to posture, is only an eight of this yogic path. Yet in these modern times, the physical practice of yoga poses is what most us associate with the term ‘yoga’.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Ashtanga yoga, also often referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, is a specific system of physical yoga devolved by Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois (1915 – 2009), who started teaching it in 1948 in Mysore, India.(^ Jois, Sri K. Pattabhi. Yoga Mala. New York: North Point Press, 2002). Jois started studying yoga at the age of 12 from no other than the father of modern day yoga, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989). Alongside Jois, Krishnamacharya had 3 other famous pupils who have helped to define yoga as we know it today, each comprising their own unique style – Indra Devi, of Sai Yoga, B K S Iyengar, of Iyengar Yoga, and Desikachar, of Viniyoga.
Ashtanga is a dynamic style of yoga which links each movement with the breath. Poses are usually held for 5 breaths and a vinyasa (a sequence of plank – chaturanga – up dog – down dog) is inserted between each pose. Ashtanga Yoga has 6 series, each consisting of specific postures. The first one of these is known as Yoga Chikitsa or the Primary Series and is the sequence practiced by the majority of yogis. Traditionally, Ashtanga is taught in a way that one should not progress to the following series until all the poses of the current one are mastered. In the West, however, there are many teachers that offer classes which combine poses from various series, creating more variation than the traditional style of teaching.
In the traditional system of Ashtanga Yoga, classes can be divided into lead or self-practice (also known as Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga). In lead classes, the teacher will guide students through the series (most often the Primary, but sometimes also the Secondary) by demonstrating which pose is next in the sequence and counting the breaths in each pose. This is a good option for students new to Ashtanga, or those who prefer to have a teacher present at the front of the class.
Others prefer to flow at their own pace, and once the series is known by heart, students can attend a Mysore-style class. Here, students are free to practise at their own level, whilst keeping the sequencing of the series intact. In this way practitioners of the Primary, Secondary and Advanced series practice together in one room. The main benefit of this style of class is that one works with his/her body’s own limitations, under the supervision of a teacher. One or more teachers always supervise the class and circulate the room, offering physical adjustments to each one in turn. The great benefit of receiving an adjustment is that it allows a practitioner to go much deeper into a pose than by him/herself. In this way, a rapid increase in strength and flexibility can occur. However, some people may not feel comfortable being adjusted by another person, therefore a lead class is more suited for them.
Many students come to Ashtanga due to it’s physically challenge sequence, Although it was first brought to the West already in 1975, it remains to this day possibly the most physically demanding style of hatha yoga. Many like the set sequencing which creates a sense of order and allows you to go deeper into each pose over a period of time. Others are put off by it’s stereotypical repletion of poses and opt for more creative styles such as vinyasa flow. At the end of the day, whichever style of yoga you chose reflects your personality.
Ashtanga Yoga Teacher Trainings
Teacher trainings in Ashtanga Yoga are abundant and can be found in all corners of the world. One can chose to go directly to Mysore, to study at Pattabhi Jois’ centre known as the Shri Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (KPJAYI) . However, very few people actually become “authorized” or “certified” to teach by the institute, as the requirements are extremely high. For example, to a become certified teacher by the KPJAYI, a practitioner must have at least 10 years of daily ashtanga practice and be proficient in the first 3 series (http://www.ashtanga-yoga-canada.com/ashtanga-yoga-teacher.html).
Another option is to complete a teacher training with one of the KPJAYI certified teachers such as Richard Freeman, Dena Kinsburg or John Scott. They may still have certain requirements, but not as high as the KPJAYI itself. Additionally, they have at least 10 years of experience studying at KPJAYI, so their knowledge of the Ashtanga system is broad and deep.
Many studios and teachers also offer basic 200-hour or advanced 500-hour ashtanga yoga teacher trainings. They may come from a more relaxed ashtanga background and have less strict requirements than the KPJAYI or it’s certified teachers. They may, however, still insist that certain criteria are met, for example they may ask for at least 1 year consistent practice or proficiency in the Primary series. Since there are so many teachers offering such trainings, one can select a course that meets one’s needs. You can decide the location of the training and the format (ie whether it is a monthly intensive course or spread out over a series of months).
Take care to ensure that the teacher you choose to study with is a fully qualified practitioner and that the training is accredited by some sort of yoga governing body such as the Yoga Alliance or the British Wheel of Yoga. You would not want to spend your money on a training that does then not allow you to teach!
How to Choose?
When selecting a yoga teacher training, ask yourself: What do I want to achieve? What do I want to get out of this?
If it is clear for you, that you would like to teach a more free style of yoga, then perhaps opt for vinyasa flow, which still has a strong grounding in ashtanga but allows more creative sequencing.
Or chose a training where you will be taught how to incorporate poses from various series, other than just the First.
However if you enjoy a practise where the student flows at his/her own pace and receives adjustments from the teacher, then a Mysore-style ashtanga training will be the thing for you. Then perhaps training directly at the KPJAYI will benefit you more. Perhaps you wish to receive a solid grounding in one particular style, allowing you to then later build upon this with other trainings/workshops. Then a training with a senior Ashtanga teacher will satisfy your needs.
One thing to most certainly take into account is that Ashtanga is a physically challenging yoga system and may not be your cup of tea. If you prefer a more gentle style with longer holds, look into Yin Yoga, Hatha Yoga or Sivanada Yoga teacher trainings.