What is Ashtanga Vinyasa?

Ashtanga Vinyasa is a potent form of Hatha Yoga that was formalized in the latter half of the twentieth century by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, a professor of Sanskrit and Yogic Literature, under the direction of his teacher, the legendary scholar and visionary Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.  The signature of the method is the graceful integration of posture, breath and gaze into an elaborate ritual of movement. When these elements align, the experience of the body opens up, exposing an infinite nexus of sensation. The practice to be present with sensation, allowing it to move through the body unbound, and to dissolve back into the emptiness from which it arose. Through this practice, we give ourselves space, and we allow our minds to breath.  Our conceptual projections soften and fade, making room for insight.

What are Mysore classes?

Mysore classes are the principal medium of instruction for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. They are modeled after the classes originally taught by Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, South India from the early 1970’s to the turn of the century. Instead of guiding students together through the same practice, Jois would instruct his students individually, teaching them unique sequences of breath, posture and movement. He would then have his students practice those sequences side by side, in silence, under his watchful eye.

Though Pattabhi’s methods are inimitable, his “Mysore-style” classes are one of the mainstays of the global Ashtanga community. The same classes are still taught by the Jois family in Mysore today, and in Ashtanga studios around the world.  In comparison with other forms of instruction, these classes allow students to move with the rhythmic flow of their own breath, and so to immerse themselves more fully in the experience of breathing.  This is vital to the Ashtanga practice.  It encourages the kind of focused awareness from which meditative insights can arise.

How do I learn?

There is no better way to learn Ashtanga Vinyasa than under the direction of an experienced Mysore teacher, alongside other established practitioners.  At the Yoga Workshop, our method of instruction is simple and relaxed.  On your first day of Mysore, we show you a sequence of breath and movement called Sun Salutations.  You take time to explore the sequence and absorb it into your body.  When you return, you repeat the sequence, and if you are comfortable with what you have learned, we show you more.  In this way, your practice slowly builds, without the effort of memorization.

This method of learning works directly with the natural intelligence of the body while pointedly suspending the involvement of the intellect.  It inures the body gradually to the sequencing through measured repetition, slowly conditioning the currents of the subtle breath to flow into the unique patterns that are carefully defined by the practice itself.  In time, those patterns become second nature. Then the postures begin to flow spontaneously, as visceral expressions of an internal unfolding of breath.

Questions and Answers about Mysore

Everyone!  All sorts of people from absolute beginners to long-time practitioners are welcome to join our Mysore classes at the Yoga Workshop.  These classes are designed to accommodate everyone who wants to learn.  To be sure, the Ashtanga Vinyasa system tends to attract athletically oriented people because of its dynamic and flowing nature.  But the brilliance of the system is that it can be adapted for people of all kinds.  We are proud to have a very diverse practice community at the Yoga Workshop.

It can appear when you first walk into class that everyone is advanced, because people appear to know what they’re doing and because they are practicing on their own, but the fact is that everyone is still learning, and the best students never lose their open beginner’s mind!

We will teach you.  Our Mysore classes are specially designed to support your learning process.  We will teach you the sequencing slowly and methodically, showing you each breath, movement and posture, then giving you space to practice the sequencing on your own.  As the weeks progress, your practice will become longer, and soon you will reach a point where you have plenty to work on for awhile.  Then we will help you refine your practice until you are ready to learn more.

The Ashtanga system is comprised of six distinct series of postures, of progressive difficulty. After becoming proficient in one series, you slowly introduce the next series, just a few postures at a time. There are a number of different methods for progressing, and the instructor will help you find the method that works best for you. In general, the process is rather slow and gradual, and proficiency in any given series will take many years of devoted daily practice.  The time it takes to advance, however, is insignificant, for what matters is not your rate of advancement, but your presence to the process itself.

Assists in yoga are intended to help educate the practitioner about correct alignment and form, without engaging the conceptual mind through verbal conversation. Sometimes assists can be aimed at giving the student a physical experience of what a posture might feel like or how to work towards being able to do the posture. Other times, assists can be aimed at bringing the student deeper into the form.  Some assists might appear extreme from the outside while others are obviously very subtle. Instructors at the Yoga Workshop are trained to observe very carefully before offering assistance of any kind, and to respect the comfortability of each practitioner.

If you prefer not to be assisted for any reason, you need only to tell the instructor.  No explanation will be requested.  Mysore classes offer a unique way for students and teachers to work together, but the practice ultimately belongs to the student.  So please, if you are not comfortable receiving manual assists, please tell us, and we will work verbally with you instead.  Also, if you have an injury, please tell us.  We can help you modify the postures to accommodate your injury and to facilitate healing.

We will teach you the sequencing so slowly and gradually that your body will probably remember, even if your mind forgets.  But if you get confused, just ask for help!  The teacher is there to assist you with such things. Teachers are usually scanning the room to see who needs help, so if you stop practicing and look toward the teacher, you will soon be noticed. And of course if you feel overlooked, you can always wave the teacher over.  But please do it in a gentle and humble manner.  That helps to maintain a grounded sense of balance and equality in the room.

We will teach you this too, as part of the vinyasa pattern for the posture in question.  But there is a basic rule.  Inhaling is associated with prana, and so with expansive, opening, spreading, lifting types of movements, while exhaling is associated is apana, or with contracting, dropping, grounding and curling types of movements.  So its always “inhale up, exhale down.”  Or “inhale reach out, exhale draw in.”  In time, this rule becomes intuitive.

The point of repeating the same series each day is to develop a kind of depth in movement that could not be otherwise attained.  Its like practicing musical scales to develop proficiency at playing an instrument.  Musicians practice their scales ad nauseam for many years before they can play anything with true virtuosity.  But when they attain virtuosity, the music seems to flow from their fingers spontaneously. Their fingers become supple channels for the music, and they allow it to pass through them.  Similarly, in Ashtanga Vinyasa, we play the music of the breath with our entire bodies, and we practice the same sequences over and over to cultivate virtuosity, until the music of the practice spontaneously flows.

Ujjayi breathing is the thread that carries us through the entire Ashtanga practice.  It can be recognized by its distinctive aspirant sound, which is made by breathing with the lips closed and gently toning the vocal chords.  When done properly, this creates a smooth and soothing sound, almost like a whisper. The Ujjayi technique helps to open up the experience of breathing, by making the involved sensations more vivid and refined.

Our Mysore sessions are extended for your convenience, but you’re not expected to be there the entire time—in fact it’s not advised. We open the studio over a long enough period of time to provide ample opportunity for early birds and late risers (relatively late, that is) to attend class.  You can whenever you are able, do your practice, take rest, and then leave.

Most students practice for 1½ to 2 hours.  This is about the amount of time it takes to complete a full series. However, not everyone practices a full series, and very few students have the luxury of practicing a full series everyday.  We understand this.  Students who are on a tight schedule may only be able to practice for 30 minutes.  And that is fine. Such is life. We will help you make sure that those 30 minutes are well spent.

Yes. Sitting practice can be done immediately before or after asana practice.  And you will find that sitting immediately after asana is particularly nice. We fully encourage it, and we can offer you some simple instruction in sitting practice if you desire.  As for pranayama, it is important that you separate asana and pranayama practice by enough time to allow your nervous system to settle. If you practice vigorously, this could take as long as 45 minutes.  So if you are coupling pranayama and asana, it is best to take a long rest before practicing pranayama.  Also, we prefer that you practice only the kind of pranayama that we teach at the Yoga Workshop.  If you have learned elsewhere (or not learned at all) please consult with the Mysore teacher before beginning.

Suspending the asana practice on moon days is part of the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition. This is partly due to the Indian astrological belief that moon days should be reserved for certain other kinds of practice. Because we are part of this tradition, we have chosen to honor the moon days in this way.

In addition, once you practice on a daily basis (six days a week is recommended), you will welcome the invitation to take a day off every other week. The body can use the rest (after all the Ashtanga practice is physically demanding) and you will appreciate having some extra “free time” when you are used to daily practice.

Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and the patron saint of Hatha Yoga.  With his huge belly and elephant head, he reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Practice Notes

  • Enter quietly and be mindful of others.
  • Sign in before class, as part of the ritual.
  • Roll out your mat in line with others, and square to the shape of the room. This will help you stay balanced as you practice.
  • If you can make space for someone else, please do.  People are usually shy about asking.
  • If you must walk about during class, please do not step on other people’s mats.
  • Do not wear perfume, aftershave, essential oils, or scented lotions, shampoos, or conditioners of any kind.
  • Bathe before class, as a courtesy to yourself, the teacher, and your fellow practitioners.
  • Return any props that you have used back to their proper place after class.
  • Do not leave during the final period of rest.  Help us cultivate quiet and stillness during that time.
  • Be generous and kind.