Asana practice is the 3rd limb of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga and the part that most people think of when they think of yoga. It is the physical practice –the poses. As you learn the series pay attentions when to inhale and when to exhale. There is an “inhale” or “exhale the goes with each movement. Generally, upward movements are inhales and downward movements are exhales.
The series of poses are to be memorized over time. You can use a “cheat sheet” as you learn, but keep in mind you are trying to learn the order, so try to remember what is next before you peek at the sheet.
The series is built like a sandwich. First you will get two pieces of bread that will always begin and end every practice. Later you will get the meat, cheese, tomato, lettuce, mustard, mayo etc. The top piece of bread is 1 and 2 on this list. The bottom piece of bread is 3, 4, 5 and 6. I suggest David Swenson’s book to review the instructions on how to do each of these.
- Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salute A), 5 in a row
- Surya Namaskar B (Sun Salute B), 5 in a row
- Yoga Mudra, 8 slow breaths
- Padmasana, 10 very deep, slow inhales and exhales.
- Tolasana (also called Uplitihi), hold for 10 breaths
- Shavasana, rest for 10 or more minutes to end your practice
Here is a video of me demonstrating the minimal Ashtanga practice as taught by David Williams at a workshop I attended in Kansas City. There are slight differences from the above list: only 3 Suryas each, 10 breathes on Yoga Mudra (instad of 8), he counted 25 breaths on Padmasana (instead of 10), he taught a quick bhakti breaths during Tolasana working your way up to 100 fast breaths (think in sets of 10 or 20). Try to get to 50 breaths at first then add 10 breaths each day as possible. With this shorter practice, Shavasana does not need to last as long.
Learn a little Sanskrit
Work to learn Sanskrit names of poses. It may seem odd to be asked to learn poses in another language. Why is it important? If you really don’t want to, it’s OK, but I think it’s cool. Why? Because this is a practice learned all over the world. I can meet someone from Argentina, Germany, France, China or Alabama. I might not understand their language, but if I go to an Ashtanga studio, I will know the poses because we all learn the same Sanskrit words. Sort of like learning the Latin words for plants or medical terms so people can work together cross linguistically.
Ashtanga Yoga Limbs 1 and 2
The first two limbs (out of 8) of Ashtanga Yoga are the Yamas, Niyamas. Some people liken these to the Ten Commandments. As you focus on these during your Asana practice, it changes the way you think about what you are doing with your body and how your experience on the yoga mat is like your life.
- The 5 Yamas are:
-Bramacharya: focus energy toward the divine
- The 5 Niyamas are:
-Tapas: purifying practices
-Svadhyaya: self study and the study of sacred texts
-Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender to the divine
There is a lot written out there on the Yamas and Niyamas. Under the “About Yoga” tab you can find a paper I wrote for my yoga teacher training where I compare them to the Ten Commandments. Do a Google search under these words and you will come up with plenty to study and hopefully you will feel motivated to look at ways to gently train your mind to move toward these ideals
Try this: Pick one of the Yamas or Niyamas to focus on during your asana practice and watch your mind. For example, if you choose Ahimsa (non-harming), watch if you tend to push too hard in a stretch that may lead to injury. Or, do you find yourself thinking “I’m not as good at this as that person.” Or, “That person thinks they are so hot. What a show-off.” Do you see how these kinds of actions or thoughts lead away from Ahimsa? Next practice, try a different Yama or Niyama to focus on until you have had a practice with all 10.
- The 5 Yamas are: