Yoga is a philosophy of life. It also has the potential to create a vibrantly healthy body and mind. It can be likened to alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry, with the teacher being the chemist and the student being the base metal.
The first series in the Astanga Vinyasa system is called Yoga Chikitsa or Yoga Therapy, and although many would not regard this system as particularly therapeutic, it is its primary function.
Astanga Vinyasa Yoga is a dynamic yoga practice in which all the asanas (posture) are practised in a sequential order. The system is said to have been passed to the living Guru of the system Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois from his guru Sri. T.Krishnamacharya, through the study of the ancient manuscript the Yoga Korunta.
Astanga Vinyasa Yoga is part of the Hatha Yoga tradition. Yoga very briefly means yoking or joining of the self (let us say soul) to the smaller self (let us say the I or ego); or union of the self to the universe, God or the whole.
Hatha means sun (Ha) and moon (Tha), the masculine and feminine aspects of life, and is therefore the yoking or union of these two opposing forces. This also represents the battle within the body between the positive and negative; the in and the out breath; the right and the left hemispheres of the brain.
Yoga very briefly means yoking or joining of the self
(let us say soul) to the smaller self (let us say the I or ego);
or union of the self to the universe, God or the whole
Astanga means eight limbs and refers to the eight stages described by the ancient sage Patanjali in his sutras. These stages are yama (5 restraints), niyama (5 observances), asana (seat/posture), pranayama (breath control), pratyhara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and finally samadhi (super-consciousness) the result of the other leading practices.
In the Astanga Vinyasa tradition, the practitioner yokes these principles together in his physical practice, by the use of vinyasa (breath intelligently moving the body), contorting, flexing, rotating, extending and bringing together the senses in an almost hypnotic state, creating an inner heat, cleansing and detoxifying the system of its impurities, and working on the mind and spirit in much the same way. The heat produces sweat that also releases beneficial hormones and nutrients, which are usually massaged back into the skin.
The use of breath (ujjayi, a breath creating internal heat by a slight restriction of the throat), bandha (many would liken to core stability), and drishti (focal points), is utilised throughout the practise. This can bring the practitioner to a heightened sense of awareness where the mind becomes lucid, clear and precise.
The body begins to feel much lighter, flexible, toned and intelligent. It is able to recognise its own needs more, and as such it might discriminate certain foods and require others not previously thought of.
Although Astanga Vinyasa is an intensely physical form of Hatha Yoga it is my belief that the use of its principles can be applied to anyone. We are all individuals and our yoga practise is also individual, but its overriding use as a template makes it a most therapeutic system. For example, you may have a practitioner who you would not want to overheat, as they are pregnant. However, with the intelligent use of bandha (pelvic floor and awareness only at the lower abdomen), drishti (focus), and soft ujjayi (breathing), they are still using the Astanga Vinyasa template. Now add tapas (described briefly as burning desire for knowledge), and they are practising with the same intensity/flavour as the regular Astanga practitioner. Now however, yoga’s therapeutic properties are preparing the practitioner for the initiation and heat of childbirth, but using different movements and different measures. Someone suffering from arthritis can practise an anti-rheumatic series of postures (pawanmuktasana) and still use breath (bandha) and awareness for a more intense and meditative approach. In this way the energy that is being dispersed everywhere via the pain is brought inwards to start the healing process.
Astanga Vinyasa Yoga is a spiritual practise, and although at first glance may appear like gymnastics, we are reminded at the beginning and end of the class that it is beneficial to dedicate the practise to the evolution of all beings by the use of mantra (chanting). This is not to discriminate against any individual. Indeed, all denominations, or people with absolutely no beliefs, are welcome to study yoga. The intent is to recognise the fullest potential in everybody, and every creature everywhere.
Fran Thompson, BWY.dip and Yoga Alliance 200 Hour dip.