Fueling the Fire Within: Heat Up with Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga's sequential and progressive approach to building a strong and lasting practice
Expert instructor Nicki Doane on the Asthanga "burn," the roots of the method, how it differs from other power yoga methods, and how to stoke your Ashtanga flames slowly.

One of the most high-profile yoga practices today, Ashtanga has been practiced faithfully by the likes of Madonna, Sting and Woody Harrelson.  It's gained a reputation as a "go for the burn" workout designed to pump up the sweat and create lean and mean muscle. This is the common Americanized definition of Ashtanga yoga, which has morphed into variations called power yoga or flow yoga, often taught at gyms and health clubs in the same league as heavy-duty aerobic exercise.

Ashtanga yoga is designed to create a healthier, stronger and more flexible body, but "it is not a workout, it is a practice," stresses Nicki Doane, a dedicated student of renowned Ashtanga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and creator of Gaiam's Ashtanga Yoga DVDs.

Ashtanga Roots and Limbs
Ashtanga yoga can be traced back 4,000 years to the sacred texts of the Yoga Korunta, a path rooted in developing eight (asht) limbs or spiritual practices (anga):

  • yama (moral observance)
  • niyama (inner integrity)
  • asana (postures)
  • pranayama (breath control)
  • pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)
  • dharana (concentration)
  • dhyana (meditation)
  • samadhi (enlightenment)

In 1948 renowned yoga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India to study and practice the curative value of yoga as described in these ancient texts. Under the direction of his teacher, Sri Krishnamacharya, he carried on the teachings of Ashtanga yoga — a vigorous form of yoga integrating a continuous and dynamic flow of movements (vinyasa) with special breathing techniques to create heat in the body and help purge it of toxins, while also increasing endurance, flexibility and strength.

Ashtanga vs. Power Yoga and Vinyasa
While related practices like "power yoga" and "flow yoga" often incorporate some Ashtanga movements and principles into a demanding workout, authentic Ashtanga yoga follows a specific system that slowly acclimates the body to more difficult poses through progressive endurance.

"Ashtanga is a sequential system that builds poses on top of each other, similar to stacking blocks," explains Doane, "You do not move on to the next posture until you are very familiar with, and have practiced, the previous posture."

Doane compares building an Ashtanga practice to carefully nurturing a fire within. "The fire of Ashtanga yoga can burn very hot and people who do too much too fast have a tendency to burn out on this system. But if you stoke the fire slowly and build your strength slowly, you will not burn out, but instead will continue to glow brightly."

Ashtanga, Accessible to Anyone
Many people find Ashtanga out of reach because of its physically challenging nature. Doane's advice:
Don't try to do too much, too fast.

"Do a very basic program for at least a month to get stronger, and add poses slowly," Doane advises. "Then try a second-level program if you feel strong."
Start by simply trying the basic Ashtanga movements one by one, and slowly work up to getting comfortable with faster pacing.

Why Try Ashtanga Now?
 "Intense times call for intense practices," observes Doane. "People are looking for a way to connect deeply to themselves and to those around them — and Ashtanga is all about connecting. It teaches us to be fully present in each moment and to love life and appreciate the earth."


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