Ashtanga Yoga For Beginners: A Detailed Guide

Me practicing yoga in Mysore, India
A photo of me practicing Ashtanga yoga in Mysore, India

Ashtanga yoga, also known as Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is a dynamic form of yoga based on controlled breathing, postures, and specific gazing point. If you are looking for information for Ashtanga yoga for beginners then this is the article for you.

An increase in strength and flexibility, improvement in wellbeing, and an improvement in overall health are just a few of the many reasons why Ashtanga yoga is such a popular type of yoga around the world. Yes, it follows a set sequence of poses, however, we can modify the practice for all needs.

For beginners, however, Ashtanga yoga, with its many poses, series, and way of breathing can be very daunting and confusing.

That’s why I wrote this Ashtanga yoga for Beginners guide. In this article, I explain what the Ashtanga practice is and cover the benefits of having a regular practice. Finally, I explain the differences between Ashtanga yoga and Vinyasa and show you some techniques with which you can start today.

**If you’re looking for an Ashtanga Beginner’s course, definitely check the Ashtanga Beginner’s Course by Deepika Mehta.

Jump ahead to any of the sections below:

What is Ashtanga yoga?

Ashtanga yoga, also known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a dynamic style of yoga that follows a set sequence of poses. It originated in Mysore, India and was made popular by K. Pattabhi Jois during the 20th century. It is now practiced by thousands of people all over the world.

The concept of Ashtanga yoga is based on asana (postures), ujjayi breathing (breathing with sound), and Drishti (gazing point) to build prana in the body.

This practice links the breath with movement, and so each posture is linked to the next with the breath.

The term Ashtanga Yoga derives from two Sanskrit words:

  • Astau which means eight
  • Anga which means limb

Ashtanga Yoga translates to 8 limbed yoga as taught by the great sage Patanjali. Patanjali was the author of the Yoga Sutras. These are considered to be some of the foundational texts of classical yoga philosophy, which were written in Sanskrit, an estimated 2000 years ago. 

Me sitting in baddha konasana in Mysore, India
Ashtanga yoga for beginners

Ashtanga yoga 8 limbs

The eight limbs are steps or guidelines for yoga practitioners to follow in order to progress to reach a state of Yoga or self-realization. The eight limbs are:

  1. Yamas – our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life
  2. Niyamas – self-discipline and spiritual observances
  3. Asana – the postures practiced in yoga
  4. Pranayama – breath control
  5. Pratyahara – withdrawal or sensory transcendence
  6. Dharana – concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi – state of ecstasy

When you practice Ashtanga yoga, you are working both on unifying your body and your mind. On the one hand, we learn to bring our attention to the breath, and on the other hand, we bring our attention to our movements.

Popular types of yoga evolved from Ashtanga yoga. Some of them include breathing and the flow from posture to posture, while others are more physical and more like a workout. Vinyasa flow, for example, is one such type of yoga.

I wrote an entire article in which I explain the difference between Ashtanga Yoga and Vinyasa.

I also wrote an article comparing Ashtanga to Hatha and Vinyasa. Be sure to check it out if you’re still trying to understand the differences between these practices.

Can a Beginner do Ashtanga Yoga?

A beginner can do Ashtanga yoga. Most yoga studios offer introductory courses or beginners classes. These are a great opportunity for Ashtanga yoga beginners to learn the basics of this practice, and more specifically to understand the correct breathing and some of Ashtanga yoga poses.

I still remember my first Ashtanga yoga class. As a complete beginner to yoga, I really didn’t know what to expect. There were about 10 of us in the class and with a calm and steady voice, the teacher counted each breath and guided us through half of the primary series.

I still remember the moment. About halfway through the class, I knew I had found what I was looking for. A physically demanding class that followed a slow and steady tempo that somehow managed to keep my thoughts at bay and my mind calm. That was it, I had found my practice!

Ten years later I’m still in love with the practice, I travel to Mysore every year to study with my teacher Sharath Jois and I own a yoga studio where I teach this practice that really has changed my life.

How Do I Start Ashtanga Yoga For Beginners?

As a general rule, a great place to start as an ashtanga yoga beginner is to go to an introductory course or attend a beginners class at your local studio. This will provide the foundations for this practice. Alternatively, there is a growing number of ashtanga yoga for beginners’ YouTube videos.

A good teacher is the best place to start. Like any skill, it is important to have proper instruction. Although there are thousands of people around the world who practice Ashtanga yoga, practice does not always make for a good teacher.

Definitely check out my article 33 Things To Know Before Starting Ashtanga Yoga if you are interested in starting this practice.

It has been my honor to have studied Ashtanga yoga for the past 11 years with some of the top Ashtanga yoga teachers in the world. Teachers such as Matthew Sweeny, Stefan Engstrom, and Kia Neddermier.

I have also studied with Sharath Jois at the Sharath Jois Centre, formally known as the Sri K Pattabi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI), which is now run by Saraswathi and Sharmila.

Even though I have taught Ashtanga yoga for beginners for many years, I continue to see myself as a student of this practice and endeavor to deepen my knowledge and understanding and to become a better teacher for my students.

If you are looking for an Ashtanga yoga for beginners video to practice with, then check out my video here:

Can You Teach Yourself Ashtanga Yoga?

As a general rule, you can teach yourself ashtanga yoga. However, it is important to visit a teacher on a regular basis (especially as a complete beginner), as a teacher will be able to help prevent any potential injuries and will be able to help guide you and tailor the practice to your needs.

If you are a home practitioner looking for some inspiration and advice, you may like my article: How To Practice Ashtanga Yoga Without A Teacher (My 8 Tips)

What Happens In An Ashtanga Yoga Class?

There is a clear structure to an Ashtanga Yoga class. And the beauty of it is that it is the same, anywhere you practice in the world. I love telling my students that. And it’s true! Ok once you develop more experience in the practice you may notice the varying teaching methods and styles, however, for the most part, it is all the same.

We Start With The Opening Chant

The class starts with the opening chant (or mantra). This is normally carried out in a call and response style, which means that the teacher chants a line and the students then repeat.

The opening mantra offers a blessing of gratitude to all the teachers of the lineage that have enabled the practice to continue.

New students usually just listen. But then it is encouraged to join in once you feel comfortable as starting the class this way helps set the practice apart from a purely physical practice and it helps clear the energy of the room for the practice to then start.

If you would like more information, then check out my article: The Meaning of the Ashtanga Opening Chant (PLUS the Ashtanga Closing Chant)

My practicing parsva konasana in Mysore, India
ashtanga yoga for beginners

The Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series

The Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series is the first of the 6 series of Ashtanga yoga. It is a set sequence of poses linked with the breath. The Primary series is what most people practice and can be divided into 4 sets of poses: Sun salutations, standing postures, Seated postures, and the Closing Sequence.

Once the opening mantra is over, the teacher then sets the tempo of the breath and with the breath as a guide, the physical practice begins.

The Ashtanga yoga sequence has been designed in such a way that each posture provides a necessary foundation for the postures that follow. And so the more experience we gain, the stronger and more flexible our body becomes, the more postures we then get access to and then add to the practice.

Ashtanga Namaskara

Each ashtanga yoga practice starts with the ashtanga namaskara and this helps prepare the body fot the practice. Ashtanga namaskara has 2 sets of sun salutations. Sun salutation A has 9 vinyasas and is practiced 5 times. Sun Salutation B has 17 vinyasas and is practiced between 3 and 5 times.

Regardless of how experienced or not we are, each practice begins with the Sun Salutations.

  • Sun Salutation A – 9 vinyasas – 5 times
  • Sun Salutation B – 17 vinyasas – 5 times (or 3 usually)

Each vinyasa is a breath-movement flow, where each movement has the same duration as each inhalation and exhalation.

For example, we inhale and raise our hands over our head and we exhale and fold forward. We inhale and look up and lengthen and we exhale and come down to lower plank (Chaturanga). We then inhale to upward-facing dog and then exhale to downward-facing dog.

And this is how the breath guides the practice and the flow of a moving meditation is born.

For short tutorials on these poses check out my YouTube videos:

Ashtanga Yoga Standing Poses

After warming up in the Sun Salutations, we then move on to the standing series of poses. We stay in each of these for 5 breaths.

These standing postures generally focus on balance and alignment, as well as gravity-assisted flexibility increasing postures.

Ashtanga Yoga Seated Poses

The next part of the Ashtanga Yoga sequence involves the seated postures. As with the standing postures, we stay in these for 5 breaths. They generally involve hamstring and hip openings and can be varied depending on one’s flexibility.

What makes the seated postures physically demanding is that in between each seated posture we do a Vinyasa. This is like a mini version of the sun salutation, only here we don’t stand up. We flow through postures like a low plank, up dog, downward-facing dog, and then back to sitting.

This flow is what flushes out the body and prepares it for the next posture.

Ashtanga Yoga Finishing Sequence

The finishing sequence takes us through an energetic culmination. Here we try to slow down breathing and turn our concentration inward. We stay in these postures for around 8 to 10 breaths (depending on the postures).

Savasana (corpse pose) marks the end of the yoga practice. This is a great place to help the heart rate steady and the breath to return to its usual, calm rhythm.

How Is Ashtanga Yoga For Beginners Taught?

As a general rule, ashtanga yoga for beginners is taught in 2 different ways. One involves a led (or guided) class, where the teacher guides the class through the Ashtanga yoga poses. The other is a Mysore style class, where students begin to memorize the poses. Both can be great for beginners.

Ashtanga Yoga Led Class

In a led class, the teacher guides the class vocally through the sequence. The teacher counts each breath and calls out each pose. Teachers tend to not demonstrate too much during this type of class, so a good rule of thumb is to see what the person is next to you is doing, just to get an idea of how to enter the pose.

It is worth pointing out that as we gain more experience, we are encouraged to not look around the room during class so as to minimize comparing ourselves to others. Instead, we are encouraged to focus on our own breath and focus on the gazing point of that particular pose.

Related article:

Ashtanga Yoga Mysore Style Class

Most ashtanga yoga studios teach in a Mysore ashtanga class setting. Mysore is the town in the South of India where Ashtanga Yoga became popular and where Sri K Pattabhi Jois started teaching. Each year hundreds of experienced practitioners travel to Mysore to practice now under the guidance of Sharath Jois.

In a Mysore class, each practitioner flows through the set sequence at their own pace, following the rhythm of their own breath. At first, this can seem intimidating for a beginner. And yet, practicing in a Mysore style setting is very freeing as it slowly becomes a more internal practice and we are guided by our own breath. It is a great way to practice as beginners can practice alongside those with a more advanced practice.

Beginners are encouraged to attend Mysore-style classes and are commonly given a cheat sheet, which is a piece of paper with the poses shown.

Each time I have had beginners attend my Mysore classes I make a deal with them. I tell them to try it out for a month, as by that time they will have memorized most of the poses and they will have gotten a sense of what this type of practice is.

If they attend a Mysore class just once it is easy to feel overwhelmed and give up. Commitment is key.

Also, there are generally a lot of hands-on adjustments in an Ashtanga class. Adjustments done in the correct way can help to prevent any injury, to correct alignment, or to help the students get deeper into the pose.

If you would like more information on this type of class, you may like my article: Ashtanga Mysore Style: What Is It & Why It May Change Your Life

Two of my students practicing prasarita padotanasana d
ashtanga yoga for beginners

Bandhas in yoga

Bandhas are energy locks that are located in different parts of the body.

There are three main bandhas in yoga- mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, and Jalandhara Bandha. All three bandhas can be engaged and activated. Each bandha has the potential to improve your yoga practice. In ashtanga yoga, we mainly focus on mula bandha and uddiyana bandha.

For more information, check out my article: The 3 Main Bandhas in Yoga and How They Can Improve Your Practice

Ashtanga Yoga Benefits

Below I have listed some of the Ashtanga yoga benefits. To be as accurate as possible, they are all based on academic studies and I have provided the links to each study if you would like to get a bit more information.

No matter if you see the benefits of Ashtanga yoga from a scientific or spiritual point of view: what matters, in the end, is that your mind and body heal and benefit from the practice.

Ashtanga Yoga Benefit 1: Increase in Physical Strength

Many of the Ashtanga yoga poses require weight-bearing. And so when combined with the repetition of vinyasas throughout the seated postures it becomes clear that Ashtanga yoga can help build muscle strength.

study carried out in the US in 2004 involved 26 participants between the ages of 20 and 58, who were subscribed to six weeks of regular yoga. They were split into two groups; those who practiced Hatha and those who practiced Ashtanga.

The results showed that people in both groups showed an improvement in core and upper body strength. Perhaps not surprisingly, better results were seen with Ashtanga yoga, given that it is a more physically demanding practice.

Ashtanga Yoga Benefit 2: Increase In Flexibility

Yoga as a whole helps to improve flexibility. And so Ashtanga yoga is no different. Indeed, one study aimed to examine the effect of Ashtanga yoga on flexibility.

Twelve volunteers took part in this study and were split into two groups:

  • Group A – the yoga group which consisted of college-age, untrained females.
  • Group B – the control group which consisted of moderately active college-age females.

The yoga group did Ashtanga yoga twice a week for 3 months, while the control group did more traditional physical activity.

At the end of the three months, the results showed that the yoga group had increased upper body muscular endurance and increased trunk flexibility.

Ashtanga Yoga Benefit 3: Improvement In Well being (Depression, Anxiety, Self-esteem)

One study examined how effective Ashtanga yoga could be as an intervention to improve psychological well-being.

Thirty-one volunteers took part in the study. They did Ashtanga yoga twice a week for 9 weeks. The results of the study found that after the 9 weeks, the participants had:

significant improvements in depression
and anxiety symptoms, affect, self-esteem and interpersonal
functioning dimensions related to assertiveness, attention to
one’s needs and capacity to connect.

Ashtanga Yoga Benefit 4: Increase In Overall Health

One study examined the effect of Ashtanga yoga on autonomic homeostasis and respiratory function. Forty-eight volunteers took part in the study which involved two groups:

  • Group A – the wait-list control group
  • Group B – the Ashtanga yoga group, who practiced a modified version of Ashtanga yoga twice a week for 6 weeks.

The results of this study found that those in the Ashtanga yoga group showed significant improvements in a positive mood, fatigue, energy, quality of life, sleep quality, and short-term memory.

Ashtanga Yoga Benefit 5: Improvement In Weight Management And Wellbeing

One study aimed to examine how effective Ashtanga yoga was for weight management and psychological well-being in children and adolescents.

Fourteen children aged 8–15 years took part in the study. Interestingly, they were all required to have one of the following risk factors for type 2 diabetes:

  • Overweight
  • First degree relative with type 2 diabetes
  • Hispanic/African American descent

All children attended an Ashtanga yoga class 3 days a week for 12 weeks. Each class lasted approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes and involved a modified Ashtanga yoga sequence with pranayama and meditation.

The results of the study showed that:

Most participants lost an average of 2 kg after a 12-week program which is consistent with other weight-loss interventions. Also, participants demonstrated improvements in psychiatric inventories, suggesting Ashtanga yoga may provide mental health benefits.

For a more extended list of Ashtanga yoga benefits, you may like my article: 10 Wonderful Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga

Best Ashtanga Yoga Books

There is a growing number of Ashtanga yoga books. Some focus in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series, others on the Intermediate Series, while others focus on the philosophical side of the practice. And so there really is a wide selection of books for any part of the practice you may be interested in.

Here are just some that you may enjoy:

The Power of Ashtanga Yoga

For anyone practicing Ashtanga yoga, Kino McGregor is someone you will become very familiar with.

She has written several ashtanga yoga books and has a wide range of videos explaining many aspects of the Ashtanga yoga practice.

In The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, Kino initially takes us from the Ashtanga yoga history to the yoga diet and the Ashtanga yoga method.

She then breaks down each pose and provides a very clear and detailed analysis, followed by a display of the benefits of each pose.

Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy

My yoga teacher training gave me Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy. Even by a brief skim through it, it is easy to see why they chose this book.

This first half of the book focuses on asana. Pictures display each asana, and in some cases, a sketch showing the muscles at use is shown. This book is a perfect guide for aspiring teachers as it also contains the detailed vinyasa count as well as detailed instructions to enter and safely execute each pose.

The second half of the book focuses on yoga philosophy and the yoga sutras. Gregor Maehle explains each yoga sutra at length in an easy-to-understand manner.

The Art of Vinyasa

Written by two very well-respected teachers of Ashtanga, together, Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor explore this practice as a meditative form, rather than a physical practice in their book: The Art of Vinyasa.

Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor also provide very detailed information on how alignment and anatomy can work together in this practice.

Interestingly, this book does not follow the traditional, linear pattern for the set sequence of Ashtanga yoga. Instead, it interlinks the eight limbs and shows how to incorporate them into the physical practice.

For a more detailed list of my recommended Ashtanga yoga books read my article: The 23 Best Ashtanga Yoga Books

As a side note, if you are looking for an Ashtanga yoga mat, then check out my article: The BEST Yoga Mat for Ashtanga Yoga: Ashtanga Teacher review.

If you like analysis like this, and want support getting started with Ashtanga Yoga, my new course, Ashtanga Yoga for Beginners, might be just the place for you. Click here to get on the waiting list!

How often should you practice Ashtanga yoga?

As a general rule Ashtanga yoga is practiced 6 days a week. If that seems like a lot to you, start slow with maybe 2 or 3 times a week, and then with time, you will get a sense of whether you want to practice more or less. Aim to tailor the practice to your life and do what works best for you.

Is Ashtanga Yoga good for beginners?

Ashtanga yoga is good for beginners. In fact, most studios offer a beginner’s class which will either be a 1 hour led modified-led class where the teacher guides the students along the set sequence of postures. There will most likely be a lot of explaining so as to help the students into each pose.

Another way is for a beginner to start attending Mysore-style classes. In this setting, the teacher teaches the new student a small part of the primary sequence.

So for example in the first class, the teacher will teach the breath and the sun salutations. In the next class, the teacher may add some standing postures. And so this way the learning evolves. However, it is also up to the student to try to memorize the postures that were taught. This way each class will build on to what was learned in the previous class.

How do I remember Ashtanga Primary Series?

As a general rule, we memorize the ashtanga yoga poses by practicing them regularly. That really is the key to learning the poses. Each time we repeat what we learned in the last class. And this way slowly but surely we begin to learn the poses in the Ashtanga yoga primary series.

If you are wondering how long it takes to learn the Ashtanga yoga primary series, check out my article: How Long To Learn Ashtanga Primary Series (Plus My 10 Tips To Help)

How many series of Ashtanga yoga are there?

There are six series of Ashtanga Yoga that get progressively more physically and mentally demanding. The truth is that most people practice the ashtanga yoga primary series. The reason is that there are certain requirements to progress to the following series.

For those who are able to flow through the Primary Series and able to improve their back-bending the such a level that they can go to backbend from standing and then stand up from a backbend, then they may be also to progress to the Intermediate series. And from there few will move on to the advanced series. What is important to point out is we should try to focus on the journey rather than the end goal or the fancy pose!

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