Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga Practice

The daily yoga practice that the Ashtanga tradition calls for generates many benefits. Though these benefits may be experienced from the beginning, they continually evolve such that even those aspects that seemed most unbeneficial to a beginner practitioner may be viewed as paradoxically extremely helpful ten or twenty years down the line. We can classify the benefits of Ashtanga practice into a few separate categories.

The physical benefits that this practice yields consist most simply in strengthening and toning the body. This process of body work directs practitioners to locate a somatic balance between strength and flexibility in their own bodies. In the process, practitioners will find themselves confronted with deeply held patterns of being or residing in the body. As the practice moves us towards alignment, we are afforded an opportunity to re-pattern the way we use and experience our bodies.

The suppleness of body which the practice generates allows us to transfer or translate this quality of malleable agility to the mind and psyche. Psychological and emotional benefits ensue as practitioners become increasingly able to access a mode of non-reaction in response to the various experiences of suffering that arise from conditioned existence. Rather than feeling ourselves (mis)directed by our continually transforming emotions, ashtanga yoga practice affords a sense of space in which to observe our process of living. This expanse becomes replicated at the level of intellect as well. 

The mental benefits of practice consist in the development of a non-absolutist openness to ourselves and our surroundings. This receptive approach that is honed by yoga practice allows us to pursue and apprehend knowledge in a different experience of intellect. In this alternative mode of learning, the mind, rather than merely imposing its labels and categories on the objects perceived, remains open to itself and its others, allowing them to manifest themselves. 

Read more about the benefits of ashtanga yoga practice in the following excerpt from Gregor Maehle.

© Gregor Maehle (Excerpted from Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy, New World Library, 2007)

Ashtanga Yoga is the royal eightfold yoga, standardized by the ancient sage Patanjali. It's outset and conclusion is the state of unlimited ecstasy and freedom that forms the core of our being. Patanjali calls this state objectless samadhi, the Upanishads refer to it as the heart. As human society and it's individuals evolved more and more away from this true and original state, eight sequential steps were presented to get each individual back from wherever their current position is, back into contact with their heart.

The practice of these eight limbs can take up a copious amount of time of one's daily life. Since yoga and the Vedas out of which it grew are life affirmative, the Vedic Seer Vamana presented Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, a practice for householders-people with family and a job or business-in which the eight limbs were practiced simultaneously, not sequentially. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a presentation of Ashtanga Yoga, designed for urban people with time constraints.

Ashtanga Yoga employs a multitude of techniques, such as postures, breathing, concentration and meditation exercises. We could call it the yoga of techniques.

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga differs from other forms of yoga in that it is dynamic, whereas most forms are static.

The benefits may be grouped into four categories: physical, emotional, mental and intellectual benefits. The physical benefits consist of making the body free of disease, making it light and strong so that it can be a suitable vehicle on the path to freedom. Through yoga the body is made to absorb and retain prana, which extends the life span.

The emotional benefits consist briefly in being able to not be a slave to one's emotions but to remain the witness. Most of our suffering is caused by emotions. These emotions may become unbearable by identifying with them and often may cause negative results if we follow their urge. It's important to know the difference between emotions and feelings. A feeling is an authentic sensation arising in the present moment such as love. An emotion is a reliving of a previously imprinted condition. For example because we have been hurt in the past we are acting in the present moment not out of love but out of jealousy or fear. Whenever we are emoting, we are in the past; whenever we are feeling, we are in the present. Yoga makes you feel more intensely because it removes layers of old conditioning.

The mind is seen in yoga as a computer, which analyses sensory data. It projects all objects cognised in the past onto a present object that needs to be identified. If it achieves what it believes to be sufficient congruency it signals that it has 're-cognized' the object as one of the objects previously cognised. This is the whole tragedy of the human being. Mind is an application, which projects past onto the future. As long as one is in the sway of the mind, one is, according to yoga, a living corpse. … Recognizing oneself as the immortal, infinite consciousness is to be alive for the first time.

Intellect, similar to the egoic body/mind and the world of objects, is something that grows and evolves as opposed to consciousness/awareness/self, which exists in an eternal state of perfection. Everything that grows and evolves however is, according to yoga, made up of the various combinations of the three elementary particles (guna) of nature (prakrti), which we may call mass (tamas), energy (rajas) and information/intelligence (sattva). An intellect with a preponderance to tamas is too dull to recognize the truth, whereas the intellect with a preponderance to rajas contains to much frenzy to penetrate to the truth. It is only the intellect, which has been made sattvic through the practice of higher yoga, visualization, meditation and samadhi that is capable of seeing the world as it really is (prajna).

In practicing yoga, we need to have an undogmatic openness, and a questioning, examining attitude to make progress. Yoga is rather a science (vidya), than a religion. The process of yoga is the pursuit of knowledge and its aim is the attainment thereof. Firstly, we gain knowledge of external objects and our own body, mind, egoity and intellect and only once that is faultless, do we progress to knowledge of the self.

The wide range of yogic breathing exercises is collectively referred to as pranayama. Pranayama is a compound noun, consisting of prana and ayama. The Sanskrit term prana denotes life force. Since life force is thought to have an air-like quality it is sometimes translated as inner or subtle breath. In some contexts prana simply means breath or even air. The full term pranayama means extension of prana. Extension of prana stands for life extension in a qualitative and quantitative sense. It is thought to not only increase the life span but also increase vitality.

The reason why breathing exercises are given such importance in yoga is that it is thought that the pulsating or oscillating of prana happens simultaneously with the movements of the mind (chitta vrtti). The practice of pranayama therefore is the study and exercise of one's breath to a point where it is appeased and does not agitate the mind.

The basic yogic breathing exercise is ujjayi pranayama (victorious extending of the breath). It is practiced by producing a gentle hissing sound through slightly contracting/closing the epiglottis as one breathes. The epiglottis is believed to function as a valve and by half-closing it the body is pumped up with prana (life force). The various asanas (postures) are used to become aware of all areas of the body. Where awareness goes-according to the traditional teaching-there goes life force. Chronic diseases are believed to develop where awareness is permanently lacking. The yogi learns to breathe into all parts of the body, an act that is equivalent to evenly spreading the prana throughout the body.

Yoga uses actively both the abdomen and the thorax to breathe. To describe this method of breathing D. Coulter has suggested the term 'thoraco-diaphragmatic breathing.' The intercostals are here exercised through actively exhaling. The air is literally pumped out of the lungs until all that remains is the respiratory rest volume, the amount of air left after a full exhalation. The aim is to breathe more deeply so as to increase vitality. The way to achieve this is not by inhaling as much as possible but by first exhaling completely in order to create space for the new inhalation.

Yogic tradition gives two vital reasons for wanting to increase breath volume. Firstly, by increasing our inhalation we increase the amount of oxygen supplied. Secondly, by increasing our exhalation we more efficiently exhale toxins, including mental, emotional, physical toxins, and environmental toxins.

Yoga sees these toxins to be held and stored in the body in 'stale' areas where there is only a small amount of oxygen, often around the joints or in adipose tissue. The build-up of these toxins-a literal energetic dying of certain body areas long before the death of the entire organism-is thought to eventually lead to chronic disease. By breathing deeply, exhaling accumulated toxins and inhaling oxygen, the yogi attempts to return the body to its original state of health.

Gregor Maehle has studied yoga for twenty-five years, focusing on his study of ashtanga yoga for the last seventeen years. In 1997, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois authorized him to teach ashtanga yoga. He is a passionate student of Sanskrit and formally studied anatomy and physiology in his native Germany. He is the cofounder and director of 8 Limbs Ashtanga Yoga studio in Perth, Australia. His website is www.8limbs.com