August 2012 – Ashtanga Yoga – Why We Do What We Do

Topic of the Month
August 2012

Ashtanga yoga is different from other forms of yoga. We have some very specific — and what may seem odd to many people — things we do. But it is all for a reason, I will try to explain so our ashtanga yoga is not so misunderstood.

The first issue I want to address since it is summer time here in our Penn’s Woods is why we avoid turning on the A/C. There are several reasons to this:

  • Heat aids our body in the removal of toxins from the organs to the bloodstream where our body can discard them. This is also why we build heat with our breath, bandhas, and vinyasa to aid in the removal of toxins. Enjoy the warm weather and getting a deeper detox.
  • Also when the weather is hot our muscles relax more (in an air conditioned room your muscles will start to tighten up), this allows us to get deeper in the postures therefore getting a deeper squeezing of the organs wringing out even more toxins.
  • Sweat, sweat is good for your skin. Once you are eating a fairly clean diet your sweat has beneficial minerals in it that you want to rub back into your skin. The Yogis say you should not rub off your sweat with a towel, but rub it in. Especially on your face and arms. This will keep your skin youthful. There is also a natural anti-bacterial agent in sweat called dermicidin, it is reportedly active against many different types of bacteria (including E-Coli, Enterococcus faecalis, the Staph infection, and the common fungus Candida albicans).
  • Air conditioned air lacks prana or negative ions. Negative Ions in our air are what gives the O2 we breathe vitality. They are active very mobile little ions that constantly move, they also bind to toxins in the air cleaning the air we breath. Fresh moving air is a rich source of negative ions or prana in the air we breathe.
  • Over time your body will adapt to the heat, and it won’t bother you whether you are on your yoga mat or walking outside . . . Its a short term inconvenience for long term improvement.
  • Still feeling hot? Check out what you are wearing. If you are wearing a lot of polyester your skin can not breathe . . . wearing polyester is basically like wearing plastic soda bottles. I know all the media tells you the polyester wicks moisture away . . . and maybe it does, but it does not allow air to get to your skin. Basically you are suffocating your skin wherever you are wearing polyester. 100% cotton is best, it is breathable and allows the exchange of prana between the atmosphere and our skin — polyester does not allow this.

The lack of a/c is a short term inconvenience for a long term improvement. So enjoy the sweat, come and have a hot sweaty deep practice. I’ve come to love my sweaty summer practices 🙂


is only a SIDE EFFECT!! Many people think we do yoga to get flexible, this is not true. We do the poses first for the breathing system, to learn how to use our breath to get more O2 to each cell and to calm the nervous system thereby removing stress and tension from our bodies. Stress is the root cause of most all disease. AND we do postures to wring out our internal organs — internal cleansing. When you are in a posture you are squeezing the internal organs — literally wringing them out, squeezing out stale blood and toxins, when you release the posture fresh blood, O2, and nutrients are brought into the organs. This is how we keep disease from settling into the body, stale blood that does not get regularly circulated is where disease and cancer starts in our bodies.


The jumping in sun salutes and standing poses serves a purpose. First of all according to the yogic texts jumping:

  • wakes up the whole body throwing off lethargy and brain fatigue

Also known from science and my exercise background, the jumping:

  • improves bone density
  • teaches you to use your core support (bandhas)
  • increases intensity
  • “the Burpee” – I came across a fitness article about the benefits of doing “the burpee”, which is basically the same thing we do in every sun salute . . . from standing you jump back to a push up position and jump forward back up to a standing position: from
  • Developed in the ’30s by Dr. Royal H. Burpee — a Renaissance man who was an author, a physical fitness fanatic and a psychologist, the Burpee was created by Dr. Burpee as part of his PhD at Columbia University. The Burpee has historically been used by the military to test recruits for strength and agility. In recent decades, the larger population caught onto the move’s full-body calorie-blasting fitness benefits. The best part: Anyone can do it anywhere, at anytime.
  • Highly Effective Simple Exercise that Requires No Equipment, Gym, or Trainer
  • The reason why the Burpee is “the one” end-all, be-all exercise: It is a full body exercise used in strength training and as aerobic and anaerobic exercise.
  • It effects your entire body, working out your legs, arms, chest, back, abs, and glutes.
  • It is a phenomenal strength trainer because you are pushing and lifting your own weight, and building serious muscle.
  • The Burpee burns 50% more fat than conventional strength training. In other words, you can work out half the time and burn just as much fat. Burpees, like other strength training moves, also give your metabolism a boost. This is largely because it is a powerful anaerobic stimulus and falls into the Peak Fitness type of high intensity exercise training.
  • The Burpee can be performed anywhere, and anytime for free.
  • It is also a cardio-respiratory workout. If you do Burpees you can effectively raise your heart rate to target levels by doing a brief set of burpees.


The intensity in the practice is there for a reason:
Our bodies need short bursts of intensity for health and fitness
intensity training has been shown to improve heart function better than endurance training (marathoners actually have a higher risk of heart attack!)
Work the areas of intensity in the practice to the point where you become breathless, then keep your practice flowing as you recover. This will strengthen your heart and cardiovascular system.

Fidgets ruin flow and intensity . . .


Vinyasa does not mean doing updog/downdog between the postures . . .
Vinyasa is to align you with your breath:

  • moving in rhythm to your breath calms our minds and energizes our bodies
  • helps us keep our breath between postures! when we hold our breath and try to get into a posture we have the highest risk of hurting ourselves
  • better to focus on vinyasa counts than alignment – alignment puts you too much in your head
  • the verse ‘o yogi don’t do asana without vinyasa’ is referring to rhythm and intensity in the practice not to doing updog/downdog


And this is why ashtangis are sometimes accused of sloppy yoga, in time the repetition of the practice will teach you form and alignment — and yes we do need to focus on our alignment when we are new to the practice but after a bit of time when our bodies learn the poses most benefit will come from keeping rhythm.


Keeping a rhythm with your practice also helps keep the intensity. And our BODY LIKES RHYTHM. Our heart beat needs rhythm, our universe operates on rhythm from the rotation of the earth around the sun to night and day.

  • Rhythm in our work reduces muscular and intellectual fatigue
  • the duration of each breath has less importance than keeping a rhythm
  • Our ashtanga practice is very much about rhythm this is why we have a pace and a vinyasa count and why we want to keep our breath “sama vrtti pranayama” equal and rhythmic.
  • Our best rhythm is to our heart beat. Learn to sense your heart beat and match your breath to your heart beat. A nice rhythm to start with is 4 or 5 beats per inhale and exhale. When not in practice a nice rhythm to try is inhale 4 beats, exhale 6 beats.


Ashtanga yoga has more inversions in it than any other form of yoga, each series has more and more inversions in it. Inversions are very beneficial, they serve a purpose. I would like to explain why especially since that horrid NY TImes article that came out early in 2012 about yoga and injuries, in that article they really knocked inversions, but inversions can learn to be done safely. You progress into them slowly after taking time to learn the inner workings of the practice, the inversions come much easier. If you push your body into them before you are ready for them you will have a much higher risk of hurting yourself.

  • Inversions go back to internal cleansing. They are firstly about blood flow — draining stale blood from the organs. Unless we max out our heart rate our blood does not fully circulate through our organs – some “stale” blood starts to accumulate in the lower portions of the organs, it is in this stale blood that toxins turn into disease and cancer. When you turn upside down (as well as when you stick your heel in your gut and forward bend) you are draining stale blood (and lymph) out of your organs, and back into the circulatory system where the blood is cleaned out oxygenated taking fresh nutrients and oxygen to the cells in our organs. In yoga philosophy this is why they say inversions purify our blood.
  • Also, the reverse action of gravity on the body encourages a rich supply of blood flow to the brain and eyes nourishing the neurons and flushing out toxins. This is believed to enhance our concentration and mental capacity. The power of memory is also increased.
  • The eyes are purified with an inflow of warm blood helping to prevent eye diseases. The yogis say this also gives our eyes glow, and long sightedness improves.
  • Enriched blood flow is also directed toward the throat (and head) where we house our master glands; the pituitary, pineal, and thyroid are brought into balance particularly by the practice of shoulderstand and Matsyasana, balancing our entire endocrine/hormonal system.
  • Breathing upside down aids the exhale, the weight of the abdominal organs against the underside of the diaphragm causes you to exhale more completely and correctly, maximizing the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. Gravity is pushing the abdominal organs onto the diaphragm lengthening the muscular fibers nearly to their maximum giving us a deep exhale and a deeper “detoxing” of carbon dioxide which makes space for more oxygen to come in on the next inhale giving us a deep and satisfying inhale. Also while inverted the inhale will be working the diaphragm harder to push the organs inferiorly (toward the ceiling) as it draws air into the lungs; this strengthens the diaphragm.
  • Reversing gravity is also good for our organs keeping them from prolapsing, it is good for our spine and helps to prevent and heal back pain by changing the pressure on our discs. It is good for our skin and helps to prevent wrinkles . . .
  • The 7th chakra is purified — this and all the above is why yogic texts say when you invert your youthfulness will manifest. This is also why we do not put weight on our head in headstand, if you put too much weight on your head it blocks blood flow to the crown of your head, we want to get blood flow fully to all the tissues to allow them to regenerate.
  • Inversions are very good for your lower extremities, if you have to stand a lot or get swelling in your lower legs inversions will relieve swelling. Inversions are also good to relieve varicose veins. A gentleman that comes to my studio who used to have swelling issues in his legs, the Dr. told him to lay with his legs up a wall . . . since he was been doing ashtanga yoga he does not even have to do that anymore.
  • And the fun side of inverting . . . Psychologically inversions turn our world upside down, giving us a new perspective in life. When we get comfortable being upside down, it is not such a drama when our lives get overturned, we are better able to function and move forward in any situation.
  • Inversions also increase self-confidence, learning how to turn upside and land and catch yourself if you fall is very empowering.


Don’t let the physicality of this practice fool you. What you can’t see, what’s going on on the inside is more important – breathing, bandhas, thoughts, emotions, internal cleansing, etc. The physicality is there to heat the body up for the removal of toxins and to keep our body healthy and fit. This practice is not about being able to jump lightly to chaturanga or float up into headstand . . . although those things will come with consistent practice.

DON’T PUSH — LET IT COME TO YOU — asthanga yoga is not militant

Do your practice consistently and the lightness and the flexibility the binds, the inversions, etc. will come to you. Slip into your yoga like a comfortable pair of jeans 🙂


Maybe the new way ashtanga yoga is being taught is making it a big deal — its not. Its just a series of poses. You are not a super yogi if you learn second, you are not special because you do second series.

Primary and Second series are not linear, the poses do NOT progress from easier to harder. Some of the poses in Second series are easier than primary — shalabasana is the most prescribed exercise for back pain by physical therapists . . . Take a beginner Kripalu class and you will be doing shalabasana and ustrasana . . .

Doing second series is not about what your body can do (like drop backs) its about consistency and time in your practice. So you can remove all the performance anxiety. If you have been practicing consistently for about a year you want to learn second series to get the counter balance of forward bending in primary. And some people even sooner if they need back bending for therapeutic reasons like a disc related issue, sciatica, or sacral pain.

Some other little specifics that we do:

BIG TOE GRIPS aka “The Ashtanga Finger Lock System”
We specifically grip our big toes and hold the outer edges of our feet with our thumbs pressing on our big toe tendon and fingers on bottom of foot:

  • reflexology and acupuncture K1 point on bottom of foot connects to all other meridians in your body , the hand to foot positions are touching on reflexology points.
  • Gripping your fingers with your big toe strengthens the bottom of the foot and aids in preventing plantar fasciitis and heel spurs. It also helps to redevelop the arch of your foot.
  • ENERGY CIRCUITS – hands to feet, head to knee, underarm to thigh, tongue on roof of mouth – these are all connection points — meridians in our body, when we “plug” into them they keep our energy circulating in our body much like plugging a plug into an outlet.

ANJALI MUDRA HANDS (palms together on overhead movements) – similar to above, they have a purpose, you are performing a mudra. A mudra is a hand and/or body position that encourages energy flow in our body. Anjali mudra (hands in prayer position) represents bringing together our right and left sides of our body, masculine with feminine, strength with receptivity. Bringing your hands together helps to keep our opposing energies in balance in our body.

To do anjali mudra safely overhead keep your arms in front of your ears and look up toward your thumbs. If you pull your arms back too far (to your ears or behind them) with your palms together this will be uncomfortable in your shoulders. To do Anjali Mudra overhead safely keep your arms in front of your ears or at your cheeks.

This little movement will help us keep the Masculine and the Feminine energies in balance in our practice as well, in Ashtanga it is very easy to focus on the masculine aspect and lose the receptivity of the postures. If we are pushing too much in the postures we are not receptive, we are not receiving the posture and allowing it to influence us. With Anjali Mudra we remember to relax and breathe in our postures and be receptive.


Rolling over the toes and putting the tops of your feet on the floor as we do in Upward Facing Dog. is good for your ankles and the arches of your feet. Rarely do we stretch our ankles all the way open as we do in a full updog. When we keep our ankles dorsi flexed as in standing they get very stiff and lose mobility. Moving the ankle joint through its range of motion will help keep your feet and lower body pain free and healthier. As you develop flexibility in your ankles it will also make other poses easier like tirianga mukha eka pada paschimattanasana.


Our body is not symmetrical . . . so if you think you need to practice left leg in half lotus to be balanced you are not looking deep enough . . . inside . . . our organs, heart, and lungs are not symmetrical. Ashtanga yoga is not about the physical body, but more about what is going on in the inside — energy and breathing.

  • Right leg in lotus first aligns the heels better to press on your liver and spleen to wring them out and keep them in balance. The liver controls fat digestion and aids in your metabolism. The spleen purifies your blood and keeps your immune system healthy.
  • Energy moves in a pattern in our body, you want to encourage that flow. Right leg in lotus first follows the energetic patterns in the body –Nancy had two friends who liked to meditate in lotus left leg first . . . one died of liver disease and one had to have his spleen removed . . . she did say there might not be any connection . . .
  • Although, once you become enlightened your energy reverses, so then you do left leg first. This is why in all the pictures of buddha he has his left leg in lotus first. Monks are taught right leg in lotus first until they reach enlightenment.

All this information is just the start of a full 2 hour workshop, but enough for this monthly topic. I also want to touch on how to practice Asthanga yoga so you can practice for the rest of your life. Much of it has to do with finding the balance with the masculine and the feminine.


The “goal” of yoga is peace of mind . . . put that in perspective. It is not about binding, jumping through, or getting handstand. Keep this in your mind as you practice. Are you developing peace of mind? Or anguish because you are pushing your body to do some trick?

Lazy people do not do ashtanga yoga . . . 😉 those of us that are drawn to ashtanga yoga tend to be more type “A” personalities and therefore work harder than we need to!

DO NOT PUSH yourself in the postures, relax and breath — be receptive. The feminine aspect. And I would not recommend classes with someone who gives hard adjustments. The body work side of Ashtanga (adjustments) is very beneficial and feels good, however the adjustments should be gentle and moving with the flow of the energy and musculature. No one should be pushing your body into a posture. A little guiding here and there and a tuck or lift is helpful. This also helps your body and nervous system feel the posture and know you can do it, in time you will find it on your own.

Intense practices are counter-productive. I have heard this new term being used when someone hurts them self in a yoga pose — openings. I don’t like it. If you pull or tear tissues this is not an opening in your body, it is tearing tissue. Please don’t have openings in your yoga practice.

Our body releases hormones and neurotransmitters to give us energy; in our practice we want to encourage the feel good chemicals without the “stress” chemicals:

  • When under stress our body releases Adrenaline to give us the energy to run or fight.  If we run and/or fight we used up the adrenaline in our system.  if you do not it is stored in our bodies, in our muscle tissues, where it creates toxins and leads to tension and tightness.  Adrenaline is created under stressful situations whether or not the threat is real or imagined, so our thoughts alone can create adrenaline!  When you feel stress — physically or emotionally, your body creates adrenaline.  Pushing in your practice to “succeed” or get a posture or a ‘release’ will create adrenaline.  We want to use our practice to feel good, not to create more stress and tension.
  • Endorphins are released with physical exertion.  They are capable of lowering stress and causing pleasurable sensations similar to opiates, but in a good way (aka the Yoga high :).  If your work in yoga is pleasurable you will create endorphins but NOT adrenaline.  This is desirable.  If your work is stressed you will create endorphins AND adrenaline (studies show that video games create both since they stimulate the fight or flight response . . . but just working out does not — yoga is a work-in by the way, not a work out 😉
  • Serotonin, melatonin, and GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid — a neurotransmitter) are released into our body with meditation and deep breathing.
  • Serotonin influences happy mood and behavior; a lack of serotonin leads to depression, obesity, insomnia, headaches, pms, fibromyalgia, among other disorders.
  • Melatonin is a hormone manufactured by the pineal gland (from the amino acid tryptophan).  Levels of melatonin in the blood peak before bedtime to create restful sleep.  Melatonin is also a powerful anti-oxidant.  Stress lowers melatonin levels.
    • The hormone melatonin produces a number of health benefits in terms of your immune system. It’s a powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger that helps combat inflammation. In fact, melatonin is so integral to your immune system that a lack of it causes your thymus gland, a key component of your immune system, to atrophy.(1)  Melatonin may even have a role in slowing the aging of your brain.  In addition to helping you fall asleep and bestowing a feeling of overall comfort and well being, melatonin has proven to have an impressive array of anti-cancer benefits.(2)  Melatonin inhibits the proliferation of a wide range of cancer cell types, as well as triggering cancer cell apoptosis (self destruction). The hormone also interferes with the new blood supply tumors require for their rapid growth (angiogenesis).(3) Melatonin can boost efficacy and decrease the toxicity of cancer chemotherapy.(4)
  • GABA is best known for stabilizing mood disorders.  Anxiety, tension, insomnia and epilepsy are related to low levels of GABA.

You choose how you want to practice — you can create the joy chemicals, serotonin and  endorphins, by breathing deep and relaxing and enjoying your practice.  Or you can create adrenaline by pushing too hard for all the fun and fancy “tricks” of the practice . . .

When your practice makes you feel good you WANT to practice 🙂  Practicing in a way that makes you feel good also creates positive thoughts and feelings.  Positive thoughts attract positivity in your life.  Pushing in your practice and creating adrenaline is a fear hormone, fear comes with negative thoughts, negative thoughts attract negativity to you.

If you feel pain or tightness or tension in a posture, don’t push through it.  Relax and breathe it in, invite it.  This stored tension is a stored memory (the issues are in the tissues . . .)  Welcome these discoveries of tightness with a mothers nurturing compassion.  There is a part of you that has witnessed all these little hurts and sufferings since you were a child.  Allow them to release, use your breath as a healing balm relaxing the tensions that are trapping in the tightness so those feelings can release our body and mind from their bondage and negative thoughts.

To practice for a lifetime, use your practice to BREATHE BETTER. Then take this breath with you through your day and wherever you go. Nice thing about your breath is you can take it with you wherever you go 😉
Breathing deeper:

  • Lowers your HR and BP
  • Improves health at a cellular level by allowing more time for gas exchanges — the cell to take in O2 and give off CO2
  • Reduces stress and tension in your body
  • Calms your nervous system
  • Calms our minds


and carry this with you throughout your day.
Methods to help make your practice a moving meditation:

  • Hindu Method = Mantra. Mantra in Sanskrit is Mind Stop. Man = Mind Tra = Stop
  • Use a mantra in your practice, you can make up your own or use a traditional mantra such as the mantra that goes with the sun salutes:
  • Buddhist Method = Mindfulness of Breath – most common in Ashtanga and in the West. Turn your attention to your breath during practice, keep it rhythmic deep and strong.


. . . it builds up tension. Using our brain is more tiring than physical exercise!

ASANA IS TO KEEP YOUR PHYSICAL BODY HEALTHY — It is not about getting flexible.

  • Use your practice to heal and rejuvenate. Give you Vitality.
  • To focus on our spiritual nature, which is where ease and happiness happens, we need to be pain free. If we are in pain meditation will not happen — MEDITATION WITH A TOOTHACHE DOES NOT WORK . . .

Yogis figured out you must be well to make your life a moving meditation. Use your asana to be well . . . not to make an asana of yourself.

DAILY PRACTICE is important to connect you each day with your breath and meditative state — It need Not be obsessive. 2-3x per week come to studio and get full practice, 2-3x per week practice at home. Short and half series practices count and are very beneficial. You want yoga to enhance your life not be your life.


Comments are closed.