for www.x4x5.com ASHTANGA YOGA The Inside Out Path to Total Fitness by Fara Kearnes Sit cross-legged with your hands on your knees. Focus on your breath, while keeping your back straight, and allow your knees to gently lower to the floor. Take five to ten slow, deep breaths. On the next inhale, raise your arms over your head. As you exhale, bring the arms down slowly. You’ve just experienced a beginning yoga pose called Sukhansana. Simple, yet amazingly effective. Ashtanga yoga’s dynamic exercises blend breathing and movement allowing your inner essence to unfold naturally, without strain. Some call it the most physical yoga, yet with proper instruction, the workouts are an efficient and, best of all, pain-free way to achieve total fitness. The Most Talked About Form of Yoga Today What seemed to evolve from the om-chanting flower children of the sixties has actually been around for centuries and remains enormously popular today. Celebrities such as Madonna, Sting, and Demi Moore are devoted to the daily practice of Ashtanga Yoga, also known as Power Yoga. In North America alone, over 18 million Americans are reported to be practicing some form of yoga and are reaping the benefits of improvements in strength, flexibility, weight control, increased cardiovascular and energy levels, an enhanced immune system, and stress reduction. Since yoga focuses on exercise, breathing, and meditation, the combination works on the body from the inside out to increase efficiency which improves overall health. In a recent study done at the University of California-Davis, test subjects were measured before and after an eight-week period in which they practiced yoga four times per week. The participants showed a remarked improvement in: muscular strength, which increased by 31 percent; muscular endurance, by as much as 57 percent; and flexibility, which improved in some cases 188 percent. Even the uptake of oxygen entering the lungs, bloodstream and muscles, showed an increased of up to 7 percent. Such results should not come as a surprise to anyone. Contrary to Western perceptions, strength, stamina and sweat, and not just meditation, have long been fundamental aspects of yoga. The Origins of Ashtanga The roots of yoga go back about 5,000 years to India; the pure form of Ashtanga yoga is said to be between 500 and 1500 years old, and is based on the teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. The word Ashtanga comes from the words ashta (eight) and anga (limbs), and it was described in classical yoga writings as having eight major parts, referred as to the “Eight Limbs of Yoga.” Yoga means “union”; a union of the body, mind and breath. Modern Ashtanga yoga and its physical demands are what differs it from its yoga cousins, for example: Mantra yoga is a spiritual practice focusing on chanting; Iyengar yoga incorporates the use of various props such as cushions, straps and wood blocks; and Bikram yoga is a form of “hot yoga,” which is performed in a room heated to 100-110 degrees to facilitate sweating. While there are about forty different forms of yoga, no one is better than another, and they all provide similar benefits for your mind and body. Ashtanga Vinyasa: Salute to the Sun The basis of yoga is a series of twelve sequential poses beginning with a group called the sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) performed in a single, graceful flow. Different styles of yoga perform the Sun Salutation with their own variations. In yoga, the movement is initiated internally at the core of the body, rather than in the outer muscle. As you move from one asana (posture) to another, your body produces an intense internal heat that purifies muscles and organs, and expels unwanted toxins through a strong, cleansing sweat. This dynamic flow of moving meditation linked together with breathing technique, is called vinyasa. Vi means “to go” and nyasa means “placing” so the term describes the method of entering and exiting an asana. Asanas are grouped into six series; each series unlocks a particular aspect of the body and the mind. The primary series [Yoga Chikitsa] are designed to detoxify and align the body. The second series [Nadi Shodhana] strengthens the nervous system and opens the energy channels that link the seven chakras, while the Advanced Series [Sthira Bhaga] integrate strength and grace to achieve divine stability. Some examples of yoga poses, increasing in difficulty, are: • The Downward Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) : Start on all fours with knees under hips and the hands shoulder-width apart. Inhale, arch your spine, and look up. As you exhale, straighten your legs and pause. Push on you hands, positioning your body to form an inverted V, achieving a straight line from your hands to your shoulders to your hips. As you inhale, press downward into your hands and lift outward out of the shoulders, keeping your head between your upper arms. • An intermediate asana, The Bow pose (Dharnur-asana): Lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides with palms facing upward. With your chin on the floor, exhale, bend your knees, reach back and grasp your ankles. While inhaling, slowly raise the legs by pulling the ankles up and raising the knees off the floor while lifting your chest off the floor. Lift your head as far back as possible and hold the posture as long as you can comfortably hold the inhale breath. As you slowly exhale, bring your knees to the floor, release your ankles, and lower the legs and arms straight down on the floor, assuming the prone posture you began with. • An advanced asana, a headstand pose (Sirsha-asana): Start in a kneeling position, lean forward and place the forearms on the floor, keeping your elbows about shoulder distance apart. Clasp your hands together to form a tripod, raise your hips and place your head on the floor between your interlocked fingers. Lift your knees off the floor and raise the hips. When your back is vertical, slowly lift your feet off floor, and bring your knees in to your chest. Balance with the knees bent until steady, and then slowly raise your feet until your legs are straight up. Many of the poses may seem easy, but the difficulty is increased with the length of time that each asana is held and the repetition of each vinyasa (series of poses). Asanas are taught in a sequential order and each level is to be developed fully before proceeding to the next level. This gradual training develops the strength and balance required for more advanced levels. The No Pain Advantage Yoga’s flowing movements will stretch and lengthen muscle fibers causing the muscles in the back, legs, chest and arms, to become stronger and streamlined, permitting more oxygen-rich blood to flow through them. In comparison, weight training can cause to muscles to tighten, making them stressed and congested with lactic acid, and it also increases the load on your joints. Ashtanga practices will keep the body moving so the muscles stay warm and lubricated. Popular asanas, such as Downward Facing Dog listed above, helps to strengthen, stretch and reduce stiffness in the legs while strengthening and shaping your upper body. Regular practice of this pose in the Sun Salutation rejuvenates the body and gently stimulates your nervous system. While Ashtanga is demanding, with daily practice your flexibility and strength will improve over time. Even if you are practicing only the physical aspects of yoga, you will reap healthy benefits and leave each session feeling invigorated, having washed away stress and tension. Who can practice Ashtanga Yoga? Don’t let its reputation dissuade you; every pose can be modified so that Ashtanga can be practiced by anyone at any fitness level. If you want to get started in yoga, you should talk to a local instructor with credentials (at least 200 hours of certified training). A class won’t be hard to find since yoga is offered at most health clubs and fitness centers everywhere. Plan on attending class twice a week or more, and you should begin to see results in 3 to 4 weeks. After each class you should feel calm, rejuvenated and not in any physical discomfort. It is encouraging that a dynamic form of exercise so deep and basic, known for thousands of years, has been reawakened. Give yourself the time, free from interruption, to once a day sit on a mat, and get into direct contact with your inner, most powerful resources. If you have the motivation and determination to progress, and want to begin the life-long path of well-being and total fitness, then Ashtanga yoga is for you.