Ashtanga (or astanga) Yoga is one of the oldest yoga “brands". By that I mean not that anyone has tried to trademark it, but that it is a distinct style of yoga with a single guru as figurehead: Sri K. Patthabi Jois of Mysore (1915-2009). Jois began studying yoga in the 1920s, and is responsible for developing and popularising a dynamic form of yoga characterised by set sequences of yoga postures, linked together in a special order. Recent scholarship has shown that this style of yoga was influenced by European bodybuilding and gymnastic exercise systems, which became popular in India during the early 20th century.
What happens in class?
There are two main types of ashtanga class: 'led' (or sometimes 'taught'), and 'Mysore style'. In a 'led' class, the teacher talks the students through one of Jois' six series of postures. The majority of ashtanga classes focus on the Primary Series: 41 asana and variations, linked together by dynamic sequences called vinyasa. Expect to sweat, and get out of breath: this is a challenging cardiovascular work out. Completing the entire primary series takes 1½ to 2 hours, and it's intended to leave you wrung out – 'purified' in mind and body.
'Mysore style' is the traditional way to learn ashtanga. Generally held in the early morning, these sessions allow a group of students to work through the sequence at their own pace, with one or two teachers moving around the room to offer individual tips and hands-on adjustments. Serious students of ashtanga yoga expect to practice every day, except for Saturdays and the two days each month when the moon is either full or new.
Ashtanga is a tough physical discipline so it's self-selecting to some extent – most students are quite physically fit. It also attracts more men than some of the gentler forms of yoga. It tends to appeal to competitive high achievers, looking for a mental and physical challenge. But they aren't necessarily the people who should be doing it! Often, those who are already intense and driven off the mat would benefit from a more passive, mindful yoga practice; while some of those who struggle to get motivated in daily life could use a dose of ashtanga fire.
Who should avoid it?
There has been recent controversyaround the high incidence of injuries amongst practitioners of dynamic yoga forms like ashtanga yoga. It's certainly true that in the hands of inexperienced students and teachers, the combination of fast-paced movement, difficult postures and strong hands-on adjustments definitely ups the risk factor for torn rotator cuffs, busted wrists and knees and (very rarely) spinal injuries.
Of course, you also risk these types of injuries in other vigorous physical pastimes: weight training, football, golf…the problem is that with yoga, a lot of people assume it's somehow impossible to hurt yourself. It's not, and if you push yourself too far in an ashtanga yoga class, you stand a good chance of getting injured. The advice is the same as for any other sport. Know your limits, choose a good instructor who makes you feel safe, and listen to your body's messages.
What will it do for me?
A daily ashtanga practice will sculpt your body, fast. It really does work to melt away any extra padding you might be carrying around – everything surplus to requirements will go if you commit to this practice.
In my experience, other things that may also go – at least to begin with – are your sense of proportion; your humility; your ability to tolerate lesser mortals…you get the picture. Early-stage ashtangis are basically on a massive endorphin high every morning, then crashing in the afternoon – not much fun to be around. The physical rush of ashtanga is fairly addictive, and for many that's where it ends. But those who get through their initial superhero delusions, and learn to manage their energy, often discover a deeply spiritual, peaceful side to the practice.
Finding a teacher
If you're looking for an authentic Mysore experience, you can travel to the Sri K Pattabhi Jois Institute and study at the source. Fewer than 50 teachers in the UK are currently “authorised" by the Institute to teach ashtanga yoga in the traditional style, and just one – Hamish Hendry http://www.astangayogalondon.com – is “certified" by Jois himself. In practice, there are many excellent teachers in the UK who offer classes according to the ashtanga method, many of whom have never even been to India. As your practice develops, you'll decide how important the teaching lineage is to you. In the first place, a safe and simple way to get started is with an ashtanga beginners' course at a reputable local studio: in London, Triyoga and Yoga Junction are reliable choices.