Ashtanga Yoga is a more intense form of yoga exercise than the yoga that is normally practiced in fitness centers. Whereas in traditional yoga, practitioners simply move from one stationary asana, or posture, to another in no special order, ashtanga yoga uses a specific series of asanas. These are linked together by a flowing set of connecting movements known as the vinyasa. The vinyasa allows the body to warm up between postures, increasing flexibility and allowing for cleansing of the body through enhanced circulation.
Because the goal of ashtanga yoga, like all other methods of yoga, is to discipline both the mind and the body, the order in which the postures are performed is very important. It is the belief in ashtanga yoga that each asana prepares the body for the next, allowing for a deeper physical stretch and additional mental focus with every posture. The full set of asanas is separated into three series: primary, intermediate, and advanced, with further divisions in the advanced series. Students of this method are instructed never to push their bodies beyond their limit, and consequentially, one may practice only the primary series and still enjoy the benefits that come with practicing this dynamic form of yoga.
Although ashtanga yoga can be quite physically demanding, the emphasis of the practice should not be on muscular strength or deepness of the stretch. Rather, it should be mainly on the breath. Each breath should be long, drawn out, and resonate deeply at the back of the throat. However, it should never be forced or constricted, simply natural and deep. During the practice, each movement is guided by either an inhalation or exhalation, and postures are held for exactly five breaths. This breathing technique is believed to be the link between the physical and spiritual aspects of ashtanga yoga, by allowing the practitioner to achieve deeper meditation and greater mental clarity.
Ashtanga yoga is best suited for people who enjoy the improved flexibility and strengthening that come with practicing traditional yoga, but are looking for a more vigorous workout that incorporates some cardiovascular elements. However, it can be quite time-consuming to complete an entire series and many variations that incorporate asanas from both the primary and intermediate series have appeared in fitness centers. These are usually known as power yoga or vinyasa yoga and can offer many of the same benefits in a shorter span of time.