WHAT IS ASHTANGA YOGA?
Ashtanga is a very traditional form of yoga. Ashtanga consists of six series. Each series itself consists of specific poses organized in sequential order. The poses are always done in the same order, with the same transitions between them. Only one human is known to have progressed to the sixth series. Most people will practice the first of the six series, the Primary series, all their lives; it's quite challenging. Some move on to the second series and very few ever get to the third series.
The goal of all the series is to build strength, balance, flexibility and mental focus. The specific goals of the Primary series are to open the hips and acquire length in the hamstrings and the torso. A Primary series practice starts with Sun salutations. They are very dynamic and their goal is to warm the body and prepare it for the poses.
The sun salutations are followed by a series of poses of increasing difficulty until the peak poses, which are the most difficult in the Primary series. After the peak poses come some easier poses, followed by back bending, which often is a challenge for people. After the back bending, we do closing poses and then we rest. A full Primary takes about 90 minutes.
The poses are not the only component of the Ashtanga practice. There are two other major components. One is breathing. In Ashtanga, every movement is coordinated with a breath, either an inhale or an exhale. So a Full Primary has a set number of breaths. The other important element is the gazing point. Each pose has a gazing point, or drsti.
The combination of set gazing points and breathing coordinated with movement is what makes Ashtanga yoga a moving meditation. In fact, it's all about achieving the meditative state.
So, why is it so hard? If the goal is to meditate, why engage in such a difficult physical practice? It's because when the physical practice is easy, your mind can wander. When you engage in very difficult poses and transitions between them, your mind cannot wander, you have to stay focussed. Otherwise, you fall, get out of sync and just cannot do the pose. The combination of breath, gazing point, and movement is what creates the meditative state.