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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.
Youve just experienced a beginning yoga pose called Sukhansana. Simple, yet amazingly
effective. Ashtanga yogas 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
Yogas 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?
Dont 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 wont 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.