Ashtanga Yoga is a style of yoga practice characterised by ‘vinyasa’ or the attempt at synchronising breath to particular sequences of ‘asanas’, yoga postures.
Originating in Mysore, south India, in the early twentieth century through the teachings of Sri Krishnamacharya, it is emphasised that the lineage, ‘parampara’ of correct method has been preserved, first through the teaching of Sri Pattabhi Jois, ‘guruji’, greatly responsible for the spread of yoga widely through the Western world, and now his grandson Sri Sharath Jois.
The method of teaching was always directly from teacher to individual student, conveying personalised instruction to each person suited to their aptitude, but within a class environment; every student making their way, in their own time, through their specific sequence of postures they are working upon mastering.
This preference has become known as ‘Mysore style self-practice’ and is a great characteristic difference between regular yoga classes, conducted as a whole by a teacher leading the practice from the front of the room. Whereas, with traditional Ashtanga Yoga the aspirant progresses in their own time.
The final point of note is what is referred to as ‘tristana’. This is the 3-pointed technique of ‘breath’ (free, deep breathing through the nose only), ‘bandha’ of subtle contractions of certain muscle groups, and ‘dristi’, or ‘gazing points’, the point of focus of the vision whilst performing each posture.
It is important to understand that Ashtanga Yoga is part of the ‘Hatha Yoga’ tradition, based on yoga postures, but also involving a whole way of conducting ones life in order to attempt to reach a state of greater peace and self knowledge. ‘Ashtanga’ means ‘eight-limb’; starting at ‘asana’, posture, the student is then encouraged to work on the other branches, the system comprising the following; Yama (moral conduct), niyama (personal conduct), asana (physical movements), pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyhara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), samadhi (self knowledge).
‘There is only yoga’ (Sharath Jois). It is easy to get weighted down or confused over the proliferating number of styles of yoga we have to choose from in the current time. However, yoga is, as the root of the word suggests only concerned with ‘union’ of mind, body, and spirit in order to cultivate deeper self-understanding and the consequent peace that flows from this.
This said, every school of favours one particular aspect of the tradition as the perceived most efficient and powerful way to achieve the end goal of yoga. In the ashtanga yoga of pattabhi Jois (to be distinguished from the ashtanga yoga of Patanjali) this is the technique of vinyasa, or the linking of the postures together in one flow, emphasising counted-breathing and using the characteristic ‘jump-thru/jump-back’.
This renders the style one of the most challenging aerobically and physically for the student; though it can always be adapted to suit each and every person who likes moving dynamically through their body. As pattabhi Jois was fond of saying ‘anyone can practice, sick, old, infirm, only lazy people cannot practice’. Of course, everyone feels weak and lazy to differing degrees and that’s why the system evolved a number of sequences for the individual to work through as they develop in their capacity.
The ‘primary’ series, or 1st series, is named in Sanskrit ‘Yoga chikitisa’. This means ‘yoga therapy’. It works to develop a basic level of health in the individual; concentrating on the sympathetic nervous system related to the muscles and joints, as well as the internal processes, in particular, the digestion, which is considered to be the seat of bodily health by all traditional medicines.
Once this is achieved the student graduates to the intermediate’ series. In Sanskrit this is referred to as ‘Nadi shodhana’, nerve-cleansing, and involves deeper flexions and spinal twisting, working with the parasympathetic nervous system through stimulating the vital nerves located along the spinal axis. At this point, the student is advised to be practicing regularly with a teacher as the postures are intense as are the challenges and pitfalls.
There are four proceeding sequences collectively known as the ‘advanced’ sequences a,b,c,d, and known by the Sanskrit term ‘Sthira Baga’ (steady strength). Guruji, Pattabhi Jois, used to say these were for the purpose of demonstration, to inspire students to undertake the arduous challenges of yoga with these exciting and impressive feats of strength and flexibility. Generally practiced by only the most dedicated and adept students, these postures demand an incredible physical ability and it is said only Sharath Jois was taught them all by his grandfather pattabhi Jois.
It must be noted here that Pattabhi Jois’ ‘ashtanga yoga’ focuses almost exclusively on the instruction of yoga-asanas, with only the most advanced students being taught the breathing exercises ‘pranayamas’ and a complete lack of official teaching on any of the other limbs mentioned in Patanjalis’ yoga sutras. It is here that the term ‘ashtanga yoga’ was first coined; meaning ‘8-limb’ it focused on eight particular aspects of the method to bring the aspirant to the eventual achievement of the state of Yoga. However, it is not that these other aspects were considered lesser, or neglected by pattabhi Jois, rather that he recognised that once the body and the body energy was cleansed and aligned, the other aspects could be personally cultivated by each individual in a way that couldn’t be generally instructed from the outside. In a way, this is the beauty of the system in its complete lack of dogma; every individual is allowed to come to his own realisations in his/her own way. But for the mind to flow naturally and clearly the body needs to be similarly clear and this only can be guided from the outside.
As Guruji said, when energy and mind is purified ‘everywhere looking is God’.
There are 6 main schools of ‘Indian thought/religion’ but from those flow such numerous sub-branches they are almost impossible to categorise. Thus, there is no one book, like a Bible or Quran that one can refer back to as the ultimate teaching, rather numerous holy-men, saints and scholars authored various texts within their particular aspect of the tradition which has subsequently been committed to history as valid teaching for aspiring students.
One such man was the sage Patanjali, who authored the yoga sutras around 800ad. This collective teaching itself was systematised from various previous texts and committed to one clear teaching which has gone on to influence at least 2 of the main 6 Indian schools of thought. This text has become the main thrust behind the teaching of Sri Krishnamaracharya , the man credited for bringing yoga into the public sphere from being a secret and marginal practice instructed in private by a guru to the student at the turn of the 20th century.
Krishnamacharya was a great religious scholar who spent the majority of his life in the city of Mysore south India. This is where he met and instructed Sri Pattabhi Jois, who formulated aspects of this teaching with his guru into what became known as ashtanga vinyasa yoga. The emphasis was on set sequences of postures connected by controlled and counted breathing as instructed to Krishnamacharya in turn by his teacher one Rama Mohan Bramacharya, a mysterious presence who lived in the remote mountains of the Himalayas and with whom he spent at least 3 solid years in red seclusion, studying this science. Of note, is that this yoga teaching takes as a starting point the third-limb of yoga posture or ‘asana’ from the sage Patanjali instruction and trusts that with correct instruction on this level, the student will be able to navigate the other 7 aspects of the teaching which is more internal and therefore almost impossible teach.
Pattabhi Jois went on to instruct this system, as he was taught it as a young man, under the patronage of the king of Mysore who himself supported the studies of Krishnamacharya , donating a wing of his palace from which he could conduct his yoga lessons. By the late 1950’s the first westerners had discovered this teaching and started flocking to Jois’ door in ever-increasing numbers. They, in turn, went back to their countries where the system has become disseminated widely and has now been interpreted and elaborated on to form a number of new, western styles of yoga such as ‘vinyasa’, ‘hatha’ ‘yin’ or ‘anusara’.
Passing away in 2009, he gave over the leadership of the lineage of his teaching to Sharath who currently still teaches all year around from the same studio in Mysore, India, where the rest of the time he lives an unassuming life as an amateur nature photographer and family man.
The science as it was passed down, has it’s roots in the yoga perspective laid out in the yoga sutras, as well as s subtle physical instruction eluded to in the yoga karunta, a text which the original teacher ‘guru’ Rama Mohan Bramacharya had in his possession. If this all sounds a bit complicated, it is.
That is why it’s important to stick, at least for a period of your studies in the earlier years, to a traditional teacher who you can trust has been instructed from the traditional lineage. Later, perhaps, when you gain more of an overall and informed view you may then seek to come to your own conclusions. But for a student for many years tradition remains a very important aspect of the teaching.
Ashtanga Yoga Philosophy
Eight Limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Ashtanga yoga translated literally means eight-limb yoga. According to Patanjali, asana (the physical practice) is actually the third limb and this dynamic and physical form of yoga consists asana (posture) sequences with a vinyasa (connecting breath and movement) between each posture. With a regular, dedicated practice over a long period of time, your body will become strong and healthy, toxins will be removed and your mind will become quiet allowing you to see your true Self and be at peace.
Ashtanga yoga literally translated means 8 limbed yoga (ashto = eight).
Yama – ethical conduct and self-control for social harmony. These are five moral observances, personal rules for self-control, which are as follows:
- Ahimsa: Non-harm, mental as well as physical.
- Satya: truthfulness to others as well as to oneself.
- Asteya: non-stealing, this has a broader range than one expects, it also includes not seeking to profit from others.
- Brahmacharya: conserving one’s energy so it is there to focus on the path of yoga, sometimes included in sexual abstinence.
- Aprigrahah: freedom from greed/hoarding, not taking more than you need, having a life without the focus of building and accumulating.
Niyama – precepts for personal discipline. Again, there are five aspects to this limb:
- Sauca: cleanliness and purity in both word and deed.
- Santosha: contentment, trying to avoid the restless tendency to look outside of ourselves for experiences to make us happy.
- Tapas: disciplined effort, effort in asana to create heat which in order to burn off the impurities.
- Svadhyaya: the study of self for a deeper understanding of our true self.
- Isvara Pranidhani: to dedicate, devote or surrender to a supreme or personal god, to be humble before something larger than oneself.
Asana – pysical postures of yoga.
Pranayama – breath control technique in order to regulate the prana.
The fifth limb to the eighth is experienced as fruits of effort in the proceeding limbs.
Pratyahara – turning the mind’s awareness away from external, worldly objects and concerns, toward the internal elements of consciousness.
Dharana – concentration or one pointed focus allowing full contemplation of our true nature.
Dhyana – the meditation on the True Self.
Samadhi – enlightenment, being absorbed in Spirit.
“If we practice yoga without fail, we will then attain physical, mental and spiritual happiness, and our minds will flood towards the Self.” Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.
Patanjali was a great Indian sage writing around 800ce. His work is generally considered to be the best composite overview of the philosophy underpinning the method of ashtanga yoga. The context of this ‘eight-limbed’ yoga is far broader than yoga posture, which only accounts for one branch of the eight.
Any student serious in pursuing yoga more deeply can always benefit from thoughtful pondering of this profound text.
The first chapter of the yoga sutras of Patanjali: Samadhi pada.
1:1 Atha yoga nusasanam
Direct translation: Now starts the practice of yoga
Atha- ‘Now’; We draw a line under past experience, our procrastinating, indiscipline, messy relationships, regrets, grudges, insecurities. We decide to commit fully to the path of self-understanding at last, rather than looking outside into the material realm to satisfy our sense of incompleteness.
Yoga- the process of ‘union’ literally to ‘yoke’, to join together. An experience of ‘oneness’. The feeling we get when we feel complete and satisfied. We know this feeling as we achieve it momentarily when we have a good meal or make an exciting new purchase, the problem is, it’s not lasting and often then leads to further dissatisfaction and restlessness as we look to get that feeling again. The pursuit of yoga is the attempt at following a method leading to the level of a lasting satisfaction.
Anushasana- a ‘systematic discipline’. Our instruction in a yoga is characterised by consistent practice over a reasonable period of time. Later in the text, it is shown to be a pragmatic, thoughtful and controlled method, pursued, most importantly, with a sense of humility or devotion to a higher reality.
The first line of the first chapter explains to us we must now concentrate exclusively on a different path for our own happiness than anything we’ve done before. The process is in the instruction of yoga, and it is on that path we now ready to be instructed.