Ashtanga History & Practice
Ashtanga Yoga in the tradition of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Mysore, South India
Yoga is a philosophy of life, which also has the potential to create a vibrantly healthy body and mind. Ashtanga Yoga, practiced in its correct sequential order, gradually leads the practitioner to rediscover his or her fullest potential on all levels of human consciousness – physical, psychological, and spiritual. Through this practice of postures (asana), and gazing point (dristi), we gain control of the senses and a deep awareness of ourselves. By maintaining this discipline with regularity and devotion, one acquires steadiness of body and mind. Ashtanga literally means eight limbs.
They are described by Patanjali as: Yama (abstinence), Niyama (observances), Asana (postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (contemplation). These branches support each other. Asana practice must be established for proper practice of pranayama, and is a key to the development of the yamas and niyamas.
Once these four externally oriented limbs are firmly rooted, the last four internally oriented limbs will spontaneously evolve over time. Vinyasa in the Ashtanga tradition means breath synchronized movment. The breath is the heart of this discipline, and links asana to asana in a precise order. By synchronizing movement with breathing and practicing mula and uddiyana bandhas (locks), an intense internal heat is produced. This heat purifies muscles and organs, expelling unwanted toxins as well as releasing beneficial hormones and minerals, which can nourish the body when the sweat is massaged back into the skin. The breath regulates the vinyasa and ensures efficient circulation of blood. The result is a light, strong body.
There are three groups of sequences in the Ashtanga system. The primary series referred to as Yoga Chikitsa meaning yoga therapy, detoxifies and aligns the body. The intermediate series named Nadi Shodhana meaning nerve purification purifies the nervous system by opening and clearing energy channels or nadis. The advanced series is composed of 4 parts now referred to as A or 3rd series, B or 4th series, C or 5th series, and D or 6th series. The Advanced grouping is named Sthira Bhaga meaning divine grace. Each series integrates the strength and grace of the practice, requiring higher levels of flexibility and humility. Each level is to be fully developed before proceeding to the next, and the sequential order of asanas is to be meticulously followed.
The continuity of deep, even breathing cannot be overemphasized in the Ashtanga yoga system. When breath feeds action, and action feeds posture, each movement becomes gentle, precise, and perfectly steady. According to the teachings of Sri T. Krishnamacharya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, “breath is life.” Breathing is our most fundamental and vital act and holds a divine essence; exhalation is a movement towards god, and inhalation an inspiration from god. Our last action in life is to exhale, which, in essence, is the final and total surrender to God.
It is said where there is no effort there is no benefit. Strength, stamina, and sweat are unique aspects of this traditional yoga, seemingly contrary to Western perceptions of yoga. This demanding practice requires considerable effort and taps into and circulates a vital energy throughout the body, strengthening and purifying the nervous system. The mind then becomes lucid, clear, and precise; and according to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois “wherever you look you will see God.” Only through the practice will we realize the truth of what our guru often says – “everything is God.” Please note the importance of learning the Ashtanga method only from a traditionally trained teacher. Only a qualified teacher can provide the necessary guidance to assure safe, steady progress without injury to body or mind.
History of Ashtanga
Both a style of yoga and the eight limbed path of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Ashtanga has become known to Americans as the tradition of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, South India. Browsing ancient manuscripts in a Calcutta library with his teacher, T. Krishnamacharya (whose students include BKS Iyengar, Desikachar, and Indra Devi), Jois discovered the vinyasa, or breath movement system, written on grape leaves, perhaps hundreds of years old, considering the nature of the Sanskrit in which it was written. This text was known as the yoga korunta.
Characteristics & Tools of the Practice
The Tristhana (Tri – three; Sthana – standing place) are breathing, posture, and gazing point. These three should be observed and practiced simultaneously in asana practice.
All breathing should be done through the nose only; breathing through the mouth weakens the heart. Equal in length, smooth inhalation and exhalation should be maintained throughout the practice, creating a low hissing sound in the base of the throat. This aids in digestion and getting rid of toxins.
Postures should be done methodically with correct alignment and proper guidance from a guru (teacher) following parampara (knowledge passed down through the lineage). To slowly build strength, stability and health, each asana should be perfected before starting the next one. All asana are connected to each other.
GAZING POINT (Drsti)
There are nine drstis in the asana practice. If the drsti indicated for the asana is too difficult, one may always revert to nasagra drsti (tip of the nose). Drsti improves concentration and reinforces presence and a realization of oneness during practice; all can be carried over into our daily life.
Methods of Learning
When the series is taught and paced by a teacher, it is called a LED CLASS. When the series is practiced by the student at his/her own pace, it is called MYSORE STYLE.
Tradition dictates that one takes rest on Full and New Moon days. This teaches us to be non-attached to the practice and to respect the rest and recovery process required for balance and energy. This also synchronizes one’s energy with the natural cycles of the earth, moon, and sun.