Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
More than thirty years ago K. Pattabhi Jois brought Ashtanga to the West. Since then Ashtanga and it’s many spin-offs have become one of the most widespread and influential systems of yoga practiced.
For those wanting a serious workout, the physically demanding Ashtanga offers a fast-paced series of sequential poses based on flowing, energetic movements; all coordinated with pronounced breathing.
K. Pattabhi Jois
K. Pattabhi Jois was born in 1915 in the village of Kowshika, situated near Hassan, Karnataka in South India. In 1927 he attended a demonstration of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Inspired, the next day he became a student of Krishnamacharya. For two years he rose early in the morning and practiced yoga with his guru before attending school.
In 1930, Jois ran away from home. He travelled to Mysore to study Sanskrit and two years later was re-united by chance with Krishnamacharya. The Maharaja of Mysore, Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar, had become seriously ill. It is said that Krishnamacharya healed the Maharaja through yoga. To express his gratitude the Maharaja established a yoga school on the Mysore palace grounds for Krishnamacharya.
The Maharaja also saw the ability of Jois, so in 1937 he offered him a newly created position at the Sanskrit College. With the approval of his guru, Jois took up the offer and taught yoga at the institute until 1973.
In the years that followed Jois travelled around the world, developing a loyal band of followers. As a result Ashtanga became a household name in many countries. In 2009 he died aged 93, having taught yoga for over 70 years.
Ashtanga (also spelled Astanga) can be translated as ‘eight limbs’ from Sanskrit, the eight limbs referring to the eight elements of yoga as laid out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The series of Ashtanga yoga poses themselves are based on the Yoga Korunta, a lost ancient manuscript by the sage Vamana Rishi. At the time yoga was almost forgotten. Legend has it that Vamana Rishi was incarnated for the task of bringing yoga back to life. Whilst in the womb he meditated on Vishnu to learn all he needed to know. Apparently he was not quite finished after 9 months and refused to be born until that was the case!
It is said that the Yoga Korunta was handed down orally to Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya by his teacher Rama Mohan Brahmachari in the early 1900's. It was later passed down to K. Pattabhi Jois during his studies with Krishnamacharya.
Ashtanga groups yoga postures (asanas) into six series; each with a sequential order of postures to be meticulously followed. The order is important as each posture serves as preparation for the next. Each level must be fully developed before moving on. The levels are: the primary series (yoga chikitsa), intermediate series (nadi shodhana) and advanced series a, b, c, and d (sthira bhaga).
Individual Ashtanga sessions always follow the same structure. A practice will start with an opening sequence containing 10 sun salutations and several standing poses. Students then perform an asana series appropriate for their level. After this students perform back-bends and conclude with a set of inverted postures. At the end students relax in savasana, lying on their back with closed eyes.
Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally taught Mysore Style, where each student moves through the practice at his or her own pace and level. Teachers stand by and offer a helping hand if needed. Traditional classes however are rare. Many classes are now instructor-led.
Ashtanga yoga is outlined as an internal purification practice by some commentators of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Vyasa is one of the best-known. According to them, to perform postures in synchronisation with the breath (called asana vinyasa system) is only one part of it. In addition, practitioners move in, out and retain poses using bandhas, a sustained contraction of a muscle-group. It is said that a bandha prevents pranic energy, the so-called life force, from escaping the body and directs it into the energy channels (nadi).
Furthermore, dristhis may be used to help the practitioner focus while moving in and out of postures. Dristhis refer to the nine places to look while performing postures: tip of nose, between the eyebrows, navel, thumb, hands, toes, up, right side and left side.
It is said that Ashtanga yoga affects the body, nervous system and mind. It is hard work. The resulting sweat is said to cleanse the body from impurities. In any case it certainly requires dedication and commitment; a regular practice at it’s heart. More than with some other forms of yoga, Ashtanga offers no ‘easy way out’. It is contrary to the common perception that yoga is a quiet activity that stills the mind.
Yoga can be many things; Patanjali says that yoga is a state of mind and the means to get there. In any case it is individual; each person has different needs. Ashtanga uses a strenuous regimen to get closer to this state of mind. And you know what they say about things you have to work for: they may be worth the effort.