What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Now incredibly popular worldwide, Ashtanga yoga is a powerful discipline that creates a calm and healthy mind, body and nervous system.
Ashtanga means Eight Limbs in Sanskrit. Each limb (aspect) is a method by which one can achieve a deep state of conscious awareness and thus live in harmony with the universe.
Asana (posture) is the third limb and its aim is to purify the body and prepare it for meditation. The mind has to be cleaned also, as do speech and behaviour. The other limbs invite us to do this via our: moral, ethical and social conduct (yamas); personal behaviour (niyamas); breath control (pranayama); sensory control (pratyahara); concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana). With mastery of the aforementioned limbs, the superconscious state of final limb (samadhi) may be experienced.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Around 2000 years ago the great Indian sage Patanjali, wrote about Ashtanga yoga in a collection of 196 aphorisms called Yoga Sutras. As well as reciting the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga, he describes the nature of human suffering and guides us to understand the root of consciousness and gifts to be gained through the practise of yoga and having a balanced approach to life.
Patanjali outlines five human afflictions called kleshas, that must be overcome in order to achieve absolute liberation. These are: attachment; aversion; egoism; ignorance and fear of death. Also cited are six poisons known as arisha dvargas,that cover the light in our hearts or ‘soul’. These are: desire; anger; greed; delusion; arrogance and jealousy. Patanjali claims that through the practise of Ashtanga yoga, these debilitating traits may dissipate and true peace can then be attained.
It is the yamas (ahimsa: non-violence; satya: truth; asteya: not stealing; brahmacarya: appropriate sexual conduct; aparigraha: non-greed); niyamas (sauca: cleanliness of body and mind; santosa: contentment with what one has; tapas: austerities and disciplines; svadhyaya: self study; isvara pranidhana: surrender and acceptance without expectation); asana (postural practice, to detoxify and open the body and mind); pranayama (life force, or breath control and expansion); pratyhara (withdrawal of the senses from external stimulation); dharana (concentration of the mind); dhyana (meditation: focusing the mind on a single entity); samadhi (a higher state of conscious awareness, where the mind goes beyond the object of meditation and the individual self) and concepts of Samkhya philosophy that are described in the Yoga Sutras, that form the basic principles of the dharmic way of life, for an Ashtanga yoga practitioner. The aim is to connect with pure consciousness (purusha) and to be free from the delusion (maya) that the nature of our mind (prakriti) causes.
Ashtanga Asana System
The asana (posture) system is characterised by powerful, synchronised ‘breathing and movement’ (vinyasa); gaze points (dristi) and internal energy locks (bandhas). The aim of the Ashtanga asana practice is to attain the perfect alignment of the breath, looking place and movement (tristhana) and through doing so, to develop a moving meditation. Throughout the practice, very slow inhalations and exhalations through the nose, allow prana (vital energy) to be carried around the subtle body. Coupled with the correct execution of tristhana, stagnant energy in the nadis (energy channels) and around the chakras (energy centres) may be unblocked. In turn, this allows prana to flow freely around the body, dissolving any physical or mental disturbances.
Through regular practise of a precise sequence of flowing asanas, the body becomes flexible, strong and light, toxins are removed and the blood is cleaned. Many aliments can be improved. Slow controlled breathing and deep concentration create incredible focus and a quiet mind, resulting in a feeling of calmness and peace.
Today, there are six ‘series’ of Ashtanga yoga asanas: Primary (Yoga Chikitsa) to detoxify, balance, open and strengthen the body; Intermediate (Nadi Sodhana) to purify the nervous system; Advanced A, B, C and D (Sthira Bhaga Samapta) to demonstrate high levels of strength, flexibility, grace and humility . When one asanais mastered in a controlled manner (with calm deep breathing), the next is added until a complete ‘series’ is practised regularly. With time (as the body and mind purify, grow stronger and become more open), the other aspects of Ashtanga yoga transpire organically, allowing us to find our true nature and connection with the universe.
Ashtanga Yoga Lineage
The Ashtanga yoga system is said to have been first illustrated by Vamana Rishi, in an ancient text called Yoga Korunta. Early last century Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari shared many ancient teachings of yoga and concepts described in this work, with his student Sri K Krishnamacharya.
From the early 1930s – 1950s, the Maharaja of Mysore sponsored Krishnamacharya and gave him a yoga space (shala) in the Mysore Jaganmohan Palace grounds. His remit was to popularise yoga. One of his students was our esteemed guru, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, whom he taught for over twenty years. In 1937 the Maharaja of Mysore asked Jois to open a yoga department at the Sanskrit College in Mysore. He was made Professor of Yoga nineteen years later and taught there until 1973.
Affectionally know as Guruji, Pattabhi Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore in 1948 and has since then, has shared his extensive knowledge of Ashtanga yoga, with thousands of students all over the world.
He passed away in 2009 (at the age of 93) and is succeeded as Director of the renamed Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI), by his highly proficient grandson Sharath Jois.
For more information about Ashtanga yoga, check out the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute’s website: KPJAYI.org