What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga yoga is a form of hatha yoga and is a traditional and dynamic practice defined by the use of tristana. This is the use of vinyasa (connection of breath and movement), dristi (gaze points) and bandhas (physical energy locks). It was the first yoga style in which the static postures were linked by a vinyasa movement. All other movement based yoga styles were derived from this system.
Contrary to popular belief, the use of ujjayi breath is not the method of breathing for the style. It should be an easeful, free deep breathing, rather than a Darth Vader style that many teachers promote. Each asana, or posture has a specific breath count that you will learn. The use of this breath creates an inner heat in the body. This cleanses the organs and lengthens the muscles.
In addition, Dristi, (gaze points) are specific to each posture and are usually the nose, third eye, navel or hands. This gives you greater concentration and internal focus on the prana or energetic body. Bandhas or muscular contractions are used lift yourself in postures from the inside. This is in opposition to the overuse of muscles.
Above all this method serves to produce a degree of structure in the practise. It allows for a profound understanding of the deeper layers of body awareness. Traditionally Ashtanga yoga is practiced early in the morning and 6 days a week. The method is a discipline, and one from which many rewards are reaped on all levels.
Ashtanga Yoga Sequence & Series
The Ashtanga system is based on set sequences of asanas over six series’ outlined below.
Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series ‘Yoga Chikitisa”
The first or ‘Ashtanga primary series’, is named in Sanskrit ‘yoga chikitisa’ which means yoga therapy. It works to develop a basic level of health in the individual. Working on the systems 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.
Ashtanga Yoga Intermediate Series ‘Nadi Shodhana’ (also referred to as second series)
Once this is achieved students may graduate to the intermediate series. In Sanskrit this is referred to as nadi shodhana or nerve cleansing. It 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 and D, and known by the Sanskrit term ‘Sthira Baga’ (steady strength). Traditionally these were for the purpose of demonstration. The aim was inspire students to undertake the arduous challenges of yoga. They display exciting and impressive feats of strength and flexibility. However, only the most dedicated and adept students practice these. These postures demand an incredible physical ability and are very rarely if ever completed by most students.
Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga
Mysore is the town in India where this style of yoga teaching originated. Traditionally the yoga was taught by Pattabhi Jois to each student individually at their own level. This is referred to as Mysore style self-practice.
Students are taught the postures of the series individually, together in the same room within a certain time period. It is often compared to a private lesson within a group. Each person will start and finish according to where they are at within the sequence as instructed by the teacher. Contrary to what some believe, this style of learning is the best for all levels, even beginners to Ashtanga yoga.
You will quickly gain strength and learn how to do the postures correctly and safely, allowing you to progress at your own pace. With a greater understanding of what you should be working within the posture working with your own unique breath pattern and developing a deeper lung capacity.
This takes quite a degree of commitment and is greatly assisted by the support of the teacher as well as fellow practitioners. This ‘sangha’ who you will see most days and will form a bond with even before speaking to them.
Practically speaking, this daily group provides an instrumental support network. It helps when you might struggle with discipline or challenges to know that others are on the same path. And that they have likely been where you are.
Led Ashtanga Yoga Class
The led class is when the class practices together at the call of the teacher. The focus of the breath, breathing as one according to the postures. This is a good check in to see where you might be speeding up through postures that are not your favourites and where you may be taking extra time in the Mysore class.
Both styles of classes complement each other and offer different challenges and benefits. Traditionally there are four Mysore classes each week. In addition, one led primary for all and one led intermediate for those at that level, or another led primary for those who are not.
Days off and Ashtanga Moon Days
The day off has changed over the years from Saturday to Sunday and back to Saturday depending on the needs of the Jois family. The day off has no other significance.
Moon days off were introduced at some point by Pattabhi Jois with the reasoning around the pull of the moon and the water in our bodies. However if you are not practicing 6 days a week intensively there is no need to take the day off. You can just have a gentle practice instead.
History of Mysore Ashtanga Yoga
The Ashtanga yoga system is one of the traditional forms of hatha yoga derived from Sri Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). He is widely considered as the architect of modern yoga asana.
It was originally claimed that his yoga knowledge was passed down through a sacred Indian text called The Yoga Karunta. This was taught to him by a mysterious yogi living in the Himalayas called Ramamohana Bramachari. This has never been sufficiently validated. However, it is certain that Krishnamacharya travelled to study in this area of northern India for extended periods in his earlier life.
Having completed his studies he settled in Mysore, South India he taught yoga for the Maharaj (king) of Mysore. It was traditional for a parting student to pay his teacher on completion of his studies. What Krishnamacharya was asked for in exchange was the dissemination of yoga.
Whatever else can be said about the integrity of its form, yoga postures have been recorded to exist in the scriptures and sacred texts. Found in the Indus Valley dating back thousands of years. For this reason, it is deemed to be an ancient practice. It has always been contextualised around other methods of further discipline, not only physical.
After retiring as a professor of Sanskrit at The University of Mysore, Jois started a yoga shala in his own house. It was here that the first western student, Andre Von Lisbeth discovered him in the mid 1950’s. By the 1960’s American hippies travelling to India had been led to Mysore. The first of these being Nancy Gilgoff and David Williams who made the trip having seen a demonstration by Manju, Jois’ son.
From the 1980’s onwards, the popularity of Ashtanga exploded through Jois’ travels abroad to teach. A whole range of celebrities publicly endorsed it as their chosen practice. Pattabhi Jois was a household name by the time of his death in 2010.
Unfortunately, recent allegations of abuse made against Jois, of both sexual misconduct and for strenuous adjustments resulting in serious physical injuries have tarnished his personal reputation. The Ashtanga community this still dealing with the fall out of these revelations. Teachers and students are finding their way forward to continue teaching the system that has brought benefit to so many. However some have moved away all together.
Sharath began practicing with his grandfather when he was young and is the only student to be taught the entire six series’. He obtained a degree in electronics and after that he began assisting in the shala as the number of students grew beyond one man’s capacity. He now carries on his grandfather’s teaching at his own school in Mysore, the Sharath Yoga Centre. Hundreds of students at a time came to learn from him before the lockdowns of Covid.
Saraswati, the daughter of Pattabhi Jois was taught the full syllabus of Ashtanga yoga as a young girl. Mother to Sharath and Sharmilla, she has continued teaching in her own right for most of her life attracting her own students from all over the world.