What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga yoga is a comprehensive system of yoga designed to purify the body and still the mind. Its great teacher and exponent was Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1916-2009) — see Lineage below.
Every Ashtanga student starts out learning what is known as Primary series — a set series of traditional hatha yoga postures linked by movement (called “Vinyasa”), forming a continuously moving practice.
Right from the beginning, students learn to:
breathe steadily and evenly during the practice
maintain correct Drishti (gazing point)
engage the bandhas (core energy locks), which enable a proficient practice by providing strength, stability and lightness
Traditionally, an Ashtanga yoga class is conducted “Mysore-style” — in silence, with students receiving one-on-one assistance from the teacher as it is needed. (Beginners are given verbal instruction to help them get started.)
On the last day of the practice week (usually Friday, but occasionally Thursday when there is a Friday moon day), class is led—all students practice together while the Primary series is counted in Sanskrit.
Some Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga:
Tones the body
Focuses, quiets the mind
Allows practitioner to experience the true Self, and the Universal
What does "Ashtanga" mean?
The word "Asht-anga," in Sanskrit, means "eight-limbed." There are eight distinct areas of yoga practice that make up the Ashtanga system (listed below).
The starting point for practice is the third limb — asanas (postures). Through regular asana practice, one prepares for the development of all the other limbs.
Yamas and niyamas are about how to relate to others and ourselves properly and ethically. Pranayama is breath control, which strengthens the mind. The remaining four limbs are essentially deeper and deeper forms of meditation, which are not formally taught, but rather arrived at spontaneously and in their own time, as the student is ready.
Note: the first 3-4 limbs are considered sufficient for a lifetime of practice. However, through asana practice alone, every Ashtanga practitioner is touching the practice of all eight limbs.
The 8 Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga
Yamas (moral restraints)
Niyamas (ethical observances)
Asanas (practice of postures)
Pranayama (breath control)
Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)
Samadhi (meditative absorption, bliss)
The modern lineage of Ashtanga yoga dates back to the early 1930s, when the famed yogi T. Krishnamacharya began teaching yoga at the Royal Palace in Mysore, India.
One of Krishnamacharya's students was a boy named Krishna Patthabhi Jois, who, at the age of twelve, after seeing a yoga demonstration given by Krishnamacharya, was so taken by what he had seen that he immediately resolved to become Krishnamacharya's student. For the next two years, Jois walked three miles to Krishnamacharya's house every morning before school to study yoga with him. When he was fourteen, Jois left his village (and the yoga classes) to attend the Sanskrit University in Mysore. Luckily, through a chance encounter with Krishnamacharya at the Sanskrit University in 1932, he resumed studying yoga with him, this time in Mysore.
Over the next two decades, Jois learned the entire Ashtanga system from his guru, Krishnamacharya. Prior to their parting in 1954, Krishnamacharya entrusted Jois with teaching and disseminating the Ashtanga system, strictly according to the way he had been taught.
For nearly his entire adult life, Jois did just that. Founding the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute at his home in Mysore in 1948, he taught the practice daily to all who cared to learn it. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Western (that is, non-Indian) students began to appear. At first, Jois resisted them. Soon, however, he welcomed these seekers (many of whom went on to become senior Certified Ashtanga teachers), even traveling abroad to continue working with them. (It was during a stay in Encinitas, CA in 1978 that Ashtanga yoga first took hold in the US.) In subsequent years, Jois taught thousands of students from around the world at his Institute in Mysore and regularly travelled worldwide to teach. It is without any doubt that Jois singlehandedly brought the practice of Ashtanga yoga to the Western world and established it as the worldwide practice it is today.
For twenty years, Jois was assisted in teaching by his grandson and student, R. Sharath (pictured above at left), now Paramaguru Sharath Jois. Following Jois’ passing in 2009 at the age of 93, the torch passed to Sharath ji who, as the world’s foremost practitioner of Ashtanga yoga and his grandfather’s closest student, now holds the Ashtanga lineage. Sharath ji continues to teach in the tradition of his grandfather at his Centre in Mysore, and all over the world. Other members of the Jois family, along with some of Jois’ original Western students and the many Certified and Authorized teachers worldwide, also maintain the lineage.