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).
Every Ashtanga student starts out learning the Primary series — a set series of postures linked by movement (Vinyasa) and breath.
Right from the beginning, students learn to:
breathe steadily and evenly during practice
maintain correct Drishti (gazing point)
engage the bandhas (core energy locks), which provide strength, stability and lightness
Most Ashtanga yoga classes are conducted “Mysore-style” — students do their own practice with one-on-one assistance from the teacher. Once a week, the teacher leads the class and everyone practices at the same time.
A comprehensive explanation of the practice and technique of Ashtanga yoga is available at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) in Mysore, India, website.
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 naturally, as the student is ready.
Intentionally or not, by doing asana practice, 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. So for the next two years, Jois walked three miles to Krishnamacharya's house every morning before school to study yoga with him. However, when he was fourteen, Jois left his home and family to attend the Sanskrit University in Mysore. Luckily, through a second chance encounter with Krishnamacharya at the Sanskrit University in 1932, he resumed studying with his teacher, this time in Mysore.
Over the next two decades, Jois learned the entire Ashtanga system from his guru. Prior to their parting in 1954, Krishnamacharya entrusted him with teaching and disseminating the Ashtanga system, strictly according to the way he had been taught.
For nearly his entire adult life, Pattabhi Jois—"Guruji" as he eventually came to be known to his many thousands of students—did just that. Founding the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (AYRI) at his home in Mysore in 1948, he taught the practice daily to all who cared to learn it. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Western (that is, non-Indian) students began to appear. Initially, Guruji resisted them. Soon, however, he welcomed them, eventually traveling to the United States and other countries to continue working with them. In subsequent years, Guruji would take many international teaching trips, or "tours" as he called them. At the same time, many more Western students began coming to Mysore. Thus, through Guruji's tireless efforts, Ashtanga yoga is known and practiced worldwide.
For twenty years, Guruji's grandson, R. Sharath (pictured above at left, now Paramaguru Sharath Jois) assisted him in teaching. Following Guruji’s passing in 2009 at the age of 93, Sharath ji assumed directorship of the renamed Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) in Mysore—and the Ashtanga lineage. Along with his mother (Guruji's daughter), Saraswathi, Sharath ji continues to teach in the manner and tradition of his grandfather. Other members of the Jois family, along with a number of Guruji's most senior students and the many KPJAYI-Certified and -Authorized teachers worldwide, also help maintain the lineage.