A style of Hatha yoga, Ashtanga yoga was first introduced to the West in the 1940s by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009). Today, it is considered one of the most popular forms of yoga practice and is one of the most well-known yoga styles. Sometimes called Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, it is characterized by the synchronization of ujjayi breathing with a progressive flowing series of asanas.
Here we'll take a closer look at the journey of Ashtanga yoga through Pattabhi Jois' efforts as well as other notable figures along the path, and how this style of yoga continues to grow because of Jois' unique lasting impact.
Pattabhi Jois' Journey
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (also known as Guruji) first began practicing yoga as a 12-year-old boy in India. Initially, Pattabhi practiced in secret under the instruction of his guru, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya had learned about early Ashtanga traditions through his guru, Rama Mohan Brahmachari, who had studied the ancient yogic text called the "Yoga Korunta" by Vamana Rishi.
(For more on Jois' guru, read Krishnamacharya: The History and Teachings of the 'Father of Modern Yoga'.)
At the age of 14, after practicing daily for two years, Pattabhi ran away from home to further his studies at the famous Sanskrit University of Mysore, India. There, Pattabhi was re-united with his guru. At the time, Mysore’s maharaja ("great king"), became ill and asked Krishnamacharya to help him recover from his sickness. Under the king’s patronage, Krishnamacharya established a yoga shala ("school") and recruited promising students like Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar to run the shala and perform public demonstrations of Ashtanga yoga. Later, Pattabhi would use his knowledge of the "Yoga Korunta" as the basis of his own teachings.
When Mysore’s maharaja passed away, Pattabhi took on Krishnamacharya’s legacy and teachings, spreading them throughout the region. In 1948, Pattabhi established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. Many influential yogis came to learn Pattabhi’s style of yoga, furthering it’s spread across the world. Americans began to visit the institute, returning to the United States and introducing Ashtanga to students across the nation. Over the following years, Pattabhi continued to travel in India and internationally, sharing his knowledge about yoga, meeting with scholars, performing asana demonstrations and recruiting interested students.
Teachers and Yogis of Ashtanga Today
In 1998, Pattabhi founded the famous Lakshmipuram Institute just outside of Mysore. The Lakshmipuram Ashtanga Research Institute was a larger facility that could accommodate more students. This move allowed Pattabhi to hire more teachers and expand the reach of the Ashtanga yoga lineage worldwide. In 2006, Pattabhi opened an American Ashtanga yoga school in Islamorada, Florida. During the last years of his life, the Ashtanga school in Islamorada is where Pattabhi made his home, continuing to study, teach and inspire thousands of international students.
Pattabhi passed away in 2009 at the age of 93. He left the institute in the capable hands of his daughter, Saraswathi, and grandson, Sharath, who were put in charge of carrying on his legacy. The international yoga community held a worldwide celebration to honor his life and achievements.
In 2012, the Islamorada Center moved it's operations to Encinitas, California, making it's new home at Jois Yoga, part of the newly formed Jois Yoga Foundation.
Renowned modern-day Ashtanga yogis in the tradition of Pattabhi include: Richard Freeman, Manu Jois, Saraswathi Jois, Sharath Jois, Dena Kingsburg, Tim Miller, Eddie Stern and David Swenson.
Growing the Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga
Pattabhi’s teachings helped keep the original message of Ashtanga yoga alive by sharing valuable information with millions of yoga students. Many are taught that yoga philosophy and practice represent the eight-limbed path of conscious living and spiritual living, one limb of which is the physical asana practice that most people think of as “yoga.” Ashtanga yoga literally means “eight limbs of yoga” and asana is the third of the eight limbs. Unbeknownst to many modern-day yoga students, Ashtanga does not simply refer to physical asanas, but means much more.
(More on this in Not All Asana: The Eight Limbs of Yoga and What They Mean for Your Practice.)
The eight-limbs of yoga were presented in the historical and enormously influential text, the Yoga Sutras, which was written by Patanjali around 200 B.C.E. The eight limbs of yoga include: yamas (restraints, non-violence, non-greed, etc.), niyama (observances, purity, contentment), asana, pranayama (control of breath), pratyahara (directing the senses inwards), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (unified consciousness with the Divine).
One of the reasons Guruji had such a great impact was because he believed it was necessary to enter into the eight limbs of yoga through the physical practice of asanas. Yoga teachers today often attract students to Ashtanga yoga philosophy by first teaching them asanas, and then helping them to deepen their consciousness gradually through adopting the other limbs. Often, the physical “external limbs” are easier for new students to grasp, while the internal limbs take ongoing effort, dedication and patience. Following the practice of the physical asanas, comes pranayama and meditation, which shed light on the other limbs and develop a deeper connection to the entire meaning of yoga.
(Continue reading in The Ancient Origins of Ashtanga Yoga and Why It's Still Popular Today.)