Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic, vigorous style of Hatha yoga popularized by the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009). A truly beautiful style of yoga, it is extensive, highly challenging and even mesmerizing, one could say.
Here is a brief history of Ashtanga yoga, its key teachers, what to expect from this type of yoga class and if it's right for you.
Ashtanga yoga finds its origins in an ancient book known as the "Yoga Korunta," written by a man named Vamana Rishi. The "Yoga Korunta" was compiled by Patanjali (who also compiled The Yoga Sutras) sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 250 C.E. The famed yogi, and also Jois’ teacher, T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), studied the "Yoga Korunta" and then passed it down to him.
Krishnamacharya was born when India was still under colonial rule by England. For seven long years, he studied yoga with a guru while living in a cave, renouncing the common householder life. After those seven years, he began teaching yoga. It was in 1931 when his teachings really took off. He began teaching at the Sanskrit College in Mysore, where he eventually began teaching his star pupil, Pattabhi Jois. It was also during this time that Krishnamacharya really created the Ashtanga yoga style we’re familiar with today.
It was through the teachings of yoga by Krishnamacharya to Pattabhi Jois that Ashtanga yoga came to be. In fact, when Jois was asked by his students how exactly Ashtanga came into the world, he replied, “Never changed anything.” This statement referred to everything he learned from his teacher, and never straying from his mentor’s teachings.
Pattabhi Jois was only 12 years old in 1927, the time he began his yogic studies with T. Krishnamacharya. In 1933 Krishnamacharya opened his yoga shala (yoga studio) on the grounds of the maharaja (king) of the Jaganmohan Palace. Because the maharaja respected Pattabhi Jois, he gave Jois extra money to give yoga demonstrations and teachings. Soon, Jois was an esteemed yoga teacher, teaching to his peers under the blessing of Krishnamacharya.
By 21 years old, Pattabhi Jois was already an esteemed teacher of yoga, teaching at the College at Mysore with the financial help of the maharaja. And by 1948, he was teaching the Ashtanga yoga we know today to his students at his own yoga shala in Mysore. Today, devotees continue to flock to Mysore where they study at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Institute under the tutelage of his son, Sharath, and other certified and esteemed teachers.
(For more on Jois, read on in The Founder of Ashtanga Yoga.)
The Yoga Sutras
Known to his students as guruji, Jois also taught Ashtanga yoga as was laid out by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras. The Sutras outline the philosophy and wisdom teachings of Ashtanga yoga. Literally translated, ashtanga means “eight limbs.” The eight limbs are eight practices defined by Patanjali in the Sutras. They are: yamas (moral restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (physical postures), pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (focus or concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (total meditative absorption).
Yoga's First Flow
Ashtanga yoga is often referred to as Ashtanga vinyasa yoga. Vinyasa refers to the technique that links breath to movement, in a fluid and flowing manner. These are the dynamic movements at the heart of the asana aspect of Ashtanga yoga. The breath is deeply and intimately linked to every posture. Practitioners of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga flow with the breath in a continual manner from one posture to the next.
Ashtanga yoga was the first form of vinyasa yoga. The form that we call vinyasa today, which is a lot freer and more open to creativity, has its roots in Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga yoga is different in the sense that the postures are set. We do the exact same sequence each time we practice. Then we advance to the next series after we’ve mastered the first. In this way, Ashtanga yoga rarely bores its practitioners because there’s always another pose or another series to master.
In fact, there are a total of six series in Ashtanga -- the first (or primary) series, the second (or intermediate) series and then four advanced series that follow. They all begin with Sun Salutations, and all postures within each series are practiced within a specific order. In this way, once you memorize the many sequences of postures, you can move through them in a deeply meditative fashion.
(More on The Power of Vinyasa.)
Ashtanga yoga’s not for everyone, but for those who want a truly advanced, athletic and disciplined kind of practice, it’s a gorgeous style of yoga that covers everything a yogi could want within a well-rounded yoga practice.