Ashtanga Yoga describes a method of yoga taught since the 1930’s by Sri K.Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. The Ashtanga method stems from a system outlined in the ancient Yoga Korunta text by the sage Vamana Rishi. Although this text has never been cited, it is said Pattabhi Jois was orally given the information in the Korunta by his guru, the famous Yoga teacher and scholar, Krishnamacharya, who was also the guru of other influential Yogi’s including BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi, AG Mohan and TKV Desikachar (Stern 2006, Smith 2007).
'Ashtanga' refers to eight limbs as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, an ancient yet highly influential text on the philosophy and practice of Yoga. Patanjali describes these eight limbs as:
Pranayama (breath control)
Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
Each ‘limb’ supports the other, with the practice of postures (asana) critical for preparing the body for pranayama and meditation, leading the yogi essentially towards Samadhi (Pace n.d.).
The practice of Ashtanga Yoga is based on a sequence of asanas that are linked together by a series of movements, called vinyasa. The vinyasa is coordinated with a breathing technique called ujjayı that is easily practiced by gently contracting the back of the throat. The practitioner is able to control and steady the breath, using it to create internal heat in the body. Combined with the steady focus of the eyes and the use of body locks (bandhas), there is a deepening of attention and experience for the practitioner in each pose (Smith 2007).
Ashtanga yoga continues to be taught at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (KPJAYI) in Mysore, India. In 2009 Pattabhi Jois left his body, and the responsibility of carrying his teachings and the Ashtanga tradition to his grandson, Sharath. Each year, thousands of Ashtanga practitioners from around the world travel to Mysore to practice at KPJAYI with Sharath and Pattabhi Jois’ daughter, Saraswati.
The Six Series in Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga yoga consists of six series of postures. The Ashtanga Primary Series (Yoga Chikitsa or yoga therapy) aligns and purifies the physical body, and the Intermediate Series (Nadi Shodhana) cleanses the nervous system. The Advanced Series A, B, C and D (Sthira Bhaga) are progressively more and more challenging, and integrate strength with grace of movement.
One of the distinguishing factors of the Ashtanga method is the importance of practicing in sequential order. Each posture has been carefully designed to prepare for the next, developing strength and opening the body. It is for this reason that teachers guide their students meticulously through the sequence, giving only the next posture when the previous is practiced with proficiency and ease.