(asta – eight , anga – limb, step, branch , yoga- union)
The eight limb path
What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga Yoga is a practice and philosophy that aims at humanity’s physical, psychological and spiritual health and development. Yoga is one of the six main philosophical schools in India. It was first written down in the Shastras (old Indian texts specialised for spirituality) but has been kept alive from one generation to the next, for thousands of years, by being passed on through Guru-Shisya tradition also called as Parampara (lineage). Ashtanga Yoga isn’t bound to any religion, political leaning, or other association, though the Shastras do have their own definition of God’s appearance. Most importantly, this yoga is grounded in a deep tradition of respect for the practical experience and the teachings which lighten the knowledge of your innermost self.
Ashtanga Yoga is often defined as an intense, athletic, and dynamic form of yoga. In many ways this is true, though Ashtanga does much more than strengthen and stretch the body. By practicing with sensitive awareness of the breath, the drsti (gazing point), and the bandhas (energy locks), one can develop a sense of consciousness in both the body and mind. For many practitioners, Ashtanga Yoga can be considered as a path that leads us to the spirit that resides in all of us, and is in fact our very nature.
Reading and studying the philosophy of yoga found in ancient texts, is only a fraction of the practice. Books can show us the path of yoga, but practical training is necessary to clear the body and mind from blockages and to activate the physical, mental, and spiritual renewal that leads to freedom and happiness.
What are the benefits?
Ashtanga yoga is beneficial for anyone interested; the stiff and the flexible, the fit and the unfit. You practice at your own level and in your own timing, listening to your own body, your own breath, and mind. To stay motivated in the practice, it is important that you develop at the right pace for you, moving forward at a calm and steady pace. It is important to resist the desire to compare oneself to others, as everyone benefits from the practice in their own way.
It is to be expected that after some time, the practice will bring about a positive change in the student’s body and mind, and even lifestyle choices as in diet, and overall approach to health. As the student’s trust in the practice grows, the practice develops naturally.
It’s oddly paradoxical that often, the more you advance in the practice, the less you obsess with a need to achieve. Patience is cultivated. Small steps forward, both physical and psychological, erase doubt and give you energy to continue along the path. Try to take note of your progress, at the same time that you give yourself permission to “regress”, as progress doesn’t always to go in a forward direction. It can be necessary at times to go “backwards” in order to restore the body’s energy balance. With the right attitude, yoga is a certain path towards meeting your true self, where one is happy and already content with life as it is.
It is not a goal within the practice of Ashtanga yoga that you forget the outside world, and develop an obsessive attention on the inner world of your own body and mind. Avoid the appeal of fanaticism. Yoga should be a source of support and strength for your everyday life, and improve the quality of your life on all levels. In regards to how many poses you should perform, or how frequently you should practice, listen to your inner thoughts and feelings, listen to the reality of your life, and the reality of your body, and this should help you decide where to stop and how much to practice.
When do we practice?
Traditionally, the practice is done six mornings per week, with Saturday as a day of rest. Rest days are also taken on the full and new moon and on holidays.
The best time to practice is in the morning, when the air is richest in “prana” (life-giving energy), the mind has not yet become activated with excessive thought, the body is rested, and the stomach is empty. Morning practice will open and energize the body and mind for the rest of the day. On the other hand, know that it can take time to become accustomed to a morning practice, and the body is often more stiff in the morning than in the evening. Evening practice is also acceptable (although traditionally there is no practice after the sunset) if it suits your rhythm or schedule better, or simply if it feels better.
By following a daily rhythm, tailored to your needs, the benefits of a clear, calm mind and a body with a measure of health, self-regulation and ease begin to take effect, thus allowing for a natural relationship to occur with you and your practice over time.
I’m a beginner. How should I start?
If you are just beginning, it is strongly suggested that you find a place to study with a professional teacher, preferably in a yoga shala (yoga center or room) that teaches the traditional Mysore practice. It is always best to begin the practice under the supervision of an experienced teacher as they can best assure of your development and understanding of the practice. Books can introduce the asana yet cannot replace a teacher, as they simply cannot see you or understand issues or needs specific to you.
I’m pregnant. Is it safe for me to practice?
It’s generally recommended that for practitioners with an already existing Ashtanga Yoga practice take off the first three months of pregnancy and the first three months postpartum. It’s not recommended to start Ashtanga Yoga for the first time during pregnancy. Here’s an option for gentle, prenatal yoga sequence.
K. Pattabhi Jois studied for over 35 years (1927-1953) with his Guru T. Krishnamacharya, and from this extensive period of study, as well as from ancient texts, his own practice and his teaching to thousands of students, the knowledge of Ashtanga Yoga spread globally.
The Ashtanga yoga sequences which are practiced nowadays were taught exclusively to young Hoysala Brahmin boys in the 1930s by T. Krishnamacharya in Mysore. He was under the employment of the Maharaja of Mysore who wanted to spread and preserve the yoga heritage of India. The origin of the Ashtanga sequences and Vinyasa system is allegedly based on the legends of the Rishi Vamana’s book called Yoga Korunta and T. Krishnamacharya’s trips to the Himalayas and his seven years of studies with Yogisvara Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari.
K. Pattabhi Jois founded the Ashtanga Yoga School in 1948 in Mysore, India, originally named “Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam”: the traditional, 8-limbed “Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute” in the lineage of T. Krishnamacharya and Rishi Patanjali.
The first Western student to study extensively with Pattabhi Jois was a Belgian man, Andre van Lysebeth, who came to Mysore in 1964. He wrote about the teachings he received, especially the breathing practices, in his book Pranayama in 1971. The book was first only published in French, triggering an interest amongst Europeans to seek out practice with Pattabhi Jois and make their pilgrimage to Mysore. The first Americans who traveled to Mysore (in 1973) were, among others, David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff and Norman Allen.
In 2008, the Ashtanga Yoga School was renamed the K. Pattabhi Jois Astanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI). Pattabhi Jois passed away in 2009, leaving the care of the institute with his daughter, Saraswathi Jois and grandson, R. Sharath Jois.
According to the website AmayuYoga:
In 2017, reports surfaced that Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted a number of former students in plain sight often under
the guise of giving asana assists. These women, Jubilee Cooke, Karen Rain and others, released powerful statements that shared their #metoo stories. The behaviour of Jois had been normalized and minimized throughout the community of practitioners through a variety of power dynamics including the attribution to Jois of spiritual and healing power. It is power dynamics such as these that allowed abuse in plain sight to be rationalized and repressed only to come up years after Pattabhi Jois’s death. It is power dynamics such as these that Amayu seeks to address in re-imagining Ashtanga Yoga.
We align our vision of how Ashtanga Yoga can serve people today by reexamining the lens through which much of it has been transmitted. We aspire to create safer spaces for anyone who has the desire to practice. In order to create safer, more inclusive, braver spaces, these are some of the topics that need further examination:
- unsafe power dynamics
- community complicity (unintentional/intentional)
- cultural appropriation
- lack of context regarding Indian socio-history
- spiritual bypass and spiritual materialism
We envision the following for our shared method of practice:
- culture of consent and appropriate touch
- spirituality and social justice work
- the connection between personal and collective healing
- trauma-informed yoga methodology
- interfaith and interdisciplinary collaborations
- non-hierarchical approach to yoga pedagogy