Like Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga is a mix of many different asanas (Yoga positions) which are taught along with the Ashtanga Philosophy. The text Yoga Korunta was passed on to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 1900’s by his guru (Rama Mohan Brahmachari) and then passed down to one of his students (Pattabhi Jois in and around the late 1920’s.Pattabhi Jois has since been teaching Ashtanga Yoga and in 1948 opened the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. The institute, which started in Mysore India, has expanded worldwide.
Ashtanga Yoga is based off the writings of Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Here, Patanjali outlined the path of purification for revealing the Universal Self (a philosophy connected to all Yoga) through a series of eight practices. Thus the Ashtanga Philosophy (ashtanga translates loosely to “eight-limbed yoga) consists of eight practices:
Yama: morality and moral codes
Niyama: self purification and study
Asana: postures and poses
Pranayama: breathing control
Pratyahara: sense control
Ashtanga Yoga focuses on the cleansing of them mind, which is attained by the first two limbs. However, these two limbs cannot be attained unless the body and organs are in a healthy state. Therefore, many Yogis that teach Ashtanga Yoga focus on the asanas (Ashtanga Poses) to strengthen the body before teaching the Yama and Niyama. Asanas are performed using Vinyasa which is a breathing coordination system used in conjunction with physical poses (for each one movement is one breath). Ashtanga Yoga also uses the practice of Tristhana, which pertains to posture, breathing and looking place. Tristhana is practiced with all Ashtanga Yoga Positions (asanas).
Once the asanas are all thoroughly learned, the other limbs of Ashtanga Yoga can be taught, starting with the Yama, Niyama and Pranayama. Once these limbs are mastered, one can move on to the Internal cleansing of Ashtanga Yoga. These four limbs of practice bring the mind under control. Once mind control is attained – the complete control of one’s mind and senses – the six poisons surrounding the sprit will slowly disintegrate, leading to full self realization and the finding of the universal self. The six poisons include:
Ashtanga Yoga Poses and Series
Some of the most common questions pertaining to Yoga (especially from western peoples) are about the poses. This usually stems from a person who is either not confident in their physical ability (therefore looking for yoga with easy asanas) or from a person who is looking for a physical challenge in their yoga classes.
Ashtanga positions are separated into three parts or series, basically outlining ‘beginner’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ poses. The first set of ‘beginner’ poses is called Yoga Chikitsa (meaning ‘therapy’). These asanas are meant to help the body adjust in flexibility and agility for the later Ashtanga positions. They help to help align the spine, detoxify the body and promote stamina and flexibility. This group of poses is made up of about 75 Ashtanga yoga poses which start with “sun salutations” (also called surya namaskara) and move one to sitting and standing poses.
The second series, called Nadi Shodana, cleanses the nervous system. These Ashtanga Yoga poses also start with sun salutations and work their way towards sitting and standing poses, but are only practiced after the first series is fully practiced and understood.
The last series, Sthira Bhaga, is intensive and for advanced students only. These Ashtanga poses promote ‘divine stability’ and are among the most difficult yoga poses. Those who master the Sthira Bhaga series are ready to move forward towards the inner cleansing techniques of Ashtanga Yoga.
Mysore: Self Led Teaching
Many students of Ashtanga Yoga opt to become self led or self taught – this is called Mysore. With Mysore practice, the student does not ‘make up’ their own poses. Instead, they are thoroughly taught the first two series of poses by an instructor. Once the poses are learned and memorized, the student then practices the Ashtanga poses with other students, but does so at their own pace. This produces a great environment to learn – while doing so at your own pace and practicing those poses which give you more difficulty. Mysore practice is extremely popular in Western yoga institutes and classes.