WHAT IS ASHTANGA YOGA?
Ashtanga yoga is a form of hatha yoga and is a traditional and dynamic practice defined by the use of Tristana. This is the use of vinyasa (connection of breath and movement), Drishti (gaze points) and bandhas (physical energy locks). It was the first yoga style in which a vinyasa movement linked the static postures. All other movement-based yoga styles were derived from this system.
Contrary to popular belief, using ujjayi breath is not the method of breathing for the style. It should be an easeful, free deep breathing rather than the Darth Vader style many teachers promote. Each asana or posture has a specific breath count that you will learn. The use of this breath creates an inner heat in the body. This cleanses the organs and lengthens the muscles.
In addition, Dristi (gaze points) are specific to each posture and are usually the nose, third eye, navel or hands. This gives you greater concentration and internal focus on the prana or energetic body. Bandhas or muscular contractions lift yourself in postures from the inside. This is in opposition to the overuse of muscles.
Above all, the Ashtanga yoga method produces a degree of structure in practice. It allows for a profound understanding of the deeper layers of body awareness. Traditionally Ashtanga yoga is practised early in the morning and six days a week. The method is a discipline from which many rewards are reaped on all levels.
ASHTANGA YOGA SEQUENCE & SERIES
The Ashtanga yoga system is based on set sequences of asanas over six series’ outlined below.
ASHTANGA YOGA PRIMARY SERIES ‘YOGA CHIKITISA”
ASHTANGA YOGA INTERMEDIATE SERIES ‘NADI SHODHANA’ (ALSO REFERRED TO AS THE SECOND SERIES)
Once this is achieved, students may graduate to the intermediate series. In Sanskrit, this is referred to as Nadi shodhana or nerve cleansing. It involves deeper flexions and spinal twisting, working with the parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating the vital nerves along the spinal axis. At this point, the student is advised to regularly practice with a teacher as the postures are intense, as are the challenges and pitfalls.
There are four proceeding sequences collectively known as the advanced sequences A, B, C and D, and known by the Sanskrit term ‘Sthira Baga’ (steady strength). Traditionally these were for demonstration. The aim was to inspire students to undertake the arduous challenges of yoga. They display exciting and impressive feats of strength and flexibility. However, only the most dedicated and adept students practice these. These postures demand an incredible physical ability and are rarely if ever, completed by most students.
MYSORE STYLE ASHTANGA YOGA
Mysore is the town in India where this style of yoga teaching originated. Traditionally, Ashtanga yoga was taught by Pattabhi Jois to each student individually at their level. This is referred to as Mysore-style self-practice.
Students are taught the postures of the series individually and together in the same room within a certain period. It is often compared to a private lesson within a group. Each person will start and finish according to where they are at within the sequence as instructed by the teacher. Contrary to what some believe, this learning style is the best for all levels, even beginners, to Ashtanga yoga.
You will quickly gain strength and learn how to do the postures correctly and safely, allowing you to progress at your own pace, with a greater understanding of what you should be working on within the posture working with your unique breath pattern and developing a more profound lung capacity.
This takes quite a degree of commitment and is greatly assisted by the support of the teacher and fellow practitioners. This ‘sangha’ whom you will see most days and will form a bond with even before speaking to them.
Practically speaking, this daily group provides an instrumental support network. It helps when you might struggle with discipline or challenges to know that others are on the same path. And that they have likely been where you are.
LED ASHTANGA YOGA CLASS
The led class is when the class practices together at the teacher's call. The focus of the breath, breathing as one according to the postures. This is an excellent check-in to see where you might be speeding up through postures that are not your favourites and where you may be taking extra time in the Mysore class.
Both styles of classes complement each other and offer different challenges and benefits. Traditionally there are four Mysore classes each week. In addition, one led primary for all, one led intermediate for those at that level, or another led directly for those not.
DAYS OFF AND ASHTANGA MOON DAYS
The day off has changed over the years from Saturday to Sunday and back to Saturday, depending on the needs of the Jois family. The day out has no other significance.
Pattabhi Jois introduced moon days off at some point with the reasoning around the pull of the moon and the water in our bodies. However, if you are not intensively practising six days a week, you do not need to take the day off. You can just have a gentle practice instead.
HISTORY OF MYSORE ASHTANGA YOGA
The Ashtanga yoga system is one of the traditional forms of hatha yoga derived from Sri Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). He is widely considered the architect of modern yoga asana.
It was initially claimed that his yoga knowledge was passed down through a sacred Indian text called The Yoga Karuna. This was taught to him by a mysterious yogi in the Himalayas called Ramamohana Brahmachari. This has never been sufficiently validated. However, Krishnamacharya inevitably travelled to study in this area of northern India for extended periods in his earlier life.
Having completed his studies, he settled in Mysore, South India. He taught yoga to the Maharaj (king) of Mysore. It was traditional for a parting student to pay his teacher on the completion of his studies. What Krishnamacharya was asked for in exchange was the dissemination of yoga.
Whatever else can be said about the integrity of its form, yoga postures have been recorded to exist in the scriptures and sacred texts. Found in the Indus Valley dating back thousands of years. For this reason, it is deemed to be an ancient practice. It has always been contextualised around other methods of further discipline, not only physical.
After retiring as a professor of Sanskrit at The University of Mysore, Jois started a yoga shala in his own house. It was here that the first western student, Andre Von Lisbeth, discovered him in the mid-1950s. By the 1960s, American hippies travelling to India had been led to Mysore. The first of these is Nancy Gilgoff and David Williams, who made the trip having seen a demonstration by Manju, Jois’ son.
From the 1980s onwards, the popularity of Ashtanga exploded through Jois’ travels abroad to teach. A whole range of celebrities publicly endorsed it as their chosen practice. Pattabhi Jois was a household name by his death in 2010.
Unfortunately, recent allegations of abuse made against Jois, of both sexual misconduct and strenuous adjustments resulting in serious physical injuries, have tarnished his reputation. The Ashtanga community this still dealing with the fallout of these revelations. Teachers and students are finding their way forward to continue teaching the system that has brought benefits to so many. However, some have moved away altogether.
Sharath began practising with his grandfather when he was young and is the only student to be taught the entire six series. He obtained a degree in electronics, and after that, he began assisting in the shala as the number of students grew beyond one man’s capacity. He now carries on his grandfather’s teaching at his school in Mysore, the Sharath Yoga Centre. Hundreds of students at a time came to learn from him before the lockdowns of Covid.
Saraswati, the daughter of Pattabhi Jois, was taught the entire syllabus of Ashtanga yoga as a young girl. Mother to Sharath and Sharmilla, she has continued training in her own right for most of her life, attracting her students from all over the world.