The original Ashtanga yoga sequence of Ashtanga yoga differs from how students learn the ‘traditional sequence’ today. When the first western students arrived in Mysore they were not Pattabhi Jois’ first students. Indeed, Pattabhi Jois had been teaching from his home in Mysore for many years. He was teaching full-time after retiring in 1973 as the head of the Sanskrit department at the University of Mysore.
Jois had a ‘Yoga Syllabus’ for his few local students and that had been going on a number of years. The typewritten syllabus was framed and hung on the wall of the shala. (as in the pictures below).
When David Williams arrived in 1973 Jois told him the syllabus was the list of the four asana series and pranayama. Students had to get up off their mats to go look at the list of names of the postures to see what came next. There were of course no books, videos or other references at that time. John Scott created his stick drawings it was revolutionary for students to see what the postures looked like.
When David began learning the Ashtanga Yoga system, he knew of no one who was practicing the entire four series. Determined to learn the complete syllabus all of David’s energy for the next five years goes into learning and practicing these asanas and the pranayama. After learning the last posture of the Advanced B series, to his knowledge, he became the only living person practicing the entire syllabus at that time.
The idea was that students would progress through it also in a certain, allotted, time span. I believe David Williams might have mentioned the exact period in our Keen on Yoga Podcast with him. It was pretty quick that students were move through primary, intermediate and then the two advanced series. (what are now divided, amended and added to to comprise advanced A,B,C,D).
The Guinea Pigs
However, realistically speaking, I’m not sure how many graduates the system was producing. The proficiency needed, so high and the fact that the local people were not, indeed, full-time yoga-practitioners. Rather, held down daily jobs and came to yoga for a little health and well-being before work.
When I asked David Swenson why they were originally instructed twice-daily he suggested that PJ was simply happy to have this new stream of people he could work with so dynamically. ‘We were the guinea-pigs’ Swenson always says.
Changes From The Original Ashtanga Yoga Sequence
Finally, to return to the lists themselves, there is not so much that has changed. At least in the primary and intermediate, as well as the first part of advanced A. UHP comes much later, and backbends at the end of my intermediate are two differences that come to mind. However, we also must remember that PJ was happy to bend this sequence at any point for individuals – as he did for Nancy Gilgoff.
Also, interestingly, the Pranayamas and a some Shat-Kriyas are also mentioned. Pranayama was taught much more freely back then, and, it was infamous that on non-practice days PJ would assemble everyone at the shala and help them perform a version of Neto-kriya with them using an old bicycle inner-tube (the same one was used with everyone..).