What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga literally means ‘eight-limbed yoga’ as outlined by the Sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra somewhere around 200BC. According to Patanjali, the path of internal purification in order to reveal the Universal or true Self and find deep and lasting peace, consists of 8 spiritual practices.

Yamas (moral codes)
Niyamas (self purification and study)
Asana (posture)
Pranayama (breath control)
Pratyahara (sense control)
Dharana (concentration)
Dhyana (meditation)
Samadhi (contemplation/bliss)

The first 4 limbs are considered external cleansing practices necessary before one begins the final 4 internal practices in earnest. The limbs are not necessarily hierarchical although they do have a sense of progression. They can occur simultaneously.

Before we can steady the mind, the body must be strong and healthy so as to not be a distraction for the mind, this is the purpose of our asana (posture) practice and why this is often the first limb that students are introduced to. It is important to remember, however, that asana is just one of 8 limbs and cannot by itself lead to great and lasting internal transformation. 

The Ashtanga Yoga we practice today was created as a method to incorporate the teachings of the Sage Patanjali’s original yoga in a way that could be practiced daily.  The teachings are estimated to be thousands of years old and were founded by the Rishi Vamana, for every-day people living in rapidly growing cities where there were increasing demands on their time and becoming a yogic ascetic and giving up ones worldly possessions, family responsibilities and careers was not practical.

More recently the teachings were handed down orally by Ramamohan Brahmachari to Sri T Krishnamacharya, who later rediscovered their early documentation in the Yoga Korunta in the Calcutta library. The Yoga Korunta contained lists of many different groupings of asanas (postures) and highly original (at the time) teachings on vinyasa, dristhi, bandhas, mudras and philosophy.

Sri T Krishnamacharya taught the method to Sri K Pattabhi Jois who then taught it to his own students from 1948, including students from the west. His daughter R. Saraswathi and his grandson R. Sharath Jois, now continue teaching Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore, India.

Key features of the system include:

  • Asanas (postures) are practiced in a set series. There are 6 series, most students will spend many years working through the first of these, the Primary Series.   
  • The series is progressive in that each posture prepares the student for the next. For this reason, postures should not be practiced until the previous ones have been mastered as advised by your teacher.
  • It is a vinyasa system, meaning there is a specific breath for each movement which builds internal heat and is also a form of pratyahara (sense control) and eventually the practice becomes a moving meditation.
  • Bandhas or internal (core) muscle seals are necessary for internal strength and stability, to maintain and distribute energy and load-bearing within the body.
  • In each pose one looks to a gazing point or drishti which is a form of pratyahara (sense control) helping to still the mind by avoiding distraction, but also in many cases informs us of the direction of movement of the pose.
  • As the benefits of the practice are experienced and students wish to deepen their understanding of yoga and their own inner transformation, a daily practice is established.

To learn more about Ashtanga Yoga, new students are encouraged to attend our Beginners Courses or Intensives and all students may attend our regular Yoga Philosophy Workshops. Our studio also contains a number of books that can be borrowed for further reading on the subject.


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