Ashtanga yoga practice, also referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, is considered one of the traditional yogas as it’s roots can be traced back to Indian tradition. It was founded by K. Pattabhi Jois, and his students have since infiltrated the corners of the globe teaching his yoga philosophy and methodology. Ashtanga literally means “eight-limb yoga” and the grounds come from The Yoga Sutras as outlined by Patanjali. It’s an energetic and focused yoga that takes dedication to master properly. Although, at the basic level it is suitable for everyone and has many benefits that go far beyond just physical.
Ashtanga yoga was founded by K. Pattabhi Jois, a name now recognised around the world, who dedicated his entire life to practicing and teaching yoga.
Born in 1915, Jois was the son of a priest and astrologer. He was introduced at a very early age to Sanskrit and rituals, although his family had no interest in the practice or theory of yoga.
At age 12, Jois saw a yoga demonstration by T. Krishnamacharya and enlisted to become his student the very next day. He practiced every day with Krishnamacharya before school, unknown to his parents.
Dedicated to learning more, at age 15, Jois ran away from his home village of Kowshika in South India, with just 2 rupees to his name. He headed for Mysore, where he begged entry to Maharaja’s Sanskrit College.
His first years in Mysore were difficult. With no money or friends and family in the town, he had to beg for food and shelter. However, this didn’t deter him and eventually, due to his existing knowledge in yoga, Jois was able to do yoga demonstrations both at the College and the home of the Maharaja, alongside his original teacher Krishnamacharya. He had, as fate would have it, also ended up in Mysore.
In 1937, Jois was given the post as Yoga Teacher to the students at Sanskrit college, a post he remained in until 1973. Simultaneously, his efforts studying paid of and he was rewarded with a Vidvan degree.
Jois founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (AYRI) at his new home in Lakshmipuram.
Jois stopped teaching at the Sanskrit college after 37 years to focus solely on teaching from AYRI.
Ashtanga yoga practice – spreading to the west
Whilst Jois had taught yoga for over 70 years, it was only the latter part of his life that his name spread to the west. In the global rise of yoga, westerners spread to India to learn the ancient practice of Ashtanga yoga first-hand, before bringing it back to their home countries.
Two hundred or more students would queue outside Jois’s house to get enlisted to his classes. Whilst he didn’t hold any official accreditation or teacher training, if a student showed they had mastered the practice and the theory to his expected level and were dedicated, he would give them his blessing to teach the Ashtanga yoga method.
It is estimated that only 150 blessings were given, but that of course many other yoga teachers today, teach the Ashtanga yoga style of Pattabhi Jois.
Ashtanga as taught by Pattabhi Jois
Jois’s yoga philosophy was simple. Yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice!
He also firmly believed that yoga was more than the asanas (the poses), and far more than just a physical exercise. His beliefs were that practice revolved around the purification of the soul.
“Yoga is not physical, very wrong. Hatha Yoga can indeed be used as external exercises only, but that is not the ultimate benefit of Yoga. Yoga can go very deep, deep and touch the soul of man. When Yoga is performed in the right way, over a long period of time, the nervous system is purified, and so is the mind.”
Jois always says that the Ashtanga yoga method is exactly how Krishnamacharya taught him. Although, he has modified some of the sequences to create what he saw as a more logical and streamlined practice. This came after many years of observation and gaining his own yoga experience.
Ashtanga yoga practice
There are six series that make up Ashtanga yoga, each with 25 asanas.
In western Ashtanga yoga classes, it is more often than not, the Ashtanga yoga primary series that is being taught, as only a handful of people around the world have experience past the third series. The latter series involve complex back bends and other contortionist positions as well as intense stretches and twists. It is highly demanding for the body and the mind and only suitable for someone who has dedicated serious time to learning the first three series, usually more than five years.
It is rumoured that the grandson of Jois is the only living man who has been exposed to the sixth and final series, and that it could involve mind and body exercises such as stopping the heart from beating.
Ashtanga yoga primary series
If you are learning Ashtanga yoga, you will be taught the basic sun salutations. These make up the back bone of Ashtanga yoga practice, along with the standing poses. Only when these have been mastered will you be able to move onto more complex poses.
The Ashtanga yoga primary series is known as Yoga Cikitsa. It is focused on realigning and balancing your gross physical body by increasing the flow of energy through your body. This awakens you to improved health, circulation and general well-being.
The Ashtanga yoga secondary series, is also known as Nadhi Shodhana (The Nerve Purifier) and focuses on lengthening the spine and strengthening the organs.
Ashtanga Yoga – London
There are many Ashtanga yoga studios in London. Here the teachers will focus on talking you through the primary series until you are proficient. There are also Mysore style, self-practice Ashtanga classes, where experienced teachers are on hand to help you perfect your practice.