Ashtanga Yoga, as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, is an elegantly designed sequence of breath-initiated postures that create vibrant health and steadiness of mind. By focusing on our breath and the accompanying sensations which arise and pass away, we gradually realize the truth of an unchanging reality. Regular, consistent practice is essential to this process, yet the potency of the system can be felt in a single practice.
In the “Mysore” style method of teaching, students are taught individually in a group setting. As students learn and internalize the sequence, mastering challenges and following the pace of their own breathing, they are taught new postures as appropriate. The nurturing support of the teacher compliments the deepening self-awareness and independence of the student. By objectively observing the student’s breathing and physical integration of the asanas, the teacher ascertains the appropriate pace of progress. Sensitive hands-on adjustments by the teacher can open up previous limitations imposed by the mind. There is a quiet, meditative serenity in the practice room that enhances this process.
Although the sequence is universal, its approach may vary according to specific needs. This creates the opportunity for a tailored practice typically only offered through private lessons, with the benefit of the energy, community, and shared cost of a group class.
Ashtanga Yoga utilizes the techniques of ujjayi pranayama (breathing with sound), drishti (gazing point) and bandhas (energetic locks) to eliminate external distractions, and thereby focus the mind. The ujjayi breathing allows one to notice sensations as they arise, and develop equanimity toward the relative pleasures and difficulties that present themselves as one moves through a wide range of postures. The drishti keeps the vision from wandering, and brings the body into natural alignment for unobstructed flow of prana (energy). The bandhas direct this increased prana towards the crown of the head, where spiritual awareness is realized.
Ashtanga Yoga consists of six series of asanas (postures) which progress in difficulty. The primary series is known as Yoga Chikitsa, or Yoga Therapy, which detoxifies and realigns the body. The heat created through the repetition of sun salutations in the practice encourages a thinning of the blood, resulting in increased circulation. It also stimulates the cleansing of the skin through sweating. The standing sequence, which precedes even the most advanced series, opens the hips and aligns the spine. The seated postures stimulate the agni, or digestive fire, enhancing the function of the organs of digestion to rid the body of accumulated toxins and waste.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a physical practice of asanas seated within the classical Ashtanga Yoga philosophy of Patanjali, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras. This eight-limbed system (ashtau means “eight”, anga means “limb”) is as follows:
Yama (codes of conduct in relation to others which inform all other limbs)
Bramacharya: sexual chastity
Aparigraha: non-hoarding, or not taking more than we need
Niyama (codes of conduct in relation to one’s self)
Saucha: cleanliness, both internal and external
Santosha: contentment, accepting things as they are
Tapas: the heat of discipline
Svadhyaya: study of one’s true nature
Ishwara Pranidhana: surrender to the One
Asana (posture, or literally “seat”)
Pranayama (directing of the breath, or life force)
Pratyahara (withdrawing of the senses to look inward)
Dharana (concentration of the mind on a single object, such as the breath)
Dhyana (meditation, or joining of the mind and the object of concentration)
Samadhi (absorption, or realization of the true nature of reality)
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois taught that the most direct entry point into this system is through asana, the third limb. As the body is the most tangible thing that we can work with, it is the most easily changed. The systematic realignment of the hips and spine allows for a comfortable and stable seated posture, which is essential for progression through the last limbs of concentration, meditation, and absorption. In addition, clearing the body of energetic and physical obstructions through the cleansing process of Yoga Chikitsa renders the body free of discomfort and disease, which distracts the mind from the one-pointed focus necessary to work with the later limbs.
However, despite the overtly physical orientation of the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice, it also lays the groundwork for practice of the other limbs. The practice itself encourages the unfolding of the first limb of yama, as we excavate physical manifestations of psychological states which influence our worldview. Then the second limb, niyama, develops through the strength of our dedication to our practice (tapas), the cleansing aspects of it (saucha), the necessity of accepting where we are (santosha), the deep introspection into our nature and surrender to it (svadhyaya and ishwara pranidhana).
Embedded in the practice are the fourth, fifth, and sixth limbs, Pranayama, Pratyahara, and Dharana. By practicing Ujjayi pranayama, we learn to regulate and deepen the breath as our movements grow from it, and the sound of it focuses our sense of hearing, eliminating distractions by other sounds. Drishti focuses the visual sense, and interiorizes the attention. This all sets the stage for future unfolding of the final limbs of Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (Self-realization).