Removing the shroud of mystery surrounding Ashtanga Yoga

1) Introduction

I practice a form of physical yoga (asanas) which goes by the name "Ashtanga Yoga". I am writing this article to clarify the confusion that exists, about the origins, purpose and "rules" regarding this form of yoga, among not only students but many teachers as well. This form of yoga, is perhaps, the most intense and challenging of all the "trademarked" yoga forms in the world today, and for that reason it attracts a lot of people who seek and love the intensity it offers and adherence to discipline it demands.

Perhaps the most confusing aspect about this form of yoga is the veil of ancient mysticism that it is shrouded by, starting with a long chant in Sanskrit, followed by the enforcement of a seemingly long list of rules, so much so, that the term "Ashtanga Police" has been coined to refer to people who swear by or want to enforce these rules. All of these perplex a hapless student who is sometimes told by an authoritarian teacher that one must strictly follow the rules because they were "time tested for millenia". We will start to see how "time-tested" this approach is and slowly unshroud the veil of mysticism to lay bare the core concept and message without the paraphernalia. Please also refer to the article on "knowing the rules of yoga well to break them correctly" for some of the nuances behind the rules and guidelines of yoga. The article on "What is the right yoga practice for an individual" will also cast light on the history and purpose of asanas in the broader context of yoga.

2) Ashtanga Yoga - the misnomer

The term Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was coined by T. Krishnamacharya, well known as the father of modern day yoga, in the 1930's and popularized by his student K.Pattabhi Jois in the 1970's and 1980's. One of the common mistakes people make is to think that this system of physical postures that we practice is what Patanjali talks about in the classic text on yoga called Yoga Sutras, commonly believed to be written between 500 and 200 B.C.E. In fact there is very little in common between Patanjali's Ashtanga yoga method to get the mind to settle down and the dynamic sequence of asanas that T. Krishnamacharya developed for young students he taught at the Mysore palace in the 1930's and 40's.

Even though Patanjali mentions asana as one of the eight limbs of yoga, asana was defined merely as a posture that one should hold steadily (for a while) while staying comfortable, to lay the foundation for being able to sit in meditation for long durations. Patanjali attributes only 3 sutras, out of 196, to asanas (please see figure below). All the commentators on the sutras only mention a handful of seated poses like padmasana. No one mentions anything complicated like those found in the Ashtanga Vinyasa sequence of asanas.

T. Krishnamacharya teaching students at the Mysore palace. Known as a task master, who relentlessly drove his students to perform, in this picture, is shown standing on the chest of a student in Kapotasana, a highly challenging pose. Please also see the article "Yoga: Then and Now: A lighter look at this ancient inward gazing practice" for how perspectives have shifted since then.

Just 3 out of 196 sutras talk about asanas with almost half of the yoga sutras is on meditation and its effects

3) How it all started before "taking the world by storm"

It all started when a group of westerners visiting India saw Pattabhi Jois' son Manju Jois giving some yoga demonstrations in an ashram in Pondicherry, India. Being impressed by the demonstration, they asked Manju who his teacher was. Needless to say what happened next, probably something that Pattabhi Jois, a then retired Sanskrit College of Mysore professor, never even imagined, the Ashtanga Vinyasa system "took the world by storm". Fueled mainly by the intensity-loving and achievement driven western students who asked Pattabhi Jois for more and more advanced poses as they mastered the initial ones, the system spread in popularity. Somewhere along the way, many students saw a profound change and refinement in them that brought about a great self transformation. Many a student of Pattabhi Jois became a teacher themself, and would wake up before 4am daily to practice yoga and begin teaching his or her students at 6:00 am.

Pattabhi Jois teaching students digasana at his home in Mysore.

The classic intermediate series video with Pattabhi Jois instructing his students Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Eddie Stern, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, and Karen Haberman each of whom would become a great teacher in their own right

4) Sparse in words - the Guruji's message

Guruji, as Pattabhi Jois was known among his students, was not fluent in English and taught asanas using grunts and groans instead of words. This added to the mystery surrounding this short and overweight figure, who had an innate sense of humility and never expected to be put on the pedestal of world fame. Guruji knew too well that the benefit of asanas ended when the body became strong enough for inward contemplation. In this video (at 1:03), he says,

न।यम् आत्मा बलहीनेन लभ्य:

Na ayam Atma balaheenena labhyah

which translates to "One cannot find the atma with a weak body".

Pattabhi Jois, in another video, makes it very clear that asana is a tool for inward contemplation and not a physical exercise. Very often he would tell his students that the the primary series heals the body and hence it is called Yoga Chikitsa (Yogic therapy) and the intermediate series is called the Nadi Shodhana because it purifies the nadis, the conduits for the flow of prana or life energy. He would jokingly, then say, that the third series has no special benefit other than for use in demonstrations.

5) Origin of the more complex asanas

If none of the ancient texts on yoga like Yoga sutras, Thirumanthiram and the Bhagavad Gita or their commentaries by such intellectual giants like Adi Shankara and Vyasa, mention any of the complex postures, when did they originate and become popular ? Though there are murals and carvings in places like mahabalipuram showing rishis performing penance in various standing poses (such as the one shown below to the left), it was not until the nath order was formed, around the 10th century C.E., by Matsyendranath (middle picture below) that Hatha yoga began to be used methodically as a means to perform tapas (generate heat) to purify the body and mind for meditation. More information on the historical perspective can be found in the well researched book by British professor and Yogi, Dr. James Mallinson, titled "Roots of Yoga" (the picture below on the right).

Carving in Mahabalipuram

Matsyendranath, the founder of the nath sampradaya, often shown riding a fish (Matsya=fish)

Dr. Mallinson's book

6) Ego - leading cause for injury and obstacle to receiving the benefits of yoga

In one of the best books written about the history of yoga, titled "The story of yoga: from ancient India to the modern west", British author, Alistair Shearer, calls Ashtanga Yoga "spandex body building" (picture below). Of all the trademarked forms of yoga, he singles out only Ashtanga yoga, power yoga (which is derived from Ashtanga) and Bikram Yoga with less than praiseworthy words. While most people will not raise an eyebrow for this treatment of Bikram yoga, long term devout practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga can take offense at this treatment of their practice. But, unfortunately, that is the image that is being sent to the world by zealous men and women whose only reason for doing this form of yoga is the muscular or toned body that it sculpts.

I once attended the class of a very senior Ashtanga yoga teacher and told him that because of my physical limitations, I break a lot of Ashtanga "rules". He said he has no problem with people breaking rules as long as they are not driven by ego.

Ego is, therefore, something to watch out for lest it should create contra-beneficial effects that the practice, originally meant for getting the body ready for inward contemplation, is supposed to produce.

7) "Because it's there" - advancing in one's practice

George Mallory, the British climber, when asked by a reporter in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famously replied, "Because it's there". So too, the many practitioners of ashtanga yoga advance through the sequence of asanas "because it is there" to try. Before long, the practice becomes an integral part of their lifestyle with many waking up in the wee hours of the morning to practice before starting their work or family duties.

8) Sequence - a prophecy stone

Another point that causes contention with students of Ashtanga yoga is the strict adherence to a sequence with students not permitted to move to the next asana by their strict teachers until they master the current pose. Very often, for students it would mean that they are stuck in a pose like the notoriously difficult kapotasana for many years before they can move further. This creates frustration and a sense of stagnation in one's practice. I had written on this point "the sanctity of the sequence" in detail in a prior article but the gist here is that a sequence is like a prophecy stone. In each case, when you establish a relation with it for some time, it reveals something profound.

A prophecy stone

People who insist that the same sequence prescribed by Pattabhi Jois or his grandson be followed as such irrespective of one's physical limitations or abilities, due to it being "time tested by millenia" are missing the broader scope of yoga for there can be no one size fits all in yoga (See this article on "By whatever means possible"). As Manju Jois, Pattabhi Jois's son, says in this article, traditional yoga should not be made into a circus. Nevertheless, there is a room for improvement in the current scheme to uphold tradition while respecting individual limits and abilities.

9) Conclusion and reflection

In this article I hope to have removed some of the veil of mystery surrounding the practice of Ashtanga yoga, one of the most physically challenging "trademarked" yoga practices in the world. Once the tradition and why things are done a certain way, is understood, a student will feel more at ease and can choose to "modify the rules" as he/she deems suitable. It is the traditional nature of this practice that attracted me to practice it daily and I am grateful for the healing and precious states of mind that I have reached due the various techniques like the Moola bandha that this practice uses.

Nevertheless, because of my physical limitations including a prosthetic hip, I modify the practice to suit my body. During the pandemic, I have had the fortune of meeting many great teachers and I have found that the best teachers are those who do not treat the practice like a pilates styled exercise routine but are more grounded in the spiritual and philosophical aspects of yoga. In spite of some of the criticism surrounding this form of yoga, and the need for reform in how the certification is done, there is a lot of value in the tradition and treating it as a form of tapas to purify the mind and body for meditation and spiritual contemplation.