About Ashtanga Yoga

A Brief History of Ashtanga Yoga

In the Sanskrit language ‘ashtau’ means the number eight, ‘anga’ means limbs or branches – ‘ashtanga’ therefore means something eight-branched, eight limbed. Patanjali refers to the ‘eight-fold path’ in his definitive work, the Yoga Sutra. The eight limbs, as translated by Hariharananda Aranya, are:
Yama = restraint
Niyama = observance
Asana = posture
Pranayama = breath control
Pratyahara = restraining of the senses
Dharana = steadiness of the mind
Dhyana = meditation
Samadhi = intense concentration.

A more widely ‘publicised’ translation by Georg Feuerstein:
Yama = discipline
Niyama = restraint
Asana = posture
Pranayama = breath control
Pratyahara = sense-withdrawal
Dharana = concentration
Dhyana = meditation
Samadhi = ecstasy

It is worth to note that there are dozens of different translations and interpretations of the names of the limbs, and there are descriptions of yoga with five limbs, six limbs, twelve limbs, sixteen limbs… So the eight limbs in Ashtanga yoga are just one set of many out there. The ‘limbs’ are overlooked or ignored in many schools and practices today. Nowadays the term ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ is most commonly associated with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, a practice style and philosophy that emerged and was developed in Mysore, South India during the 20th century. Most of Ashtanga based practices today focus on asana (posture), vinyasa (connecting movement) and some breath work (pranayama).

Sri T.Krishnamacharya
Sri T.Krishnamacharya

The ‘Founding Fathers’

The content and methodology of the style was probably developed from the 1930s onward by yoga guru and Sanskrit scholar, Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Apparently it is based on an ancient manuscript, the Yoga Korunta, although there isn’t any sound evidence to substantiate this claim (there is no ‘official’ record of the Yoga Korunta anywhere). There are many conflicting stories of this subject, we cannot know for certain if the style was developed fully by Krishnamacharya. It is more likely that it was partially reconstructed/adapted by one of his early disciples, K. Pattabhi Jois.

Ashtanga yoga is a powerful, dynamic, energetic, aerobic form of practice. According to contemporary research the posture (asana) practice of this style incorporates strong western gymnastic influences, techniques from the Indian wrestling and body building traditions, from contortionists and many other sources – so it is not an ‘original’, passed down tradition, but a new construct of the 20th century, a ‘revivalist’ system. It uses a powerful breathing technique (Ujjayi) and links the postures into set sequences with a connecting movement (vinyasa) resulting in generating deep, detoxifying heat throughout the body.

After Krishnamacharya left Mysore around 1950, K. Pattabhi Jois became the guru of Ashtanga Yoga. Throughout his life Pattabhi Jois claimed that he remained faithful to this form exactly how his guru passed it down to him. Until his death in 2009 at the age of 93 he taught at his Yoga Shala in Mysore, South India, and traveled the world to hold workshops.

K.Pattabhi Jois early photo
The young K.Pattabhi Jois c.1938

Through the teachings of K. Pattabhi Jois, mainly popularised by American students who studied with him, Ashtanga Yoga spread over most of the world and continues to grow. From the early seventies gradually more and more Westerners studied with him, later establishing their own schools in their own home countries. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and many other new dynamic styles developed from it are now taught world-wide, Ashtanga Yoga classes are taught by thousands of teachers and the style is practiced by many thousands of people.

Sadly, I am compelled to add in a paragraph here that fills me with sadness.  It has recently come into the public domain that K Pattabhi Jois has abused his position and regularly sexually molested women. I am  witness to this, I have seen the man’s conduct in the classes during my visit to Mysore in 2002. I have never made a secret what I have seen in Mysore, openly shared my experiences with my students. It made me ‘unpopular’ among the devoted followers of Pattabhi Jois… What a shame! Pattabhi Jois deserves much credit for keeping the Ashtanga Vinyasa method close to its original form and for making it widely available to the public for so many years. Such beautiful heritage of an amazing discipline, tainted by such awful behaviour of a ‘guru’…

There are many misconceptions attached to the name Ashtanga Yoga, and many claims made about its origins, tradition, capacity to transform you. In my view it is a mistake to call Ashtanga Yoga a ‘tradition’ – there isn’t a substantial enough timescale, history and continuity to justify this. A number of things stand though, regardless the age and history – it is a powerful, highly disciplined practice, originally designed for fit, young males in the framework of a university programme, and/or to give impressive public performances. Nowadays it is practiced by a much wider range of people, for many of whom it presents more of a risk than of benefit. Contrary to the ‘marketing’ out there, it is not suitable for everyone. However, when practiced by people of suitable physical and mental condition, with attention, persistence and consistency, it can be a life enhancing, even life transforming practice, physically and mentally.

Much of this amazing and increasingly popular style is shrouded in mystery, but as time goes, more and more information is emerging about its origins and development. This page will be updated time to time as more recent and reliable details become available. Meanwhile it might be useful to read the works of Dr N Sjoman ‘The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace’, and Mark Singleton’s ‘Yoga Body’, along with ‘The Path of Modern Yoga’ by Elliot Goldberg, and get familiar with modern yoga research.