The History of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
A Brief History of Modern Postural Yoga Practice
Yoga is a philosophy for life that has its origins in ancient teachings from India which go back some 4,000 years. It is a system that incorporates many elements and practices, not just the postures (known as asanas) that have defined much of the yoga taught in the west today. By practicing simple breath and meditation techniques and yoga asana regularly and with awareness, many of the other aspects of yoga also begin to unfold and the practice has the potential to become transformational, and our awareness starts to expand beyond that experienced on the yoga mat and into our daily lives.
In what we might call ‘Modern Yoga’, there are many schools and systems for practicing that have evolved, but many of these systems have postural and breath or meditation practices at their heart.
Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is one of these systems of Hatha yoga that synchronises breath and movement in a flowing sequence of asanas (postures). Each asana has a unique choreographed number of movements into and out of it. When practised regularly, it can help to develop strength, flexibility, stamina and help to cultivate an all-round feeling of well being and a still and focussed mind. It is ultimately a moving meditation.
Poses (asana) flow one after another in a sequence with each held for a number of breaths (typically 5) breaths before transitioning through a specific series of movements (Vinyasa) to the next pose. When practiced mindfully and in a way that supports each individual person this system of yoga can be very therapeutic. By practising the asanas in sequence we are opening and reprogramming patterns and energy channels in the body, with each working to prepare body and mind for the poses to come. There are 6 sequences in total in the Ashtanga system, although the majority of people will find that there is plenty to work with with the first two, Primary and Intermediate series, which can take many years of practice to complete. The Primary Series is known as Yoga Chikitsa.
Anyone can benefit from this dynamic system of yoga, as long as it is practised regularly, with awareness and patience and (preferably) taught under the guidance of an experienced teacher. We recommend attending one of our Beginners’ Courses or one to one sessions if you are new to this system of yoga practice before coming along to a group class if possible.
It can ultimately be a strong practice and should not be forced or rushed. You should always honour anything that is going in your physical body and practice in whatever way feels supportive so that you work with the body and the breath. There is no rush and what is important is the process of practicing itself and not any end result. By practising yoga asana sensibly we can develop strength, stability and flexibility and most importantly become tuned to our breath and the more subtle ‘felt sense’ of our body moving.
The History of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Ashtanga Yoga is historically difficult to define. Is it a physical practice, a mental practice, a spiritual practice, or
all of the above. Is it exercise, is it therapy, is it performance? Practitioners will align with different motives and definitions of practice making it particularly difficult to come up with a suitable definition that fits all practitioners. That is why Ashtanga Yoga is perhaps best identified by the history of the name, and the techniques that gradually became associated with it.
Ashtanga Yoga means 8 limbs and its first known use is in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali where it describes an 8-part method of
practice. Many of the ideas and practices outlined in the Yoga Sutras had already been developing in India for thousands of years. What makes the Yoga Sutras stand out is that they compiled variegated strands of yogic theory and praxis in a systematic way. However, yoga techniques are used by a variety of different traditions alongside that of the Yoga Sutras, which speaks to their versatility.
Sutras are a type of literature that is written in short aphorisms that are meant to be explained through commentary,
and there is a long and rich commentarial tradition associated with the Yoga Sutras. In Patanjali’s original treatise and early commentaries, we don’t see many of the techniques that we recognize in Ashtanga yoga practice today. It is through
the commentarial tradition, that over time we see the introduction of techniques that have influenced modern yoga practice.
Ashtanga Yoga, as practiced today, has it basis in the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya and his student K. Pattabhi
Jois. Jois claims that the practice comes from a lost manuscript called the Yoga Korunta. As of now, there is no known existing copy of this manuscript and very little is known about what it contains. Jois often quoted a verse from this text which stated “O Yogi, do not practice asana without vinyasa.” The linking of breath and movement in sequences of asanas, then would have its basis in this text. It is not clear what the relationship between the Yoga Sutra and Yoga Korunta may have been. Nor is it clear why Jois chose to name his method of practice Ashtanga Yoga since there is no mention of these techniques in the Yoga Sutra, despite Jois attributing his style of Yoga to this early source.
The fundamental practices of Jois’s system of Yoga are:
Tristana method – body posture (asana),
regulated free breathing with sound (ujjayi), and gazing points (driśti).
Vinyasa – synchronized breath and movement progressing through fixed sequences
Bandha – the use of internal muscle
engagements and energetic locks
Jois began teaching westerner students in 1964 in his home in Mysore, India. He subsequently made several trips throughout the world at the invitation of his students to propagate this form of Yoga. It has gradually spread through the efforts of many of Jois’s early students to be practiced around the globe today. It has heavily influenced modern yoga through the introduction of vinyasa that is fundamental to many styles and schools of yoga. Along with the spread of the system, more and more students began to journey to India to study with Jois. The method of teaching became gradually more codified and the system institutionalized.
Originally Pattabhi Jois named his small shala the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. The name was eventually changed to the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. In 2009, Pattabhi Jois passed away leaving the institute in the care of his daughter, Saraswati Jois, and his grandson, Sharath Jois. During this evolution the process of becoming an authorized teacher through the institute became more defined. While some dedicated practitioners made the journey to Mysore, India to study with Jois and his grandson Sharath we also see many dedicated practitioner groups have sprung up around some of Jois’s early students. The introduction of modern media tools has also led to the dissemination of the system to lone practitioners or small groups of individuals. This diaspora of Ashtanga practitioners has, as is common in the history of traditions, led to differences in interpretation of the method, while still maintaining enough continuity for students to clearly identify the practice tradition. This has also led to debates around legitimacy regarding qualifications to teach based on affiliation with certain teachers, institutions, or interpretations of the method.
In 20017, reports surfaced that Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted a number of former students in plain sight often under
the guise of giving asana assists. These women, Jubilee Cooke, Karen Rain and others, released powerful statements that shared their #metoo stories. The behaviour of Jois had been normalized and minimized throughout the community of practitioners through a variety of power dynamics including the attribution to Jois of spiritual and healing power. It is power dynamics such as these that allowed abuse in plain sight to be rationalized and repressed only to come up years after Pattabhi Jois’s death.
Our commitment to holding a safe and supportive space for everyone who comes to Practice
We believe strongly that situations such as those that allowed this to happen must never happen again and it is power dynamics such as these that we absolutely seeks to address. It is our aim and responsibility as teachers to hold a safe space for people to practice. We believe that integrity is a key principle in yoga and all of our teachers and trainees have a responsibility to ensure their personal and professional behaviour is congruent with these values.
A regular, holistic yoga practise can have significant impacts on a person’s health and wellbeing. In the hands of a well-trained and capable teacher this can be an extremely positive impact. The practitioner/teacher relationship is a partnership. Both the practitioner and the teacher hold specialised information. The teacher has knowledge and experience based on specialised training in yoga theory and practice and associated disciplines along with lived experience as a practitioner and numerous applied teaching experiences.
The student holds information about their own history and current experience. We believe in working with clarity and integrity to ensure a professional and supportive practitioner – teacher relationship.
Opening & Closing Mantras
vande gurunam caranaravinde sandarsita svatma sukhavabodhe
nihsreyase jangalikayamane samsara halahala mohasantyai
abahu purusakaram sankhacakrasi dharinam
sahasra sirasam svetam pranamami patanjalim
Om shanti shanti shanti
I bow to the lotus feet of the Supreme Guru
which awakens insight into the happiness of pure Being,
which are the refuge, the jungle physician,
which eliminate the delusion caused by the poisonous herb of Samsara (conditioned existence). I prostrate before the sage Patanjali
who has thousands of radiant, white heads (as the divine serpent, Ananta)
and who has, as far as his arms, assumed the form of a man
holding a conch shell (divine sound), a wheel (discus of light or infinite time) and a sword (discrimination).
nyayena margena mahim mahisah
gobrahmanebyah subhamastu nityam
lokah samastah sukhinobhavantu
Om shanti shanti shanti
May the rulers of the earth keep to the path of virtue
For protecting the welfare of all generations.
May the religious, and all peoples be forever blessed,
May all beings everywhere be happy and free
Om peace, peace, perfect peace