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.
What is Ashtanga Yoga
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.
Poses (asana) are linked 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.
We repeat a set sequence of postures each time we practice, so that the sequence becomes familiar, and in doing so we develop a self practice. It becomes our own daily personal experience of movement and breath awareness, creating an independence in your practice that is empowering. As and when your body feels ready to do more, your teacher will share new postures with you that are added to the sequence. When practiced mindfully and in a way that supports each individual person this system of yoga can be very therapeutic and has the potential to be transformational. The repetition and familiarity of the postures provides a daily frame of reference from which to observe your state of mind and your ‘felt sense’ of your body moving. We might be following the same sequence each time, but no two practices are the same.
The fundamental practices of the Ashtanga Yoga system are:
Tristana method – Posture (asana), regulated ‘free’ breathing, and gazing points (driśti). When we are able to combine these three elements, this creates a deeply relaxed state of concentration.
Vinyasa – synchronised breath and movement progressing through fixed sequences of postures
Bandha – the use of internal muscle engagements and energetic holds
Anyone can benefit from this dynamic system of yoga. As with any yoga practice, it is important not to rush and to move in a way that feels comfortable in your own body. Our teachers are highly skilled and experienced and are there to support you with your own practice so that you can explore practicing in a way that resources you. We use the framework of the Ashtanga yoga sequences, which are a wonderful tool for developing your own self practice over time. 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, but do get in touch if you have any more questions or would like us to call you to discuss starting a yoga practice.
Yoga practice should not be forced or rushed but practiced in whatever way feels supportive so that we pay attention to our body, and most importantly, our breath. 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 become tuned to our breath and the more subtle ‘felt sense’ of our body moving.
Our commitment to holding a safe and supportive space for everyone who comes to Practice
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.
The History of Ashtanga 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 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, who evolved this system of linking of breath and movement in sequences of asanas. He began teaching western 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.
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. While some dedicated practitioners made the journey to Mysore, India to study with Jois and his grandson Sharath, many dedicated practitioner groups also evolved around some of Jois’s early students. 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.
Sadly, in 2017, reports surfaced that Pattabhi Jois had 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 normalised and minimised 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 rationalised and repressed only to come up years after Pattabhi Jois’s death.
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.
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