Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

What is Ashtanga? The Long Version

Mysore Ashtanga practice typically starts with a mantra. Eight simple lines in Sanskrit are chanted by thousands of people across the globe before they begin their daily yoga practice.  Many mornings “vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde” are the first words to pass my lips. Repeating the mantra morning after morning over the years has imbued it with a special power – the power to bring my mind into focus and transform any space from mundane to specially set apart for the task at hand. The task at hand is breathing and moving at its most basic level and complete mental absorption at its most intense. 

vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde
I give honor and respect to the teachers, bowing down to their lotus feet

 Sharath in NYC

Sharath in NYC

Ashtanga Yoga is a lineage based system and as such the exact method of practice is passed down directly from teacher to student. The only way to learn how to practice ashtanga is to study with someone who learned how to practice ashtanga from someone who learned how to practice ashtanga……….and so on.

The practice cannot be learned from a book, though there are good books on the subject, and cannot be learned from videos, though there are a plethora of videos on the subject. The importance of the student teacher relationship cannot be stressed enough. The current lineage holder, R. Sharath Jois, resides in Mysore, India where he teaches the ashtanga method at the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI). Sharath teaches the way his grandfather, Pattabhi Jois, taught him, who in turn taught the way he learned the method from the great T. Krishnamacharya, a veritable legend of a man in the yoga world. KPJAYI is only entity in the world to keep a list of teachers with permission from Sharath to teach the ashtanga yoga method.  Any teacher with the blessing of KPJAYI will have made several extended trips to India to study, in addition to their own “self practice” which is expected to be daily.   

saṁdarśitasvātmasukhāvabodhe
The revealed knowledge of one’s essential Self, which brings joy

The Mysore Style of teaching cultivates a self-practice within each student. The ashtanga system is comprised of postures done in a specific order to special breathing technique.  The postures and their order coupled with the breathing technique are taught to each student individually. When the student becomes proficient in what he or she has learned the teacher adds more postures to her or his daily self-practice. 

 A random moment in the Mysore R===

A random moment in the Mysore R===

Walking into a Mysore Style ashtanga practice can look like pandemonium to a new student.  Everyone is breathing at their own individual pace, working on different postures of the sequence, and focusing on their own practice.  The room is often silent except for the sound of inhale and exhale with the exception of the teacher who roams the room explaining, clarifying, giving physical adjustments and support.  Learning to practice through this method builds the student’s confidence in her or his ability to practice with or without the support of a teacher and group of fellow practitioners. Cultivating a self-practice, done to one’s own breath, with full concentration on the task at hand engenders curiosity towards introspection.  With consistent practice knowledge of one’s own essential being can be gained.  

niḥśreyase jāṅgalikāyamāne
(this knowledge is) beyond the best – without comparison, acting like the jungle physician
saṁsāra hālāhala moha śāntyai
pacifies the most deadly poison of conditioned existence

Ashtanga systematically works strengthen and heal the body, control the breath and nervous system, and calm the mind. The sequence of postures is intelligently designed to build muscle, increase range of motion, and improve the actions of the internal organs. Anyone willing to put forth consistent effort can practice ashtanga regardless of body type, fitness level, or special consideration.  The practice will always meet the student at his or her level and encourage a steady progression towards new horizons. Consistent practice leads to a strong body, controlled nervous system, and steady mind.  The skills and self-awareness gleaned from sweat and toil on the yoga mat can be used in all parts of life. There is no end to the ashtanga journey, only a beginning.

abāhu puruṣākāraṁ
In the form of a man to the shoulders

śaṁkhacakrāsi dhāriṇam
Holdinga conch, a discus, and a sword

sahasra śirasaṁ śvetaṁ
Having one thousand shining white head

praṇamāmi patañjalim
I bow to Patanjali
 Patanjali

Patanjali

The word ashtanga – eight limbs - comes from the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of the sage Patanjali. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is one of the definitive texts on yoga.  T. Krishnamacharya went so far as to say that if it is not contained in the Yoga Sutras then it is not yoga. This eight-limbed path of yoga is comprised of moral ethics, posture practice, breath control, inward focus, and mental control - to put things simply. The sage Patanjali is traditionally depicted as man up to the shoulders with a thousand shining white serpentine heads.  The serpent, a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, is held in reverence in India.  Patanjali’s thousand heads illustrate his need and ability to impart knowledge in many different ways to many different people.  The sage holds a conch used to trumpet the primordial sound of creation, a discus to sever the ego, and a sword signifying his knowledge of ultimate truth.  The Yoga Sutras have survived 2,000 years and continue to inform and define yoga practice today.

Tradition is held in reverence in the ashtanga system.  Ashtangis adhere to a lunar calendar for their practice, taking both new moon and full moon days off to rest. Teachers present and past are honored and respected for the knowledge they are spreading by continuing to teach the method as it has been taught to them, without creative deviation. In no way does this commitment to tradition cause the practice to stagnate. The ashtanga practice develops a different way in every committed student. Each practitioner comes to truth after his or her own fashion. Liberation from suffering is guaranteed; it is only a matter of time.  

 Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois