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The History of Ashtanga

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Yoga originated as an Eastern practice of meditation to reach “union” of the individual self with the divine, universal Self. As Patanjali says in Book I, Sutra II “Yogah Citta Vrtti Nirodah” “Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of the mind”.

The physical yoga postures were introduced much later in order to prepare the body for mediation. The asana practice is what is widely known as yoga in the West nowadays. It is a beginning of deeper understanding of the body, mind & the spirit connection.

Over the last century, many different styles of this asana practice have developed from this origin. It is important to note that the earliest styles of physical yoga are Ashtanga Vinyasa and Iyengar yoga, which form the basis of many newer styles of yoga. Both Pattabhi Jois, "The father of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga", and Iyengar, of Iyengar yoga, were disciples of Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was a Sanskrit scholar, a healer and a yoga master (even he didn't like to be called as "Yogi"). He had a lasting impact on the asana practice as we know it today.

Ashtanga Yoga and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

There is a need to distinguish between Ashtanga yoga – Patanjali’s eight limbed path to yoga– and Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga – the physical practice of the series of Ashtanga yoga by Pattabhi Jois. “Ashta” means eight and therefore Ashtanga Yoga in the eight limbed path includes eight branches that are essential to reach yoga, union or enlightenment. These eight limbs are described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. A “sutra” is a thread. The Yoga Sutras are 196 aphorisms that describe how to reach the final state of Samadhi or bliss.

Eight limbs path to Universal

The first of eight limbs is the Yamas or ethical observations, which are concerned with one’s behaviour in relation to the outside world. The second of the eight limbs is the Niyamas or self-observations, which are concerned with one’s self in regards to inward and outward cleanliness. As the third limb we find the Asana or physical postures, as we learned from Larry Schultz: a mental state in a physical body. “Asana” is sanskrit word that means a steady and joyful seat. Pranayama or breath control is the fourth of eight limbs and the most common type of pranayama in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is The Ujjayi, Victorious breath, used during the physical practice. The last four limbs are more subtle as we move towards Higher states of Being. These are Pratyahara or sense withdrawal, Dharana concentration, Dhyana flow of meditation, and Samadhi, also known as bliss & enlightenment.

Basics of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

Of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, the third and fourth limbs are very explicit in the physical practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as designed by Krishnamacharya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. These are Asana and Pranayama ~ the physical poses and the breath observation. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is known for its dynamic, constantly moving and breathing practice. Each movement is connected to one breath, being either the inhalation or exhalation. Ujjayi breath is utilised throughout the entire practice, being an audio meditative tool for practitioner, enabling an increase of the life force, Prana.

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is comprised of six series or sequences, of which the most widely practiced is the first one, Full Primary Series. Traditionally, the practitioner has to master each pose before being allowed to move onto the next. As a result, various practitioners may spend (life)time with the first series. The concept of the set sequences of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is that repetition breeds success. The Full Primary Series focuses on forward folding and was designed as Yoga Chikitsa – Yoga Therapy to heal the body.

Yoga Korunta & Ants - myth

How then did the asana practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga originate?

The story goes that Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois were at the University of Calcutta in the 1930s, studying Sanskrit scriptures, when they came across a bundle of palm leaves known as the Yoga Korunta. On these palm leaves, it is said, were the outlines of what would become the six series of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois. Myth has it that the Yoga Korunta was later eaten up by ants, never to reveal its secrets. Originally, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was taught by Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. In 1948, Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, which is now known as the K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. Only as late as 1975 did Pattabhi Jois travel to the West (California, USA) to teach his first Ashtanga Vinyasa workshop overseas. Larry Shultz, among the other first western practitioners studied with him for over 7 years.

Pattabhi Jois spent more than 70 years of his life dedicated to practicing and teaching Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. In his words we keep on with the "Practice - and all is coming"

Eastern science for western practitioners

Shifting the philosophy that one pose had to be completed perfectly before the next was given; Larry Schultz created a sequence of postures that brought advanced poses to all levels of practitioners. Larry liberated the hierarchy inside the yoga room and yoga practice. He realized the power of modifications. His shift in the tradition was sparked by the reality of taking an eastern science and introducing it to western thinkers. The practice could be fun and accessible to all, while maintaining its scientific powers of healing, energizing and rejuvenating.

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