Ashtanga yoga is a spiritual practice that opens a door to the real experience of divinity within ev- ery student. Through the context of the physical practice of postures, breathing and specific focal points, the mind is trained to be increasingly sub- tler until it can perceive the most refined sensa- tions and experiences. The doorway to the inner world of transformation and self-realisation un- locks and students concentrate their mind on the deepest experience of truth within themselves.
The term Ashtanga yoga originates in Patan- jai’s Yoga Sutras that describe the eight-limbs of Ashtanga yoga. These include yama ( socially oriented moral observances), niyama (personally oriented observances), asana (physical postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawl), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (peace).
The actual asana practice of Ashtanga yoga comes from the life and teaching of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who dedicated his life to the dissemination of this ancient lineage. Teaching for the majority of his life in a small South Indian city called Mysore, Jois
trained thousands of eager students in the daily discipline of Ashtanga yoga. As a Sanskrit scholar and vidwan, Jois combined the philosophy of the Yoga Sutras with the classical Hatha yoga texts to create a comprehensive system of practice based in the yoga postures, yogic breathing and focal points to train the mind. The basis of the physical practice of Ashtanga yoga as taught by Sri K. Pat- tabhi Jois is founded in the Tristana method, the three-pronged approach that uses posture (asa- na), breathing (pranayama) and focal point (drishti) to train the body and mind in yoga practice.
These three aspects distinguish its methodology from other styles of yoga. Following tradition with a careful adherence to proper form and function, Ashtanga yoga directly links present day yoga students with the generations of practitioners that have practised before them. The asana practice re- lies on the vinyasa method, which is coordination of breath with movement in specific entry and exits from all the postures. The breathing technique used in the Ashtanga yoga system is based on the Ujjayi Pranayama. It is a vocalised breath that al- lows the student to control the length of inhalation and exhalation so that they are equal in mea- sure to each other. Each movement is coordinated with the flow of the inward and outward moving breath. In each posture students are given a specific drishti to help concentrate and train the mind to be single-pointed. This combination kindles the inner heat, known as tapas in Sanskrit, and ignites the slow temperature inner burn, that detoxifies the body and awakens the inner light. Finally the inner work of the asana practice is completed with a strong application of the bandhas, locks that help keep the pelvic floor toned and open door to a more subtle experience of the inner body.
The regimen of personal practice is quite demand- ing, but as such it is also quite transformational. The traditional practice is done six days a week, leaving Saturdays, New Moon and Full Moon days off for rest. Jois never demanded that students change their life to be in accordance with the yoga lifestyle, but in order to maintain a six-day a week Ashtanga yoga practice certain life changes inevi- tably follow. He preferred to let the direct experi- ence of the practice be the catalyst for change.
The physical practice of Ashtanga yoga is divided into six series of increasing difficulty. Regardless of what series is being practised, the Ashtanga yoga asana practice always begins with the Sun Salutation and a set series of standing postures and fin- ishes with back bending and a set series of closing postures. The first series, known as the Primary
Series, is called ‘Yoga Chikitsa’ in Sanskrit. Jois taught that the Primary Series offers the most ben- efit to the majority of yoga students. While practis- ing the Primary Series the body is systematically cleansed from the inside out. The postures purify the internal organs, the muscles and the joints, and establish a base level of strength and flex- ibility in the body and mind. The second series, known as the Intermediate Series, is called ‘Nadi Shodana’ in Sanskrit. The second series purifies the nervous system, giving the seasoned practi- tioner full control over emotional balance and all issues related to the neurological function. The last group of series, known as third, fourth, fifth and sixth, are called Advanced A, B, C and D and they are called ‘Sthira Bhaga’ in Sanskrit, which means strength and grace. Jois would some- times joke that the advanced practice was really only for demonstration and that the true healing of the practice actually comes from the first and second series.
Jois was very clear to emphasise the spiritual jour- ney of this dynamic practice. Without the possibil- ity of true liberation the yoga itself is not happen- ing in the Ashtanga practice, or as Guruji would have said, it is “only bending”. According to Jois and the texts that he referenced, the final goal for the Ashtanga yogi is mastery over the sense organs, balance between the opposing forces of attachment and aversion, a body that is pure and glowing with inner light.