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What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga Vinyasa is a dynamic method of Theta yoga, which emphasizes the combination of Yoga Asanas (body posture), breathing, inner strength, and concentration of consciousness.

This method focuses primarily on the physical body, but as practice progresses, the focus moves inward into deeper and more delicate planes. Although this method has been published only in recent decades, its origins are very ancient, and in fact, it is based on the method passed by Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta.

“I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self-revealed,
Beyond better, acting like the Jungle physician,
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara.
Taking the form of a man to the shoulders,
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword,
One thousand heads white,
To Patanjali, I salute.”

This ancient script, written on Palm tree leaves, contained knowledge that combined the teachings of Patanjali, a teacher and philosopher who is considered the historical father of all the methods of yoga, and the instructions of the practice.

Patanjali statue - founder of Ashtanga Yoga
Patanjali Statue

The main exercises are Asana (body posture), Pranayama (control of life force by controlling breathing), use of Vinyasa (combination of breathing and movement), Drishti (point of view) and Bandhas (energy locks).

Ashtanga Yoga Journey to the Western World

The Yoga Korunta was transferred to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in the early years of the 20th century by his teacher Ramamohana Brahmachari, and later researched and disseminated throughout the world by Pattabhi Jois, Krishnamacharya’s devoted disciple.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya an Indian yoga teacher for Ashtanga Yoga
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) was a Master of Yoga, who also held seven academic degrees, including Ayurveda, Law, and Philosophy.

In 1915, Krishnamacharya heard about Ramamohana Brahmachari, a Tibetan yogi, who lived in a cave at the foot of Mount Kailash with his family and decided to go looking for him. When he found him, the yogi saw that Krishnamacharya was genuinely thirsty for knowledge and he agreed to accept it as a student.

Ramamohan Brahmachari Yoga teacher - Ashtanga Yoga
Ramamohan Brahmachari

For seven years, Krishnamacharya studied Brahmachari ‘s secrets of yoga, among them various ancient writings. One of the writings was Yoga Korunta by Vamana Rishi. In 1927, Krishnamacharya met his future student Pattabhi Jois.

Patthabi Jois Ashtanga Yoga teacher
Patthabi Jois

Sri Krishna Petabhi Jois (1915-2009) was born in 1915 in a small village in southern India. When he was twelve years old, he heard from his friend about a lecture about yoga that was going to take place in his school hall.

Jois came to hear the lecture and fell in love with the amazing abilities of the yogi. The next morning, Jois arrived at the house where the yogi had been staying and asked him to learn the secrets of knowledge. The Yogi, Krishnamacharya, answered in the affirmative, and from that day on, and for the next 25 years, Jois was a devoted student of Krishnamacharya.

Jois was trained under the guidance of his teacher to teach the unusual method cited in the writings of the Yoga Korunta. In time, Jois coined the name “Ashtanga Yoga” or “Eight Branches” on the basis of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga.

Patanjali was a philosopher, a Yogi, and a teacher who apparently lived two hundred years before Christ, and was the first to write down the philosophical, as well as practical, basis of Yoga. His work “Yoga Sutra” has become one of the schools of Indian philosophy.

Patanjali yoga sutra of Yoga Ashtanga

Ashtanga Yoga Description

The practical part of Patanjali’s sutras is called Ashtanga Yoga. The Ashtanga Yoga definition is: Ashta is Eight and Angha is Branches. His purpose is to remove the agony of ignorance, which causes a person to identify himself with his body and not be able to perceive the soul as separate from matter. The eight branches of Ashtanga Yoga are Yama, Nyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratihara, Dharana, Dhyan and Samadhi.

Ashtanga Yoga eight steps of Ashtanga yoga
Ashtanga Yoga – Eight steps of yoga
  1. Yama – A work on the inner dimensions through five different guidelines:
  • Ahimsa – Non-violence or non-infringement. Avoiding harm to living creatures. Thought, speech, and action.
  • Satya – Truths. Developing a quality of honesty and keeping the truth, towards ourselves and others.
  • Astia – Non-accumulation: limiting desires according to needs.
  • Brahamacharya – Control of desires: control of power that draws consciousness towards sexuality and food.
  • Afriga – Lack of greed: lack of jealousy of the property or success of others. A situation in which the senses can be diverted from their objects and brought under control.
  1. Niyama – A work on external measurements through five different guidelines:
  • Suche  – purity/cleanliness of the external and internal: keep the body and environment clean, healthy diet, earn your bread honestly. In addition, the cleanliness of thoughts, maintaining positive recognition.
  • Santosha – Satisfaction, contentment: Accepting changing situations in life with equanimity and joy on your part.
  • Tapas – A state in which consciousness and senses are trained by the different disciplines, against their basic nature and experiencing difficulty and suffering.
  • Samadhi – reading and observing the instructions of the holy scriptures.
  • Ishvarahpernandiyam – Submission to God.

On Yama and Nayama, Pattabhi Jois said in an interview with him that they are very difficult. “If you have a weak mind and a weak body, you have weak principles,” he said.

Thus, a weak brain means a weak body. To do this, you build a good foundation with Asana and Pranayama. “(Ptabby Jois, in an interview with Sandra Anderson, Yoga International, 1994)

  1. Asana – body posture in practice. The posture should be stable, pleasant and comfortable. Through stability in the body, you can create quiet and conscious stability.
  1. Pranayama  –  the development of control over the energy of life, by the ability to control breathing. “The sources say that Prana and Apana (two out of five currents of the life force moving within the body) are made equal by maintaining a ratio of equal inhalation and exhalation and by tracking the breath through the nostrils with the mind. If you do so gradually the mind will be under control.” (there)
Yoga asana
Yoga pose

5. Pratihara Yoga – control of the senses. The gathering of the senses inside and the ability to divert them from the external objects. According to  Pattabhi Jois, the meaning of Pratihara is that wherever you look you see  God.

  1. Dhaharna – Concentration. Focusing the recognition on an internal or external object.
  1. Dianna – Meditation. The ability to pause the consciousness on the object of concentration. According to Pattabhi Jois: “For Dihanna , you have to sit with your back straight with your eyes closed and focus on the bridge of the nostrils, and if you do not do that, you are distracted. (there).

Ashtanga Yoga Benefits

The Ashtanga taught by Pattabhi Jois is a form of Hatha Yoga and focuses on the first four branches: Yum, Nyam, Asana, and Pranayama. This is based on the belief that only after these concepts can one reach the fifth stage, Pratihara (control of the senses), followed by the last stages.

“After the perfect Asana and Pranayama, Pratyahara, the stage of control of the senses comes in. The first four limbs are external exercises… The last four are internal exercises and they come automatically when the first four are in control.”

According to Ashtanga, we are merely a reflection of our nervous system, and therefore this state dictates how we experience the world. If our nervous system is relaxed and fresh, the body will be healthy and the consciousness alert and responsive. As a result, our thinking will be powerful and clear and our actions will be successful and rewarding. Separation causes suffering – the union creates freedom.

The philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga also argues that the cause of chaos and the disquiet that characterizes modern times is our separation and separation from ourselves, from others, from nature and from God. Yoga connects us with inner wisdom, in which no doubts arise about our connection with the world around us.

According to Pattabhi Jois, the daily practice of Ashtanga yoga rejuvenates the entire nervous system, contributes to the health of the body, fills the practitioner with energy, calms consciousness and frees us from endlessly disturbing thoughts about the future and the past, and misconceptions about reality.

The aspects that Pattabhi Jois emphasizes as the main components of Ashtanga Yoga are: Vinyasa – Vinyasa means a system of breathing and movement. Every movement has a breath.

Every Asana has a certain number of Vinyas. The purpose of Vinyasa is internal purification. When you breathe and move along with the asanas, it makes the blood warm or, as Pattabhi  Jois says, infuriating the blood. Thick blood is full of dirt and causes diseases in the body. The heat generated by the practice cleanses the blood and dilutes it so that it flows easily and reaches all organs.

The combination of Asanas with movement and breathing causes the bloodstream to circulate freely in the joints, relieving pain from the body. The heated blood moves through all the internal organs purify them and remove the diseased by sweating that appears during exercise.

By burning this inner fire, it is possible to purify the nervous system and then the organs of the senses. These initial stages are very difficult and require many years of practice, but they can be achieved by constant and determined practice.

Once these are understood, the control of consciousness comes automatically. We can say that vinyasa builds the foundation for the ability to control consciousness.

Ashtanga Yoga Series

Tristana – refers to the three places to which the attention, or action, moves: the posture, the respiratory system, and the point of concentration. These three are very important for yoga practice and cover three levels of purification – the body, nervous system and consciousness. They always appear in combination with each other.

The Asana – The Asana cleanses, strengthens and softens the body. In Ashtanga yoga, there are six sequences of asanas:

1. Yoga Chikitsa – the first series. Basic and very important series. The word Chikitsa means therapy; the series contains sequences of asanas to strengthen the back, balance, and purify the physical body, works on building strength and flexibility and is essential to advance to the next series.

2. Nadi Shodhana – the second series. Its purpose is to purify the nervous system by opening and cleaning the energy channels.

3. Sthira Bhaga  – The advanced series A-B C D – advanced and difficult to perform these series require a very high level of flexibility and humility and are based on a continuous practice of the previous series.

Drishti – the point on which she concentrates her gaze in the asana. There are nine points of concentration: nose, between the eyebrows, navel, toes, palms, feet, up, right and left sides.

The theory purifies and stabilizes the function of cognition and helps to strengthen internal concentration.

The respiratory system – according to Ashtanga, to clean the body from the inside, two components are necessary – air and fire. The place of fire in our bodies is slightly below the navel. There is our life force.

For the fire to burn, we need the air, which explains the necessity of breathing. As when blowing on a fire, one must keep on the one hand that the fire will not burn out and on the other hand it will not get out of control – this is done by a uniform and controlled exhalation. The same applies to our breathing – long and equal breathing will strengthen our internal fire, creating heat in the body that will then warm the blood to purify it, and purify the nervous system as well.

Pattabhi Jois teaches that the desire to be the length of exhalation, this breath purifies the nervous system. When the fire inside is strong, our digestive system, health, and life force are increased. Excessive inhalation and exhalation, or rapid breathing, will reduce the rate of heart palpitations from balance and will damage the physical body, and automatically, the nervous system.

Another important component of the respiratory system is the pandemonium in Andha and the Indian Bandha. These are the locks of the rectum and the lower abdomen, which seal energy, give lightness, strength, and health to the body, and help build a strong inner fire.

Without the bandages, the breathing will not be correct, and the asanas will bear no fruit. When the Andha clamor reaches a perfect state, the control of consciousness is automatic.

The Six Poisons – Another aspect of the inner cleansing, taught Pattabhi Jois, was the six poisons surrounding the spiritual heart. Yoga Sutra says that God is in our hearts in the form of light, but this light is covered with six toxins:

Sex and desire (Kam-kamana), anger (krod), greed (lobh), clinging (moh), pride (mah), and the combination of ego and passion. As the practice of yoga is done consistently and with deep devotion, over a long period of time, the heat produced burns these toxins and the light of our inner nature shines through them.

Beyond studying these aspects, Pattabhi Jois reiterates that theoretical study is only a fraction of the way. Without practice, nothing will happen. According to him, yoga is a practical theory, and determined and persistent practice is the only key to success.

Click here to learn more about Ashtanga Yoga Poses

The Ashtanga Yoga method is universal; it is not mine or yours, this method is complete and perfect Ashtanga Yoga is Yama, Nyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratihara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi – these are the eight stages of the Ashtanga Yoga method. Take control of the Asana.

“May all be well with mankind.
May the leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path. May there be goodness for those who know the earth to be sacred.
May all the worlds be happy.”

The final prayer after practicing Ashtanga Yoga

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This article was written by Gala Hefets from Clil, Israel and translated for www.shopeastasia.com blog: East Asian Cultures 

The original article (in Hebrew) can be found here

Gala Hefets has been practicing yoga since 1995. In the early years, she practiced and studied various methods with many teachers in Israel and India. In 2004, she met Dr. Ehud Bilu and since then she has been a student of his teachers Sri Shivu Shankar Tripatiji and Sri Mata Rattanaji, and has participated in many workshops for Brigho Yoga in India and Israel under the guidance of teachers from Varanasi (India).

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