Ashtanga (also spelled Astanga) means "eight limbs" in Sanskrit, which refers to the eight limbs of yoga laid out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Ashtanga method of asana practice was interpreted by T. Krishnamacharya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois from an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta, which described a unique system of hatha yoga developed by Vamana Rishi.
Who is Pattabhi Jois?
K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) began his studies with Krishnamacharaya in Mysore, India at the age of 12. He became the leading practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga yoga, which is a set series of poses done in a flowing Vinyasa style. In 1958, he published his treatise on Ashtanga yoga, Yoga Mala. His first western students began to arrive in Mysore in the early 1970s. For a first-hand account of how Ashtanga spread westward and profoundly influenced the way yoga is practiced today, check out the book Guruji. After Pattabhi Jois died in 2009, his grandson Sharath took over the Ashtanga leadership role, including teaching the many students who continue to flock to Mysore to study with the master and deepen their practices.
The Ashtanga method stresses daily vinyasa flow practice using ujjayi breathing, mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, and drishti. There are six different Ashtanga series through which a student progresses at his or her own pace.
About the Ashtanga Series of Poses
The first or primary series, called Yoga Chikitsa, is described in Yoga Mala. Yoga Chikitsa, which means yoga therapy, realigns the spine, detoxifies the body, and builds strength, flexibility and stamina. The series of about 75 poses takes an hour and a half to two hours to complete, beginning with sun salutations (surya namaskara A and surya namaskara B) and moving on to standing poses, seated poses, inversions and backbends before relaxation.
The intermediate or second series is called Nadi Shodana, meaning nervous system purification. It cleanses and strengthens the nervous system and the subtle energy channels throughout the body. This series is only introduced when the primary series is strong. It follows the same progression (sun salutations, standing, sitting etc.) as the primary series, but introduces new poses and variations.
The four advanced series are called Sthira Bhaga, which means divine stability. Pattabhi Jois originally outlined two intensive advanced series, but later subdivided them into four series to make them accessible to more people. These series emphasize difficult arm balances and are only appropriate for extremely advanced students.
Ashtanga Classes: Led and Self-Led
Many yoga studios offer led Ashtanga classes, meaning a teacher leads the class and instructs students in the order of the poses, usually in the primary or secondary series. An Ashtanga studio is called a shala and is typically closed twice a month for moon days. Once students know the order of poses very well, they may often opt for self-led, or Mysore style practice. This is an opportunity for students to practice at their own pace and level of ability, but in the company of other students and with the encouragement and advice of a teacher, as needed. In the Mysore method, the student masters each pose in sequence and is given new poses to work on by their teachers as they become ready. Ashtanga can be an ideal foundation for home practitioners once they know the sequence of poses.
Is Ashtanga for You?
Ashtanga yoga is extremely popular and inspires fierce loyalty in its students. This vigorous, athletic style of practice appeals to those who like a sense of order and who like to do things independently.