Ashtanga vinyasa yoga
|Founder||K. Pattabhi Jois|
|Established||mid 20th century|
|Employs Vinyāsa, or connecting asanas.|
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a style of yoga codified and popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois during the 20th century which is often promoted as a modern-day form of classical Indian yoga. Ashtanga means eight limbs or branches of yoga mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, of which asana or physical yoga posture is merely one branch, breath or pranayama is another. Both Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois, his grandson, encourage practice of Ashtanga Yoga - all eight limbs. The first two limbs - Yamas and Niyamas - are given special emphasis to be practiced in conjunction with the 3rd and 4th limbs (asana and pranayama).
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois began his yoga studies in 1927 at the age of 12, and by 1948 had established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute for teaching the specific yoga practice known as Ashtanga (Sanskrit for "eight-limbed") Yoga. The current style of teaching is called Mysore style.
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The term "Mysore style" comes from the city Mysore, in Karnataka, India, where the founders of the method first taught. Students are expected to memorize a sequence and practice in the same room as others without being led by the teacher. The role of the teacher is to guide as well as provide adjustments or assists in postures.
In other locations, twice per week Mysore-style classes are now substituted with led classes, where the teacher takes a group through the same series at the same time. The inclusion of two led classes per week was only included in P. Jois' senior years.
Sequences and series
Usually an Ashtanga practice begins with five repetitions of Surya Namaskara A and five repetitions of Surya Namaskara B, followed by a standing sequence. Following this the practitioner begins one of six series, followed by what is called the closing sequence.
The six series are:
- The Primary series: Yoga Chikitsa, Yoga for Health or Yoga Therapy
- The Intermediate series: Nadi Shodhana, The Nerve Purifier (also called the Second series)
- The Advanced series: Sthira Bhaga, Centering of Strength
Earlier practitioners of the style report that originally there were four series on the Ashtanga syllabus: Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, and Advanced B. A fifth series of sorts was the "Rishi series", which Guruji said could be done once a practitioner had "mastered" these four.
Method of instruction
According to Sharath Jois, one must master poses before being given permission to attempt any others that follow. However, Manju Jois disagrees. According to Manju's accounts of his father's instruction, Pattabhi Jois also occasionally allowed students to practice in a non linear format. Many of Pattahbhi Jois' students now teach their Mysore classes in similar style, offering posture variations, and teaching Ashtanga in a much less linear style, with a greater emphasis on alignment and breathing.
Sharath's "new generation" of young students have adopted Sharath's new rules, and teach in a linear style without variations. According to the Sharath generation, variations are not allowed, and practice must be in a strict Mysore environment under the guidance of a Sharath-approved teacher. How-to videos & workshops, detailed alignment instructions, and strength-building exercises are not part of the method, neither for the practitioner or the teacher. These types of instruction are not approved by Sharath, and never taught by Sharath. However most of his teachers who claim to have been taught by him will teach the above methods, exercises, & postures, even though none of what they teach is part of the Ashtanga method of instruction under Sharath.
Pattabhi Jois also did not require students to independently drop back and come up from back bending before progressing to the 2nd series. Sharath changed the requirements, and has now made this mandatory.
However, it is important to note that Pattabhi Jois was the founder of the system, and taught each of his original students differently, instructing them each to teach as he taught them. This, there is some space for flexibility within the system. Despite recent changes by more modern teachers, it is important that new students remember the practice has some flexibility, and if it is up to them to choose a more linear and modern teacher vs one more in the original Jois tradition.
Ashtanga vinyasa yoga emphasizes certain main components, namely tristhana ("three places of action or attention", or the more physical aspects of poses) and vinyasa (the alignment of breaths with movement).
Tristhana means the three places of attention or action: breathing system (pranayama), posture (asana), and looking place (drishti). These are considered core concepts for ashtanga yoga practice; cover the three levels of purification: the body, nervous system and the mind; and are supposed to be "performed in conjunction with each other".
The asanas in ashtanga yoga follow a set sequence as described above. Their stated purpose is for strength and flexibility of the body. Officially, the style has very little alignment instruction. However, many of Patthabi Jois' earliest teachers did emphasize very detailed alignment and posture-break down instructions, based on information they gathered outside of Pattabhi Jois direct instruction. Sharath's teachers followed a similar trend, however unlike Pattahbhi Jois' students, attribute all their knowledge to Sharath. This stands in contradiction to the fact that Sharath does not teach or speak about alignment at any point in his instruction of students or teachers.
Breathing is ideally even and steady in the length of the inhale and exhale.
Drishti is where one focuses the eyes while in the asana. In the ashtanga yoga method, there is a prescribed point of focus for every asana. There are nine dristhis: the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, thumb, hands, feet, up, right side and left side.
Vinyasa is the alignment of breaths with movements in asanas while practicing yoga. Founder Pattabhi Jois states, "Vinyasa means 'breathing system'. Without vinyasa, don't do asana. When vinyasa is perfect, the mind is under control". For each movement, there is one breath. All asanas are assigned a certain number of vinyasas.
According to Sharath, "The purpose of vinyasa is for internal cleansing. Breathing and moving together while performing asanas makes the blood hot, or as Pattabhi Jois says, boils the blood. Thick blood is dirty and causes disease in the body. The heat created from yoga cleans the blood and makes it thin, so that it may circulate freely". Sharath also claims that the heated blood removing toxins, impurities and disease from the organs through sweat produced during the practice. He claims that "it is only through sweat that disease leaves the body and purification occurs".
Although ashtanga yoga keeps a general principle of steady and even inhales and exhales, the specifics of breath during the asanas are debated.
In his book, "Yoga Mala", Pattabhi Jois recommends staying five to eight breaths in a posture, or staying for as long as possible in a posture. Breathing instructions given are to do rechaka and puraka, (exhale and inhale) as much as possible. "It is sufficient, however, to breathe in and out five to eight times in each posture."  In an interview regarding the length of the breath, Pattabhi Jois intructs practitioners to (translated quote), "Inhale 10 to 15 seconds then exhale also 10 to 15 seconds". He goes on to clarify, "(As) your breath strength is possibly 10 second inhalations and exhalations, you do 10, 15 seconds possible, you do 15. One hundred possible, you perform 100. 5 is possible, you do 5". His son Manju Jois also recommends taking more breaths in difficult postures.
Various influential figures have discussed the specific process of breath in ashtanga. Pattabhi Jois recommends breathing fully and deeply with the mouth closed, although does not specifically refer to Ujjayi breathing. However, Manju Jois does and refers to breathing called "‘dirgha rechaka puraka’, meaning long, deep, slow exhalations and inhalations. It should be dirgha... long, and like music. The sound is very important. You have to do the Ujjayi pranayama". In late 2011, Sharath Jois, the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, declared his feelings on the issue, stating that Ujjayi breathing was not done in the asana practice, but also stated that the breathing should be deep breathing with sound. He reiterated this notion in a conference in 2013 stating, "You do normal breath, inhalation and exhalation with sound. Ujjayi breath is a type of prāṇāyāma. This is just normal breath with free flow". In 2014 published on YouTube, Manju Jois dodged the question, "What is the difference between Ujjayi breathing and free breathing?" by saying that "the breathing in Ashtanga should be long and deep with the sound like the ocean". He also states that if you don't make sound, that is okay, too. However he makes no distinction between the two terms and provides no explanation.
As far as other types of Pranayama in Ashtanga, the consensus seems to be they should be practiced after the asanas have been mastered. Pattabhi Jois originally taught Pranayama to those practicing the second series, and later changed his mind, teaching Pranayama after the third series.
Sharath Jois recently produced a series of videos teaching alternate nostril breathing to beginners. This was never taught to beginners by his grandfather, and is one of the many changes Sharath has made to the Ashtanga Yoga method of instruction.,
Bandhas are one of the three key principles in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, alongside breath and drishti. There are three principal bandhas which are considered internal body locks:
- Mūla Bandha; or root lock at the pelvic floor (drawing in the perineum)
- Uḍḍīyāna Bandha; drawing back the abdomen, 2 inches below the navel
- Jālaṅdhara Bandha; throat lock, achieved by lowering the chin slightly while raising the sternum.
Both Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois recommend practicing Mula and Uddiyana bandha even when not practicing asana. Pattabhi Jois has this to say: (translated quote) "You completely exhale, apply mulabandha and after inhaling you apply uddiyana bandha. Both bandhas are very important... After bandha practice, take (your attention) to the location where they are applied and maintain that attention at all times, while walking, talking, sleeping and when walk is finished. Always you control mulabandha".
Connection between breath and bandhas
Sharath Jois says, "Without bandhas, breathing will not be correct, and the asanas will give no benefit".
vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde saṁdarśita svātma sukhāvabodhe
niḥśreyase jāṅ̇galikāyamāne saṁsāra hālāhala mohaśāntyai
ābāhu puruṣākāraṁ śaṅ̇khacakrāsi dhāriṇam
sahasra śirasaṁ śvetam praṇamāmi patañjalim
which is roughly translated into English as:
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.
and closes with the mangala mantra:
svastiprajābhyaḥ paripālayantāṁ nyāyena mārgeṇa mahīṁ mahīśāḥ
gobrāhmaṇebhyaḥ śubhamastu nityaṁ lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhinobhavantu
which is roughly translated into English as:
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.
Pattabhi Jois claimed to have learned the system of Ashtanga from Sri T. Krishnamcharya, who learned it from a text called Yoga Kurunta by Vamama Rishi. This text was imparted to Krishnamacharya in the early 1900s by his Guru, Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari. Jois insists that the text described all of the āsanas and vinyāsas of the sequences of the Ashtanga system. However, the Yoga Kurunta text is said to have been eaten by ants, so it is impossible to verify his assertions. Additionally, it is unusual that the text is not mentioned as a source in either of the books by Krishnamcharya, Yoga Makaranda (1934) and Yogāsanagalu (c. 1941).
According to Manju Jois, the sequences of Ashtanga yoga were created by Krishnamcharya. There is some evidence to support this in his book Yoga Makaranda, which list nearly all postures of the Pattabhi Jois Primary Series and several postures from the intermediate and advanced series, described with reference to vinyasa.
There is also evidence that the Ashtanga Yoga series incorporates exercises used by Indian wrestlers and British gymnasts. Recent academic research details documentary evidence that physical journals in the early 20th century were full of the postural shapes that were very similar to Krishnamacharya's asana system. In particular, the flowing surya namaskar, which later became the basis of Krishnamacharya's Mysore style, was not yet considered part of yogasana.
Eight limbs of Ashtanga
Pattabhi Jois never made a distinction between his sequences of asana and the eight-limbed Ashtanga Yoga associated with Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras. It was his belief that asana, the third limb, must be practiced first, and only after could one master the other seven limbs.
|Niyama||self-purification and study|
|Pratyahara||withdrawing of the mind from the senses|
|Samadhi||union with the object of meditation|
There is a lot of debate over the term "traditional" as applied to Ashtanga Yoga. The founder's students noted he modified the sequence to suit the practitioner. Some of the differences include the addition or subtraction of postures in the sequences, changes to the vinyasa (full and half vinyasa), and specific practice prescriptions to specific people.
Several changes to the practice have been made since its conception. Nancy Gilgoff, an early student, describes many differences in the way she was taught ashtanga to the way it is taught now. According to her experiences, some of the differences include: Pattabhi Jois originally left out seven postures in the standing sequence, but later assigned Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana before the Intermediate Series was given; Utkatasana, Virabhadrasana A and B, Parivritta Trikonasana, and Parivritta Parsvakonasana were not in the series at this point; and Jois did not give her vinyasa between sides of the body poses or between variations of a pose (e.g., Janu Sirsasana A, B, and C were done together, then a vinyasa. Likewise Baddha Koṇāsana, Upavishta Konasana, and Supta Konasana were also grouped together without vinyasa between them, as were Ubhaya Padangusthasana and Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana.
According to Gilgoff, Pattabhi Jois prescribed practicing twice a day, primary and intermediate, with no vinyasa between sides in Krounchasana, Bharadvajasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana, Eka Pada Sirsasana, Parighasana, and Gomukhasana in the intermediate series. Shalabhasana to Parsva Dhanurasana were done in a group, with a vinyasa only at the end. Ushtrasana through Kapotasana also were done all together. The same went for Eka Pada Sirsasana through Yoganidrasana. The closing sequence included only Mudrasana, Padmasana, and Tolasana until the completion of the Intermediate sequence, when the remainder of the closing sequence was assigned. Urdhva Dhanurasana and "drop-backs" were taught after Intermediate Series. She states that the original Intermediate series included Vrishchikasana after Karandavasana and ended with Gomukhasana. She also notes that Pattabhi Jois added Supta Urdhva Pada Vajrasana as well as the seven headstands when another yogi asked for more; these eight postures were not part of the Intermediate Series prior to this.
Confusion with power yoga
Neither Baron Baptiste's power yoga nor Bryan Kest's power yoga are synonymous with Ashtanga yoga. In 1995, Pattabhi Jois wrote a letter to Yoga Journal expressing his disappointment at the association between his Ashtanga yoga, and the newly coined style "power yoga", referring to it as "ignorant bodybuilding". Yoga Journal Magazine: (scriptures).
Additionally, Beryl Bender Birch would later name some of her works “Power Yoga”, while paradoxically (primarily) teaching within the Ashtanga system.
Media and injury
In an article published by The Economist, it was reported that "a good number of Mr Jois's students seemed constantly to be limping around with injured knees or backs because they had received his "adjustments", yanking them into Lotus, the splits or a backbend". Tim Miller, one of Jois's students, indicates that "the adjustments were fairly ferocious". Injuries related to Jois's Ashtanga Yoga have been the subject of discussion in a Huffington Post article
In 2008, yoga researchers in Europe published a survey, that lacked a control group therefore limiting internal validity, of practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga indicating that 62 percent of the respondents had suffered at least one injury that lasted longer than one month.
However the mass media has reported injuries in other styles of yoga equally as often as in Ashtanga Yoga. For example, Bikram yoga and hot yogahave received equally bad press.  The long holds in headstand and shoulder stand, essential postures to an Iyengar yoga practice, have been reported as being linked to serious injury in numerous sources. Broad had this to say: "One of the saddest and most thoughtful letters came from an elderly man who studied with Iyengar in India for 16 years. His list of personal injuries included torn ligaments, damaged vertebrae, slipped disks, deformed knees and ruptured blood vessels in his brain".
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