Yoga and the Ashtanga Yoga Method
There are many definitions of what is meant by ‘yoga’.
The original Sanskrit-language word ‘yoga’ is often literally translated to the English word ‘union’, the act of uniting two or more things. But what things? The ancient Indian text the ‘Yoga Sutras’, compiled around 2,200 years ago by Patanjali, describes yoga as stilling or controlling the changing states of the mind. For me, the word yoga has come to refer to a collection of overlapping practices and disciplines to train the mind with the intention of reducing suffering. So where do all the physical stretches and breathing come in?
The Yoga Sutras describes eight aspects to the practice of yoga: Yama (respect for others), Niyama (respect for yourself), Asana (body postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense control), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (total peace). These are referred to as ‘ashtanga’, meaning ‘eight limbs’. The ‘asana’ body postures (stretches, balances, as so on) and ‘pranayama’ breathing practices are the most easily accessible aspects of yoga available in the West — so that’s how many people first experience yoga.
The Ashtanga Yoga method traces its lineage over thousands of years back to the Yoga Sutras. The most important modern teacher of Ashtanga Yoga was Sri K Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009) of Mysore, India, who started studying yoga in 1927. He founded the ‘Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam’ institute in 1948 to practice, refine and teach the Ashtanga yoga method.
Ashtanga Yoga, as taught by Pattabhi Jois, is a structured method of yoga encompassing all those ‘eight limbs’. The physical postures of yoga asana are knit together into dynamic flowing sequences with careful attention to how you move, how you breathe, and how you focus your thinking. Although it can look very physical, there is much more to the practice than just bending, folding and twisting your body. The practice also stretches your mind by asking you to challenge your beliefs about yourself, your body, your consciousness, your identity and your community. It creates real and lasting change in the lives of many practitioners. It is a body awareness technique aimed at exposing and freeing you from old, habitual ways of thinking, being and acting. The fit, healthy, flexible ‘yoga body’ is possibly just a by-product of this work.