Ashtanga feels austere and rigorous. It is challenging physically, mentally and emotionally, and is designed to create discomfort and test a student’s expectations and coping skills. It draws us out and then invites us to learn about ourselves.
Ashtanga emerged from the vibrant yoga study and innovation headed by T. Krishnamacharya in South India in the early 20th century. Sponsored by the Raj of Mysore, Krishnamacharya tirelessly taught and promoted yoga to an initially disinterested Indian population. His work was the genesis of the yoga renaissance in full flower in the West today.
One young man who heard about these yoga demonstrations was a villager named Krishna Pattabhi Jois. He travelled alone, before dawn, unbeknownst to his family, to see and then study with Krishnamacharya. They would maintain this relationship on and off for over 25 years.
In 1947, Jois began teaching yoga out of his house. For many years he had few students, but he taught yoga to his children and lived the practice himself. In the 1960s, the first Westerner came. In the 1970s, the first American. In the late ’70s and ’80s, Jois travelled to the U.S. to teach. By the 1990s, hundreds of Western students were traveling to study with Jois, and these numbers continued to grow until his death in 2009. Today, thousands of students come to Mysore every year to study with Jois’ grandson, Sharath, and daughter, Saraswati.
At some point in the later 20th century, Jois began to refer to his yoga as Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga yoga takes its name from the eight-limbed meditative yoga system outlined in the Yoga Sutra, a text dated to 400 C.E. and ascribed to the sage Patanjali. The modern Ashtanga yoga is sometimes call Ashtanga vinyasa yoga for clarity.
Because of its popularity, age and origin, Ashtanga has a fascinating amount of history, practices and lore. Here are three of its defining characteristics.
Set sequences. There are currently six posture sequences (the original four were subdivided). All are challenging relative to the average yoga class and include Sun Salutations, standing postures, seated postures, backbends, inversions and meditation. Typical students traveling to Mysore, India to learn Ashtanga Yoga might take five to 10 years to learn the first three sequences.
Emphasis on self-practice. Jois insisted students memorize their yoga practice. During the heyday of practice at the “old shala” (the basement of his house in Lakshmipuram, Mysore) students would arrive before dawn. The basement could hold 12; the rest waited on the steps outside.
Students would practice together, but move at their own pace. Jois circulated the room, making adjustments, teaching additional postures and assisting students individually. After backbends, students would move to a separate room to finish practice with inversions and meditation; Jois would call “One more!” and the next student would come in off the steps. This style of practice came to be known as “Mysore style.”
Six days of practice. There is a standard practice schedule for Ashtanga practitioners. Students are to practice early in the morning (classes begin in Mysore at 4:30 a.m.), Monday through Saturday and rest on Sunday (the rest day was moved from Saturday to Sunday a few years ago). The days of the new and full moon (“moon days”) are also to be observed as rest days.
Each of the six practice sequences is assigned to a specific day of the week: beginning on Monday, an advanced student would practice second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and end the week with first series on Saturday.
Evan Harris has studied yoga for more than 15 years, including in India and Southeast Asia. With his wife Kelly, Evan owns tapas yoga shala in Rock Island, Illinois, teaching Ashtanga yoga in guided and self-practice classes. Evan and Kelly are also yoga teacher trainers, and Evan is a masters-level social worker and Vipassana meditation teacher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was originally published in YogaIowa’s Winter 2018 issue.