Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is an established branch of Raja Yoga.
The term ashtanga, meaning eight limbs, refers to the eight limbs of yoga. Thus the term does not refer to which poses one does, nor the order of poses and has nothing to do with any particular series (Primary Series, Secondary Series and so on). The term "Ashtanga" or "Astanga" does not describe whether one practices 'vinyasa' or the more sustained, focused action in poses as describe in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; where 'asana' is described as being still and firm. In Raja Yoga, a classical Indian system of Hindu philosophy, these were expounded by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
Ashtanga seeks to embody the traditional eight limbs of yoga (referred to as ashtanga or Raja Yoga) as expounded by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. The Pattabhi Jois Vinyasa series (or Ashtanga Vinyasa (sic)) is said to have its origin in the ancient text Yoga Korunta by Vamana Rishi, which Krishnamacharya received from his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari at Mount Kailash, and later passed on to Pattabhi Jois. Having taught many of the major yoga teachers of the 20th century, such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Indra Devi, Krishnamacharya has a huge influence on many of the modern forms of yoga taught today and played a crucial part in their development. Today, the Pattabhi Jois Vinyasa series remains the most faithful to his original teachings to teenage boys, in that it seeks to not change much from that practice. Krishnamacharya was well-known for tailoring his teachings to address specific concerns of the person or group he was teaching, and the Vinyasa series for adolescents is a result of this. Krishnamacharya himself was not practicing those series at the time, nor did he teach seasoned practitioners and adults in the same manner. When working under the convalescing Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnamacharya set up a shala, or yoga school, in the palace grounds and adapted the vinyasa practice for the young boys of about twelve years of age who lived there. Vinyasa, therefore, is a very physically demanding practice targeted at channeling hyperactive young minds and restless bodies with the boundless energy of teenage boys.
The asana or practice (Hatha) aspects of this style of yoga is practiced and popularized by Madonna and Sting.
The main difference of this style of Yoga to other styles is the focus on vinyasa, literally the intelligent putting together of things but taken in this style of asana practice as a variant of suryanamaskara practised between asana. The practice is a defined set of postures always done in the same order, which are combined with specific breathing patterns (ujjayi breathing). The purpose of vinyasa is to create heat in the body, which leads to purification of the body through increased circulation and sweating. It also improves flexibility, which allows the student to practice advanced asanas with reduced risk of injury.
Other components of Yoga include bandhas (internal locks) and drishti (gaze), common to all forms of Hatha yoga asana.
There are six series altogether. The sequence begins with Sun-Salutations and standing poses, which is also called the "opening sequence," then the student moves to either the Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, B, C, or D, depending on his or her skill level, and closes with a set of inversions called the "finishing sequence." Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally taught in Mysore style (supervised self practice). Each student moves through the practice at his or her own pace and level.
There are three bandhas, or internal body locks, prescribed in the different postures. The banda is a sustained contraction of a group of muscles that assists the practitioner not only in retaining a pose but also in moving in and out of it. The mula bandha, or root lock, is performed by tightening the muscles around the pelvic and perineum area. The udiyana bandha, often described as bringing the navel to the base of the spine, is a contraction of the muscles of the lower abdominal area. Jalandhara bandha, throat lock, is achieved by lowering the chin slightly while raising the sternum and the palate bringing the gaze to the tip of the nose.
There are nine drishtis that instruct the yoga student in directing his or her gaze. Each pose is associated with a particular drishti. They are:
- Angusta ma dyai: to the thumb
- Broomadhya: to the third eye, or between the eyebrows
- Nasagrai: at a point six inches from the tip of the nose
- Hastagrai: to the palm, usually the extended hand
- Parsva: to the left side
- Parsva: to the right side
- Urdhva: to the sky, or inwards
- Nabichakra: to the navel
- Padayoragrai: to the toes
The Ashtanga practice is traditionally started with the following Sanskrit mantra:
vande gurunam charanaravinde sandarshita svatma sukhava bodhe
nih shreyase jangalikayamane samsara halahala mohasantyai
abahu purusharakam sankhachakrasi dharinam
sahasra shirsam svetam pranamami patanjalim
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:
svasti prajabyah paripalayantam nyayena margena mahim mahishah
gobrahmanebyah shubamashtu nityam lokasamasta sukhinobavantu
which is roughly translated into English as:
May prosperity be glorified -
may rulers, (administrators) rule the world with law and justice
may divinity and erudition be protected
May all beings be happy and prosperous.
The mantra was made famous in Western culture by Madonna's use of it in her song "Shanti/Ashtangi".
Although many practitioners assert that this yoga was devised by Jois from reading the Yoga Korunta, no one has ever seen this text and Jois himself has occasionally dismissed the story as untrue. A far more likely explanation for Ashtanga's creation is that Jois was asked to devise a yoga sequence for children and adolescents, whom he had been asked to teach by his guru. Noticing that their attention spans were short, particularly for poses held for any length of time, and that introspection was not one of their strengths, Jois wisely began to formulate a style of yoga that would cater to the youths' natural vigor and flexibility while minimizing aspects they found tedious. And so he devised a new form of surya namaskara with athletic jumps and challenging push ups, and a series of poses -- none of which would be held for more than five breaths with the exception of shoulder and headstand -- that were visually exciting, and physically demanding. The poses were sequenced to be performed without interruption, and the sequences were designed with young, flexible bodies in mind. The new yoga was a success, and gradually older students became interested as well in the flowing, esthetically beautiful style.