“Yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory.” – Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
The pioneer of Ashtanga Yoga was yoga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) who was twelve years old when he first started learning from his teacher Krishnamacharya. In 1948, he founded the Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, South India. This style of yoga has spread all over the world, providing a blueprint for many of the flowing Vinyasa yoga styles. Today, Jois’ grandson Sharath manages the institute in his grandfather’s spirit, and it is still a magnet that draws many “ashtangis” dedicated to this particular tradition practised in the so-called Mysore style.
Traditionally, the word Ashtanga stood for the “eight-fold path” of yoga as coined by the philosopher Patanjali in his classical “Yoga Sutras”. Ever since Pattabhi Jois called his yoga practice Ashtanga, it has evolved to become a synonym for this particular form of yoga.
In the Ashtanga Yoga Mysore style, everyone in the room practices a specific sequence of asanas, a series, according to their own speed and breathing rhythm. The teacher will walk around and individually guide and adjust the students. There are six series: A beginner starts out with the primary series, Yoga Chikitsa, and may practice it for a while, even a few years; it serves to detoxify and align the body. Once mastered, one may continue with the intermediate series (Nadi Shodhana) to purify the nervous system. The advanced series A, B, C, D (Sthira Bhaga) integrate strength and refinement.
The exercises are characterised by flowing movements, interspersed with postures which are held for five breaths. Like prayer beads on a piece of string, the positions and movements are connected by the flow of breath. Heat is created, and the body can cleanse, releasing toxins through sweat.
While the main focus is on the breath, the gaze (Drishti) is also very important. Controlling the movement of the eyes prevents distraction by the outside world. The practice may thereby become a moving meditation.
Ashtanga Yoga is an athletic, physically intense style which can quickly build strength, improve flexibility, relieve stress, and cultivate peace of mind and well-being. Originally conceived for healthy young men, a great deal of attention was always given to each student and the sequence adapted to his specific needs. Considering a large number of participants in today’s yoga classes, caution is advised: If there is no individual guidance while practising the set series, there may well be a higher risk for injuries.
Good to know
Ashtanga classes are physically very demanding, but they can lend a sense of empowerment so that one leaves feeling light and refreshed. The set sequence comes with clear instructions, is easy to memorise and can then be practised at home, too. New elements are continually added and integrated into the initial sequence. This style corresponds to modern lifestyle and attracts people who are always looking for new challenges and self-development.
Worldwide, there are hardly any Ashtanga beginners who are over 40 or 50 years old. If you are not young and fit anymore, make sure you find a particularly good teacher within the Pattabhi Jois lineage. A class with fewer participants and more attention for each individual will ensure that the teacher can provide the right assistance needed.
Keeping the tradition alive
Sharath is the grandson of late yoga master Pattabhi Jois and director of the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore. As a seven-year-old, he started learning asanas and took up formal yoga studies when he was nineteen. Every day he would get up at 3:30 a.m. and travel across Mysore to first practice and then assist in classes at his grandfather’s Lakshmipuram Yoga Shala. He has been continuing this routine with much dedication. Today, Sharath rises before 1:00 a.m. on six days a week to do his yoga before the first students arrive. He is the only one who has learned all six series of the Ashtanga system. His commitment, respect, and love for the practice draw thousands of students to Mysore every year to study Ashtanga Yoga.