History and Legend
The Ashtanga Vinyasa series is said to have its origin in the ancient text Yoga Korunta, compiled by Vamana Rishi, and which Krishnamacharya received from his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari at Mount Kailash. This manuscript was later passed on to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Krishnamacharya has had considerable influence on many of the modern forms of yoga taught today, as many notable present-day teachers, such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Indra Devi, along with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, were his students.
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 who lived there. Vinyasa has therefore been thought of as a very physically demanding practice, which can be successful at channeling the hyperactivity of young minds. This system can also be used as a vessel for helping calm ongoing chatter of the mind, reducing stress and teaching extroverted personalities, to become introverted in their bodies and their practice.
The Vinyasa Method
This style of yoga is characterized by a focus on vinyasa, or a dynamic connecting posture, that creates a flow between the more static traditional yoga postures. The vinyasa ‘flow’ is a variant of Surya namaskara, the Sun Salutation. The whole practice is defined by six specific series of postures, always done in the same order, combined with specific breathing patterns (ujjayi breathing).
A standard Vinyasa consists of the flow from chaturanga, or plank, to chaturanga dandasana, or low plank, to urdhva mukha svanasana (Upward-facing dog), to adho mukha svanasana, or Downward-facing dog. 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, as well as tendon and hard tissue strength, allowing the student to practice advanced asanas with reduced risk of injury.
There are six series altogether. Each sequence typically begins with 10 Sun Salutations and the standing poses. This is referred to as the “opening sequence”. The student then moves to either the Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, B, C, or D, depending on his or her skill level, finally closing with a set of inverted postures, referred to as the “finishing sequence”. Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally taught in Mysore style (supervised self practice), where each student moves through the practice at his or her own pace and level. In the West, it is more common to find classes devoted to a specific series, and guided by an instructor.
There are three bandhas which are considered our 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 – this bandha is considered the most important bandha as it supports our breathing and encourages the development of strong core muscles. 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.
Drishti, or focused gaze, is a means for developing concentrated intention. The most common is Urdhva, or upward gazing, where the eyes are lifted, with the spine aligned from crown to tailbone. This technique is employed in a variety of postures.
There are, in total, nine drishtis that instruct the yoga student in directing his or her gaze. Each pose is associated with a particular drishti. They include:
- 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 ones 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.
Although many practitioners assert that this yoga was devised by Jois from reading the Yoga Korunta, no one (aside from Krishnamacharya and Jois) from 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 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.