Aṣṭāṅga yoga as a philosophy
Aṣṭāṅga yoga is a philosophical system described by the sage Patañjali in his Yoga Sūtras. It is a collection of 196 sutras (aphorisms) on the theory and practice of yoga, written in Sanskrit probably prior to 400 CE (or maybe earlier – it is kind of hard to tell in India exactly, because the scriptures were traditionally taught and memorised orally from a teacher to the student without any writing). Yoga is one of the six main philosophical schools in India. Aṣṭāṅga yoga means eight-limbed yoga, i.e. yoga that consists of eight parts (limbs) as described below. It is also known as rāja yoga meaning the “royal” yoga, referring to its ultimate goal that is to reach samādhi (self-realisation).
This aṣṭāṅga yoga consists of the following eight limbs:
- Yama – moral principles (rules) of behaviour of the yogin towards the society and him/herself: ahiṃsā (non-violence/non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacārya (chastity/marital fidelity/or righteousness, as our teacher says), aparigraha (non-avarice/non-attachment)
- Niyama – moral principles (restraints) of behaviour of the yogin towards him/herself: śauca (purity of mind and body), santoṣa (contentment), tapas (austerity/self-discipline), svāsdhyāya (self-reflection and introspection/study of the scriptures), īśvarapraṇidhāna – contemplation and surrender to the Ishvara (i.e. true self, unchanging reality, God, or the supreme principle – whatever one puts the highest)
- Āsana – yogic positions, so popular these days (many “yoga” practitioners call themselves yogis, although all they do is often merely a physical exercise without any practice or even knowledge of the other limbs of yoga)
- Prānāyāma – control of prāṇa (life energy) performed through a set of breathing exercises
- Pratyāhāra – withdrawal of senses
- Dhāranā – concentration
- Dhyāna – meditation
- Samādhi – self-realisation (the ultimate goal of yoga)
Every true yoga practicioner should live yamas and niyamas, practice asana and pranayama (they nicely complement each other), and attempt pratyahara. Through proper practice, the higher stages of yoga should be reached.
Aṣṭāṅga vinyāsa yoga as a style of yoga
In the 20th century in the city of Mysore, Karnataka (south India), there was a man called Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who belonged to the students of the widely respected yoga master Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, one of the most influential yogins of 20th century. Pattabhi Jois taught yoga in Mysore to local people until one day first foreigners came to learn yoga from him. This moment changed the history of the modern yoga. The system of yoga taught by Pattabhi Jois spread from Mysore through his students slowly over the decades to the whole world and became widely popular. This system (yoga style) became later known as aṣṭāṅga vinyāsa yoga, referring to the philosophical system of yoga, but often putting there the word vinyasa (i.e. coordinated movement following the breath) to distinguish it. This yoga style inspired many yoga practitioners around the (mainly western) world that based their new yoga styles on it (e.g. vinyasa yoga, power yoga, Jivamukti yoga).
The method and the sequencing
Ashtanga (Vinyasa) Yoga emphasizes certain main components called the tristhana method (“three places of action or attention”): the breath with ujjayi sound, the drishti (the vision point), and the bandhas (energy locks) used in the asanas and vinyasas. The asanas are linked by the vinyasas, connecting one asana to another creating a garland of postures, i.e. a sequence of fixed movements and postures.
In total, there are six sequences arranged from the easiest to the most difficult one. It is a very strong practice. Apart from numerous other benefits, it develops great strength. Ideally, it is meant to be practiced six days a week, with one day off and days off also on moon days and ladies holiday. Of course, everyone can do up to their current capacity without exhausting themselves to begin with 😊
Everyone starts with the Primary series. Primary series is called Yoga Chikitsa meaning the yoga therapy. It is actually pretty hard to practice it fully with all vinyasas as it is prescribed, demanding both in terms of focus, strength and flexibility. Nevertheless, beginners don´t need to worry, suitable modifications will be offered 😊
Once the practitioner manages the primary series quite well on his/her own, s/he progress on learning the Intermediate (second) series called Nadi Shodana (meaning “nadis” or energy channels cleansing). It further develops stamina, strength and mainly flexibility with all its backbends and hip openers. Once the second series is handled well, the practitioner would go on to learn the Advanced series (Sthira Bhaga), which are (not only) physically very demanding.
SOURCES FOR PRACTICE
Here are some useful resources that can be used for practice: opening and closing mantras with its translations and asana cheatsheets for practice:
Opening and closing mantras
Cheatsheets for practice
Some interesting reading about ashtanga (vinyasa):
- Kořeny aštánga jógy (by David Dostal, in Czech, articles about history of (mainly ashtanga vinyasa) yoga and related matters)
- Grimmly (in English, discussions, articles, and current updates)
- Ashtangayoga.info (nice web from Germany with articles, cheatsheets, etc.)
- Ashtanga.com (useful links to articles, workshops, etc.)