Ashtanga Yoga is a brilliant distillation of ancient wisdom that continues to evolve as a living lineage so that we can benefit from it under our present circumstances, whatever they may be. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) of India popularized the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system as it was taught to him by his guru Sri T. Krishnamacharya (a student of the Tibetan yogi Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari) and outlined in the now lost Yoga Korunta of Vamana Rishi, a scripture purported to be thousands of years old. My principal teacher Richard Freeman began studying intensively with Guruji (Jois) in the 1980’s and was one of the first Westerners to be certified by him.
My best friend dragged me to my first-ever yoga class, Led Full Primary Series, way back in neuroscience grad school in 2003. I just wanted a workout and was under the impression that yoga was awfully corny, but it turned out to be love at first dog and I was hooked! The closing chant LOKAH SAMASTAH SUKHINO BHAVANTU (May all beings be happy) struck a deep chord in me, and I began to yearn for a different kind of outcome than medical models could promise. Yoga opens up our inquiry into the true unconditional causes of happiness and gives us a medium in which to transmit that experiment to others. I hung up the lab coat and began teaching full-time in Europe and Asia in 2005. I completed my first month-long training with Richard in 2007 and have since moved to Colorado and traveled all over the world to study (so far about 1700 hours) with him and his wife, Mary Taylor, assisting many of their Teacher’s Intensives, immersions, courses, festivals, conferences, benefits, and public classes.
ASHTANGA means ‘8-limbs’ and refers to the path described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras which is comprised of: YAMA (restraints: ahimsa-non-harming, satya-honesty in service of kindness, asteya-non-stealing, brahmacharya-continence or seeing the divine in all beings and acting accordingly, and aparigraha-greedlessness), NIYAMA (observances: shaucha-cleanliness, santosha-contentment, tapas-burning desire for Self-realization, svadhyaya-study of the Self, and Isvara-pranaidhana-surrender to the divine), ASANA (seat or posture), PRANAYAMA (liberation of the life force), PRATYAHARA (turning the senses inward), DHARANA (concentration), DHYANA (meditation), and SAMADHI (absorption).
The Ashtanga Vinyasa method is usually introduced as an asana practice comprised of 6 potent sequences of postures to progressively purify the body, cleanse and strengthen the nerves, and stabilize the senses. Important components include VINYASA (moving with even, deep UJJAYI breath in order to boil the blood and allow impurities to be excreted in the sweat), DRISHTI (meditative gazing), MUDRA (the joining together of opposite patterns), and BANDHA (concentrated tone in the pelvic floor and lower abdomen paired with release of the palate). Practicing asana in this way with proper alignment leads automatically to “mind control” and ultimately includes the other 7 limbs.
In fact, the other limbs provide the essential context and intention for the practice, without which it is just another selfish and potentially dangerous ego-enhancing activity. A sustained, balanced and devoted yoga practice is said to burn away the ‘six enemies’ (kama-desire, krodha-anger, lobha-greed, moha-delusion, matsarya-envy, and mada-pride) that obscure the intrinsic radiance of our hearts. Suffering stems from misunderstandings and bad habits, and the keen awareness developed with practice has the potential to liberate us from the effects of our conditioning, which have reduced our bodies and experiences to shadows of their unencumbered potential.
A distinctive feature of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is the “Mysore” class, referring to the manner in which Guruji taught at his shala in the city of Mysore in the southern state of Karnataka. (For more information, see K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, where Sharath (Guruji’s grandson) and Saraswathi (Guruji’s daughter) continue to teach.) Since the orthodox asana sequences contain postures that are quite humbling for most people and many teachers propagate zealously fundamentalist attitudes and techniques, this style has developed an unfortunate reputation in some circles for being an injurious athletic outlet devised for 12-year-old male contortionists. Lucky for us, nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, this is my favorite way to teach because each student is encouraged to go at his or her own pace and work safely on what is most appropriate that day under the supervision of the teacher.
One student may bust out a couple of advanced series on top of each other while another may have an equally profound practice draped restoratively over a bolster. I, personally, have been caught doing both kinds of practices frequently! As we continue to investigate our edges with curiosity and compassion, the critical features of the practice become clearer to us, and we begin to discover all that is possible in each moment. Once we realize how powerful and adaptable the practice is, all of our best excuses dissolve and it calls us back again and again. It turns out to be a wonderfully sustainable and nurturing part of our lives, giving us a variety of gifts during each different phase of our relationship to it.
Richard often describes the practice as “pranayama for restless people” and “an obsessive meditation on the central axis,” a process of cultivating internal forms that open up the core of the body to our observation, eventually leaving us awestruck. All that is required is our full attention, so even if health dictates bedrest, we still have the opportunity to engage. Guruji often said that the old and sick could practice, just not the lazy! (A modicum of discipline is definitely helpful and with some patience it can be developed over time.) It takes great courage and trust to avail ourselves of the innate intelligence of the breath. Whatever external forms we may work with are best done in faithful service of these often-neglected inner currents that connect us to our deepest being. Such a practice implores us to keep starting over with honesty from wherever we are.
I myself have practiced this method consistently throughout a painful and incapacitating chronic illness (CIRS), and I credit it with nothing less than saving my life. Without first-hand experience of some of yoga’s physical, mental and spiritual benefits and the ideal of what long-term practice can result in (becoming of unfathomable benefit to all sentient beings, as I’ve seen exemplified by my teacher), my means and inspiration to go on would have been far more severely limited. Four years into my journey towards recovery, I am more enthusiastic than ever to share with others, especially those who might not be the first sign up for yoga as it has been publicized in recent years. I hope that my blog and therapeutic work will contribute to a more widespread appreciation of Ashtanga yoga as a deeply healing and transformative practice available to everybody. I invite you to embark on an exciting and ever-changing adventure! Please feel free to contact me with any questions.