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About Ashtanga

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

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“Upon the destruction of impurities as a result of the practice of yoga, the lamp of knowledge arises.
This culminates in discriminative discernment.”
—Yoga Sutras 2.28, translation by Edwin F. Bryant

Ashtanga yoga is a comprehensive system of yoga taught for 65 years by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, South India until his death at the age of 93 in 2009. It is designed to purify the body and still the mind. The practice is characterized by Vinyasa, the precise coordination of movement with breath from posture to posture.

Today, the Ashtanga system of yoga is preserved and transmitted by Sharath Jois. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) was Sharath’s grandfather and guru. For many years, Sharath assisted Guruji in teaching; following Guruji’s passing in 2009, Sarath assumed directorship of the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI). He continues to teach in the tradition of his grandfather.

Thanks to Jois’ tireless efforts, Ashtanga is practiced by people the world over.

R. Sharath Jois and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Lakshmipuram, Mysore, in 1997.  This was one of the early test photos taken for the English edition of Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

Photo by Stephan Crasneanscki / Used with permission: Eddie Stern

8 Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

  1. Yamas (moral restraints)
  2. Niyamas (ethical observances)
  3. Asanas (practice of postures)
  4. Pranayama (breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (contemplation)
  8. Samadhi (meditative absorption, bliss)

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“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”

“Ashtanga” is a Sanskrit word meaning “eight-limbed,” as in the limbs of a tree. The two “lowest” limbs have to do with morality and ethics — what to avoid doing and what to do in order to live a virtuous life. The first limb, called the Yamas in Sanskrit, consists of five restraints: not harming, not lying, not stealing, taking care with sexuality, and not coveting. The second limb, the Niyamas, consists of five observances: cleanliness of body and mind; contentedness; discipline; study; and the offering of one’s actions to God. Aspects of the Yamas and Niyamas are learned throughout life, even from before one formally starts yoga, but through yoga one naturally advances their application.

The third, next higher limb is the practice of doing postures, or asanas. Practice of this limb purifies the body and stills the mind. The fourth limb is pranayama — breath control — which strengthens the mind. In Ashtanga yoga, pranayama is taught only once a student has mastered postures. Finally, there are the four “internal” limbs of practice — pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadi — essentially deeper and deeper forms of meditation, leading (if one is diligent and blessed and the preceding limbs have been properly practiced) to self-realization, the ultimate end of yoga.

The Practice

The starting point for practice is the third limb — postures. This is what we primarily teach at Ashtanga Yoga Boston. Over time, regular and diligent practice of the third limb paves the way to the practice of the other seven limbs.

Following the method taught by K. Pattabhi Jois, postures are taught one by one in a specific sequence. New postures are given only when a student demonstrates proficiency with the most recent posture learned.

Right from the beginning, emphasis is placed on the “internal” actions of the practice: correct breathing, drishti (gazing point) and bandhas (core energy locks).

The breathing method for the practice is to take slow, even breaths through the nose with sound. Postures are usually held for five breaths, and movements between postures have a single inhalation or exhalation associated with each. Breaths should be slow, steady and even throughout one’s entire practice.

Drishti is where one looks during each posture. While it may seem simple in theory to maintain a specific point of focus for five breaths, in practice considerable concentration and discipline are required to do so. For that reason, drishti is an integral part of the practice.

Bandhas are the anal and abdominal “locks,” which when held internally during practice provide the core strength, stability and lightness to lift up and move with ease, and to realize the full state of each pose.

When maintained continuously and with focused attention during one’s practice, proper breathing,drishti and bandhas collectively provide a powerful tool for quieting the mind. To read a more comprehensive explication of these aspects of Ashtanga yoga on KPJAYI’s website, click here.

Ashtanga is traditionally practiced six days per week (except for new and full moon days) and we encourage all students — including beginners — to sign up for the six-days-per-week option.  Students who are unable to attend class six days per week may sign up for the four- or three-days-per-week option.  We ask students to attend class the full six, four or three days per week that they are subscribed for.  Except for out-of-town visitors, or by special arrangement with the school, we cannot accept students whose attendance in class is less often than three days per week.

Those who have never practiced Ashtanga are welcome to come in and observe a class first (Monday-Thursday). Watching class usually answers most questions.

We welcome students without regard to age, gender, race, sexual orientation or level of physical condition. The only requirement is a sincere desire to learn the practice.

Mysore-style and Led Practice

Sunday through Thursday, classes are conducted “Mysore-style.” During class, each student does his or her practice, with one-on-one assistance from the teacher. Class is conducted with minimal talking.

On Fridays and the first Sunday morning of each month, class is led, or “counted,” in Sanskrit. Everyone practices at the same time. Attending led class is the best way to learn the breathing method.

Moon Days

According to Vedic tradition, moon days are not good days to learn or to teach – the influence of the moon is too strong or too weak to allow for the proper assimilation of knowledge. Thus in the Ashtanga yoga tradition of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, yoga classes are not offered on the days of the new and full moon.

Moon days follow the Hindu calendar, according to which days are considered sunrise-to-sunrise and, additionally, may be more or less than 24 hours long as they are based not on the clock but on the relative positions of sun, earth and moon (thus new and full moon days may differ from those in other calendars).

Travel

When traveling, we recommend that students consult the KPJAYI teachers’ list to find a suitable teacher to practice with. As a rule, students who have just arrived in a new location should plan to practice Primary series for the first couple of days.