What actually is “Ashtanga”?

The word Ashtanga means “eight-limbed”, this is an expression used by the author of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali.

Patanjali was an ancient yogi who was living in India  probably  in the age around 300-200 BC. He is considered one of the most important figures of the yoga tradition, because he is the first one that wrote a text with clear and systematic instructions about yoga.

He used the expression “eight-limbed” to indicate eight important levels in the spiritual progression of a yogi:

•    Yama – Code of conduct, including moral values such as Non-violence
•    Niyama –  observances – commitments to practice, such as study, devotion, and meditation.
•    Asana – An easy, steady, comfortable pose.
•    Pranayama – regulation of breath leading to control the inner enegy.
•    Pratyahara – abstraction of the senses, withdrawal of the mind from the physical senses.
•    Dharana – concentration, one-pointedness of mind
•    Dhyana – Deep meditation (quiet activity that leads to samadhi)
•    Samadhi – the quiet state of blissful awareness, superconscious state

Already from this short introduction, is easy to understand that what we usually call “Ashtanga” nowadays has very little to do with this ancient method of Patanjali.
The misunderstanding comes from the fact that, in a more recent time (about 70 years ago), a very popular yoga teacher from South India, Pattabhi Jois, has chosen to use the name Ashtanga as a name for the style of dynamic Hatha Yoga that invented.
The dynamic yoga sequences invented by Pattabhi Jois  don’t really have any direct historical or philosophical connection with the traditional Ashtanga Yoga system of Patanjali, but due to the huge popularity of Jois modern form of yoga (many famous personalities, including Madonna and Sting showed interess for this style), many people nowadays believe that the real Ashtanga Yoga is actually the one created by him.

Obviously this is not true, it is just a bit of a paradox, or of a cultural misunderstanding, unfortunately typical among Westerns when they approach traditions coming from the East.
In fact the style of yoga of Pattabhi Jois, is just a modern creation and a peculiar interpretation of some Hata Yoga exercises (asanas, bhandas and mudras), mixed with some dynamic workout. This dynamic sequence may have one of its root even in the physical exercises that the British used to practice at the time of the Bristish colonisation of India. In fact Krishnamacharya, the Guru of Pattabhi Jois was aware of the gym-exercises practices by the English soldiers at that time, and he was probably considering some of those exercises beneficial for students of yoga in a young age. It seems that he was believing that everyone should approach yoga in a different way according to his or her physical characteristics, and so he was believing that some strong and dynamic exercises could be beneficial for young people because youngsters have notoriously more difficult to remain still and calm for a long time in one sitting position and they feel the need to keep the body in action.
So, maybe also because of this reason Pattabhi Jois later decided to develop even more this concept of “dynamic yoga”, creating a demanding yoga-fitness system that nowadays has become one of the most popular in the world.

However, in the last years many followers of the dynamic style of yoga of Pattabhi Jois, after understanding the differences between the traditional Ashtanga and the modern one, decided to call it in a different way to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.

Some of the names that sometimes are used to indicate the Pattabhi Jois style are:

-Pattabhi Joy’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
-Vinyasa Yoga
-Mysore Yoga
-Yoga Flow
-Power yoga

It is important to mention though that there are also many of the followers of the Pattabhi Jois method who claim that the sequence of asanas of this teacher have actually a more ancient root. Some of them say that they come from a very ancient text found by the Guru of Pattabhi Jois. The name of this ancient manuscript suppose to be “Yoga Kurunta”.  Unfortunately, also in this case there are no historical evidences that can prove that this statement is correct. In fact, in the tradition of India it is not mentioned any text with the name “Yoga Kurunta”, and Pattabhi Jois himself never had any copy of this manuscript.
He said that the copy that he found was eaten by ants, or in other cases, he said that this text just appeared in some mystic vision of the Guru Krishnamacharya.

It is possible to find more information about Patanjali, Ashtanga Yoga, and Pattabhi Jois at the following links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashtanga_Yoga
http://www.yogahub.org/blog/guest-author-eric-shaw/
http://www.ayri.org/index.html

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