Ashtanga Yoga is a system of Yoga recorded by the sage Vamana
Rishi in the Yoga Korunta, an ancient manuscript "said
to contain lists of many different groupings of asanas, as
well as highly original teachings on vinyasa, drishti, bandhas,
mudras, and philosophy" (Jois 2002 xv). The text of the
Yoga Korunta "was imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya
in the early 1900's by his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari, and
was later passed down to Pattabhi Jois during the duration
of his studies with Krishnamacharya, beginning in 1927"
("Ashtanga Yoga"). Since 1948, Pattabhi Jois has
been teaching Ashtanga Yoga from his yoga shala, the Ashtanga
Yoga Research Institute (Jois 2002 xvi), according to the
sacred tradition of Guru Parampara [disciplic succession]
(Jois 2003 12).
Ashtanga Yoga literally means "eight-limbed yoga,"
as outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. According
to Patanjali, the path of internal purification for revealing
the Universal Self consists of the following eight spiritual
Yama [moral codes]
Niyama [self-purification and study]
Pranayama [breath control]
Pratyahara [sense control]
Samadhi [contemplation] (Scott 14-17)
The first four limbs—yama, niyama, asana, pranayama—are
considered external cleansing practices. According to Pattabhi
Jois, defects in the external practices are correctable. However,
defects in the internal cleansing practices—pratyahara,
dharana, dhyana—are not correctable and can be dangerous
to the mind unless the correct Ashtanga Yoga method is followed
(Stern and Summerbell 35). For this reason, Pattabhi Jois
emphasizes that the "Ashtanga Yoga method is Patanjali
The definition of Yoga is "the controlling of the mind"
[citta vrtti nirodhah] (Jois 2003 10). The first two steps
toward controlling the mind are the perfection of yama and
niyama (Jois 2003 10). However, it is "not possible to
practice the limbs and sub-limbs of yama and niyama when the
body and sense organs are weak and haunted by obstacles"
(Jois 2002 17). A person must first take up daily asana practice
to make the body strong and healthy (Jois 2003 10). With the
body and sense organs thus stabilized, the mind can be steady
and controlled (Jois 2002 16). With mind control, one is able
to pursue and grasp these first two limbs (Flynn).
To perform asana correctly in Ashtanga Yoga, one must incorporate
the use of vinyasa and tristhana. "Vinyasa means breathing
and movement system. For each movement, there is one breath.
For example, in Surya Namskar there are nine vinyasas. The
first vinyasa is inhaling while raising your arms over your
head, and putting your hands together; the second is exhaling
while bending forward, placing your hands next to your feet,
etc. In this way all asanas are assigned a certain number
of vinyasas" ("Ashtanga Yoga").
"The purpose of vinyasa is for internal cleansing"
("Ashtanga Yoga"). Synchronizing breathing and movement
in the asanas heats the blood, cleaning and thinning it so
that it may circulate more freely. Improved blood circulation
relieves joint pain and removes toxins and disease from the
internal organs. The sweat generated from the heat of vinyasa
then carries the impurities out of the body. Through the use
of vinyasa, the body becomes healthy, light and strong ("Ashtanga
Tristhana refers to the union of "three places of attention
or action: posture, breathing system and looking place. These
three are very important for yoga practice, and cover three
levels of purification: the body, nervous system and mind.
They are always performed in conjunction with each other"
Posture: "The method for purifying and strengthening
the body is called asana" (Jois 2002 22). In Ashtanga
Yoga, asana is grouped into six series. "The Primary
Series [Yoga Chikitsa] detoxifies and aligns the body. The
Intermediate Series [Nadi Shodhana] purifies the nervous system
by opening and clearing the energy channels. The Advanced
Series A, B, C, and D [Sthira Bhaga] integrate the strength
and grace of the practice, requiring higher levels of flexibility
and humility. Each level is to be fully developed before proceeding
to the next, and the sequential order of asanas is to be meticulously
followed. Each posture is a preparation for the next, developing
the strength and balance required to move further" (Pace).
Without an earnest effort and reverence towards the practice
of yama and niyama, however, the practice of asana is of little
Breathing: The breathing technique performed with vinyasa
is called ujjayi [victorious breath] (Scott 20), which consists
of puraka [inhalation] and rechaka [exhalation] ("Ashtanga
Yoga"). "Both the inhale and exhale should be steady
and even, the length of the inhale should be the same length
as the exhale" ("Ashtanga Yoga"). Over time,
the length and intensity of the inhalation and exhalation
should increase, such that the increased stretching of the
breath initiates the increased stretching of the body (Scott
21). Long, even breathing also increases the internal fire
and strengthens and purifies the nervous system ("Ashtanga
Bandhas are essential components of the ujjayi breathing technique.
Bandha means "lock" or "seal" (Scott 21).
The purpose of bandha is to unlock pranic energy and direct
it into the 72,000 nadi [energy channels] of the subtle body
(Scott 21). Mula bandha is the anal lock, and uddiyana bandha
is the lower abdominal lock ("Ashtanga Yoga"). Both
bandhas "seal in energy, give lightness, strength and
health to the body, and help to build a strong internal fire"
("Ashtanga Yoga"). Mula bandha operates at the root
of the body to seal in prana internally for uddiyana bandha
to direct the prana upwards through the nadis (Scott 21).
Jalandhara bandha is the "throat lock" (Jois 2002
23, n.27), which "occurs spontaneously in a subtle form
in many asanas due to the dristi ("gaze point"),
or head position" (Scott 23). "This lock prevents
pranic energy [from] escaping and stops any build-up of pressure
in the head when holding the breath" (Scott 23). Without
bandha control, "breathing will not be correct, and the
asanas will give no benefit" ("Ashtanga Yoga").
Looking Place: Dristhi is the gazing point on which one focuses
while performing the asana ("Ashtanga Yoga"). "There
are nine dristhis: the nose, between the eyebrows, navel,
thumb, hands, feet, up, right side and left side. Dristhi
purifies and stabilizes the functioning of the mind"
("Ashtanga Yoga"). In the practice of asana, when
the mind focuses purely on inhalation, exhalation, and the
drishti, the resulting deep state of concentration paves the
way for the practices of dharana and dhyana, the six and seventh
limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (Scott 23).
Instruction in pranayama can begin after one has learned the
asanas well and can practice them with ease (Jois 2002 23).
"Pranayama means taking in the subtle power of the vital
wind through rechaka [exhalation], puraka [inhalation], and
kumbhaka [breath retention]. Only these kriyas, practiced
in conjunction with the three bandhas [muscle contractions,
or locks] and in accordance with the rules, can be called
pranayama" (Jois 2002 23). The three bandhas are "mula
bandha, uddiyana bandha, and jalandhara bandha, and they should
be performed while practicing asana and the like" (Jois
2002 23). "When mula bandha is perfect, mind control
is automatic" ("Ashtanga Yoga"). "In this
way did Patanjali start Yoga. By using mulabandha and by controlling
the mind, he gradually gained knowledge of Yoga" (Jois
Practicing asana for many years with correct vinyasa and tristhana
gives the student the clarity of mind, steadiness of body,
and purification of the nervous system to begin the prescribed
pranayama practice (Flynn). "Through the practice of
pranayama, the mind becomes arrested in a single direction
and follows the movement of the breath" (Jois 2002 23).
Pranayama forms the foundation for the internal cleansing
practices of Ashtanga Yoga (Flynn).
The four internal cleansing practices—pratyahara, dharana,
dhyana, and samadhi—bring the mind under control (Stern
and Summerbell 35). When purification is complete and mind
control occurs, the Six Poisons surrounding the spiritual
heart [kama (desire), krodha (anger), moha (delusion), lobha
(greed), matsarya (sloth), and mada (envy)]—"will,
one by one, go completely" (Stern and Summerbell 35),
revealing the Universal Self. In this way, the correct, diligent
practice of Ashtanga Yoga under the direction of a Guru "with
a subdued mind unshackled from the external and internal sense
organs" (Jois 2002 22) eventually leads one to the full
realization of Patanjali's Eight-Limbed Yoga.
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