Ashtanga Yoga History 101

Ashtanga Yoga’s traditional and increasingly popular sequencing is widely believed to be derived almost solely from the yoga korunta, an ancient manuscript credited to the yogi Sage Vemana. It should be noted that this sequence was not brought to the public eye by Pattabhi Jois, but by his teacher, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is known to have found the korunta with 5 sequences, and then divided one of the sequences in half due to its difficulty and lack of application thereof.  Krishnamacharya did write one book that can be identified as an early treatise on what is commonly known now simply as "Ashtanga"; this book is called "Yoga Makaranda" and is available in print now. As a result of Krishnamacharya's efforts while he was teaching in Mysore, India, the current system of Ashtanga is taught in 6 contemporary segments. Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, one of Krishnamacharyas finest students, became the teacher of the Mysore school probably in 1953. To this day, the Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute teaches these sequences almost exactly as Krishnamacharya taught them to Guruji/Pattabhi Jois in the 1920s, and they do so in the city of Mysore, in Southern India. 


Krishnamacharya himself never left India.  He taught yoga there until he died at the age of 100.  He gave the lineage of Ashtanga to his good student, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, who then began teaching Ashtanga in the tradition of his teacher.  After over 70 years of teaching yoga, Pattabhi Jois had given his blessing to only a handful of his students, who now continue the lineage.  The founder of Ashtanga Bellingham is the student of one of the highest regarded "certified" Ashtanga Yoga teachers in the world, David Garrigues, who for 10 years directed the Ashtanga Yoga School in Seattle, Washington.  David now travels the world teaching Ashtanga Yoga as it was taught to him by his teacher.  When we hold a class at AB we show credence and respect to the lineage which we belong, as it is the source of all yogic knowledge we have and pass along.  


Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois is the gold standard for what is currently known as Ashtanga practice.  “Guruji” was the master of Ashtanga Yoga, and his method of Asana was the sequence which is most often associated with that word. It is vital to understand that Pattabhi Jois did not speak English, so when asked by Westerners to define his style, he replied simply and honestly that he taught Ashtanga.  It was his life’s work and focus, but it would be inaccurate to claim that only Pattabhi Jois and his students are practicing Ashtanga.  Guruji/Pattabhi Jois taught a practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, just as Krishnamacharya had taught him, continually, and through his entire life. Guruji never wanted people to "own" yoga, and he was outspoken against the Bikram Yoga movement for this reason. Sri K Pattabhi Jois passed away in 2009, but his legacy is stronger now than ever before, with students all over the world practicing Ashtanga Yoga as it truly was designed to be practiced.  Pattabhi Jois is responsible for a great deal of knowledge of yoga, which has filtered to the western world through his students.  Many great Yoga practitioners have the prestigious honor to say that they have practiced with this great contemporary master of yoga. 

In it’s current stage, Ashtanga Yoga varies widely be definition, but for our purposes we will narrow the definition to those practices which exist within the lineage of Sri K Pattabhi Jois.  The term Ashtanga is ubiquitously used to describe all types of yoga that stem from the Patanjali school, but in the United States, Ashtanga has become synonymous with the yoga style of Pattabhi Jois, and his students.

Today, Ashtanga Yoga is the basis for most yoga sequences taught in the world as “vinyasa” or "power" yoga.  To use the term more broadly, Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri Krishnamacharya is responsible for about 95% of yoga practiced today, though the styles have been adapted, their origins are undeniably rooted in the ancient Ashtanga tradition.


Ashtanga Yoga’s growth in popularity during the past century is somewhat of a phenomenon.  It seems almost as if the cultural status and situation in the western world demanded that yoga be brought to heal the wounds of an overly aggressive, stressed out society.  Ashtanga Yoga’s first western messenger was the English speaking yoga master, B.K.S Iyengar.  While Iyengar taught a style of Ashtanga which is noticeably different than the vinyasa style taught today, there is no doubt that in the core, Iyengar was teaching Ashtanga Yoga. B.K.S Iyengar, also a student of Krishnamacharya, learned the exact same style of yoga and adapted it to be more accessible to certain people. Guruji (Sri K Pattabhi Jois) taught the method exactly as was taught to him while Iyengar has been very creative in variating the sequence and practices. That does not necessarily mean that the contemporary Ashtanga tradition is superior, it just means that it's the original format and sequence taught by a master (the same could be said of a sequence Iyengar taught).


It is also useful to note for current and future students of Ashtanga Belligham, that our methodologies have been largely borrowed from the Iyengar tradition. The use of straps, blocks, longer asana holds, and the anatomical focus are largely Iyengar derived approaches. Pattabhi Jois was often quoted reminding his students that throughout the long past experiences of yoga there has been little success from mixing styles. Ashtanga Bellingham believes that you can be completely and totally committed to a style of practice, while remaining open to contemporary advancements made outside of the lineage, if those advancements are made through researching the traditional method, which all Iyengar practices do. This idea reminds us that there is a much larger picture behind the veil of asana practices which may differ in approach and application.


Humanity itself is made up of (hopefully) complimentary parts. While many pseudo yoga teachers are definitely ruining yoga by teaching what they do not know or understand, there are others, perhaps hard to decipher as different, who are continuing the practice and lineage of this thousands of years old practice. We do not feel like we own our students, and we do not feel that we own our style of yoga, we see it as a "universal property" and humanitarian art, which has been given by our human ancestors, who practiced, researched, studied, and improved it over many centuries, solely for our benefit today. The intention of Ashtanga Bellingham is not to teach yoga selfishly, but rather to consider our impact on current as well as future generations of yoga. If we do not consider this, we are violating several principles of yoga, namely ahimsa (Yoga Sutra 2:34). To follow the method correctly means that we stay close to the center vehicle of Ashtanga Yoga, and utilize our lifetimes for our benefit and the advancement of yoga for all who will come after us. 


Ashtanga Yoga is a traditional practice, and through those traditions it has maintained some semblance to the sacred format that came from our ancestors.  Ashtanga practitioners and teachers follow the tradition of teacher-student progression known as guru parampara.  There is a great deal of respect offered to masters of Ashtanga Yoga, and there are few of them teaching now.