Ashtanga Yoga Philosophy | The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

In the first few passages of the yoga sutras of the second chapter, we are guided to seek 3 distinct mediums for our yoga practice.

  1. Tapas; fiery devotion to practice

  2. Svadhyaya; study of sutras and yogic scriptures as well as from teacher(s)

  3. Isvarapranidhana; devotional surrendering to the ultimate cosmic force of life

While all three of these are important for our practice, Isvarapranidhana is the most vital to our yoga practice. However nebulous in philosophical inquiry, Isvarapranidhana is within our grasp at all times of day; it is nothing more than the art of living in abidance with the power of flow that many of us have an intrinsic sense of, and recognize, however subtly, in our daily lives. It is often said that “yoga is a preparation for meditation”; this may not be true, as meditation (sanskrit “dhyana”) is an aspect of yoga… so we cannot say we only do yoga to prepare for yoga… that does not make much sense… instead, we can say that our practice of asana and pranayama prepare us to experience the mind-state of dharana, and thus, in this yogic state of being, we are more adept at adhering to the more natural flow that exists beneath the surface of mere phenomena.

Because Isvarapranidhana is considered to be the most vital aspect of our practice of Ashtanga, we may consider our practice to be bhakti yoga (devotional yoga of love); it could also be considered many other variants such as: Hatha Yoga (yoga of will/force/movement/balancing forces), Karma Yoga (yoga of deed or action), Jnana Yoga (yoga of wisdom and knowledge), or perhaps we could consider it Kundalini Yoga as it works to develop the subtle energies of the body. At any rate, our Ashtanga practice is certainly one which requires commitment (yoga sutra 1:14), and does not bode well for aspirants who start and stop, or change their minds often. Instead, we seek to maintain a stable practice over a long period of time, and seek out a qualified teacher by which to maintain our practice of yoga throughout our lives. Certainly, a yoga teacher is necessary to assist us in developing our practice, and that is why it is important to share yogic knowledge with others in an accurate and informed manner.

Ashtanga Yoga (literally meaning “eight limbs” of yoga) is the means of liberating human beings from avidya (ignorance causing suffering) outlined in the ancient document known as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Ashtanga Yoga is a universally accessible bhakti (devotional) yoga practice which utilizes hatha (ha-tha represents the two main energy paths of the body) yoga techniques primarily in the form of asana and pranayama. The yoga sequences of Ashtanga Yoga that are practiced, studied, and taught at our school are the ones taught by David Garrigues, a famous yoga teacher from Seattle, Washington, who was a devout student of the late Sri K Pattabhi Jois. These yoga systems were derived from an ancient manuscript known as the Yoga Korunta, which was made popular by the yoga master T. Krishnamacharya (the one known as “the grandfather of modern yoga”). The practices and popular sequences of Ashtanga Yoga are most famously known through the teachings of Sri K Pattabhi Jois; one of the closest yoga students of Krishnamacharya.  

The practice of Ashtanga Yoga is foreshadowed and supported by the observances of ethical and moral principles which are necessary to prepare the life of the aspirant for the benefits of practice. In the yoga sutras these ethical principles are known as the yamas and niyamas (the first two of the eight limbs of Ashtanga). Without a lifestyle that supports yoga practice, asana practitioners can find no solid ground in their practice, and will likely toil away without true benefit. Thus, Ashtanga Yoga is much more than postures done in class, it is a lifestyle, a philosophy of universalism; Ashtanga Yoga is a complete and holistic method of overcoming the principle obstacles in life, and removes the causes of suffering so that human beings can reach their potential within the bounds of a violent world (ahimsa). It has been stated several times by numerous historical and contemporary yoga masters that aspirants should not take practice under “pseudo yogis” but rather seek out a qualified teacher.

Ashtanga Yoga is defined in the yoga sutras as "yogas-chitta-vritti-nirodaha" -or- the stilling of the mind through practice. Many people believe that the ancient lineage and traditional power of Ashtanga Yoga, which was known by great sages living in India centuries ago, is now living through the gurus and instructors of the K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, located in Southern India. Our practice is based on the techniques at that institute and consists of daily devotional asana sequences based in traditional formats, utilizing contemporary adaptations. Our yoga school is a utilitarian, non-dogmatic, research based yoga school which focuses on the individual betterment of human beings by means of the realization of potential through recognition of the self, or purusha, thus removing the conflict/suffering causing roots of delusion (avidya) caused by the existential poison of samsara (cyclic existence).

We teach Ashtanga Yoga practices to people of all abilities through group style led classes, traditional mysore classes, individual instruction, modified restorative sequences, and continual research based teacher training sessions. Ashtanga Yoga is explained thoroughly in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This approximately 2,000 year old document outlines a method to attain the nectar of yoga (called Samadhi); in the sutras it is called "eight limbs" (yoga sutra 2:28).. Note that in Sanskrit the number 8 is "ashtau" and limbs is "anga'; so this is to say that Ashtanga is, in English, the word in the sutras utilized to define the method of practice.

When we go to a "yoga" class, we often have reasons for attending which are not at all in concert with the original motivations of yoga. That is fine. Yoga masters decided not long ago that yoga was to be a gift, from India, to the rest of the world. These masters knew then, just as many of them know now, that yoga was going to be taken, manipulated, changed, reformatted, and adapted to fit a variety of preferences and beliefs. Amidst this incredible adaptability which seems to be prevalent in yoga, it is, in our view, vitally important that we do not lose track of the intended purpose of Ashtanga Yoga. Practicing yoga without correct guidance, or a connection to where it came from, can be compared to walking into a pharmacy and randomly selecting medicines to treat an illness; you most certainly will feel something, but that may not ultimately be in your best interests. Thus, "pseudo" yoga should be avoided, and a correct practice of Ashtanga Yoga should be taken up immediately with a qualified teacher.

Most people who begin Ashtanga Yoga practice quit within a few weeks or a few months. Still more people take practice for a few years and do not see the results they wanted, so they quit. Many people take practice in Ashtanga Yoga believing it to be a solely physical endeavor that will give them a great physique, youthful vibrant energy, and a healthy lifestyle... they love it so deeply that they fail to accept the pitfalls of being attached to it, and the obstacles which it may exhume from within us, and quit, often befuddled or bitter that it did not deliver as promised. Ashtanga should not be attempted for any kind of quick fix, but rather as a way of life which is intended to be kept with you throughout yours (yoga sutra 1:14). Take practice with the spirit of diligence, patience, and dedication; Ashtanga is not a physical endeavor, but a spiritual one, and many of the most physically accomplished and most famous yogis and yoga teachers still struggle with these deeper aspects of practice. You are not alone. Let the tapas run through you, don't get too high or too down, but rather keep steady and continue to practice as directed, and as we always say "do your practice and all is coming". 

Practicing Ashtanga Yoga in the physical form is deemed essential in the process, although the practice of Ashtanga ultimately does not exist subserviently to the postures and physical practice.  Ashtanga Yoga has a certain fundamental no-nonsense utility to it.  Perhaps it could be said, in a world full of spiritual paths and confusion, that Ashtanga presents a departure, in that it offers a hands on, non dogmatic approach.  This “what you see is what you get” aspect of Ashtanga Yoga practice is undeniably represented in the famous words of Pattabhi Jois, who said repeatedly that “Yoga is 99 percent practice, and 1 percent theory”.  The postures undertaken by a yoga aspirant are designed to lead them to Samadhi, a state of absorbption and cognitive dwelling in which our awareness recognizes the unity of all things.  

 

Practicing Ashtanga Yoga can be made to be very difficult and physically demanding, but the intensity of practice can be variated to suit the individual (Yoga Sutra 1:21-22).  When yoga becomes exclusionary, it becomes of a type forbidden by the great Krishnamacharya who said:

““Yoga must be adapted to an individuals needs, expectations and possibilities,
rather than adapting an individuals needs, expectations and possibilities to Yoga.””

— -T. Krishnamacharya (the grandfather of modern yoga)

 

While the Yoga Sutras are clear that the progress of a student is variable in relation to the level of commitment and intensity, Ashtanga has no built in minimums or expectations of ability; these ideas should be thrown out and practice should be taken according to the ability of the practitioner at that time.   In this way, regardless of who is practicing and how it looks, all people can practice Ashtanga Yoga in some form or another.  The practice is available, and is a gift to us all. 

Sanskrit: Sa tu dirgha-kala-nairantarya-satkarasevito drdha-bhumih
English: Yoga Practice has a firm ground when attended to for a long time, without interruption, and with devotion to truth
— Yoga Sutra 1:14 | Translation: American Sanskrit Institute