By Paul Dallaghan
The word “Ashtanga” has become commonplace in today’s modern world just in the last few years. One can hear this cross-cultural word used by those speaking different languages in different countries. What is it, what does it signify and what is the reason for its popularity?
When typically heard used in a discussion today, or on a schedule of a yoga studio, it is most likely referring to the approach of yoga known as “Ashtanga Vinyasa”. Although only recently popular the system is very ancient. Its current form has been taught since the 1920s and its origin goes back thousands of years. This “Ashtanga”, as practiced today, is an arrangement of the yoga poses (asanas), incorporating the breath, inner power and the focusing of the mind. It is a dynamic approach that is initially physical but as the practitioner continues to practice it moves to the subtle, deeper within.
When hearing of Ashtanga often the name Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is mentioned. His dedication, study and practice over the past 75 years have ensured that it is available for the masses to practice today. He is the current main teacher of this approach, followed by his grandson, Sharath. He was taught by his teacher (guru), Sri. T. Krishnamacharya, who was a major force in the teaching and spreading of yoga in the past century. He and his main students – P. Jois, Iyengar and Desikachar – can be thanked for revolutionizing the teaching of yoga, in particular asana. Krishnamacharya had spent years with his guru in the Himalayas studying and practicing. Asana, the postures, was a main part of this. He was taught by his master to do them in a flowing connected way, using the breath, known as vinyasa. This approach is very old but has only recently become “available” to more than just the very sincere Indian adept searching for a valid path and teacher to learn from. This ancient source is its authenticity, for it comes straight out of this vast history and lineage of yogic teachings. Times do change. How it is disseminated will vary as the times change. Thus we see how the work of Krishnamacharya and Jois brought it forward so that anyone around the world could discover and practice it, devoid of cultural and national conditions. And this is what has happened. It may be hard to find a country today where it is not practiced.
Yoga is both a path and the end goal. Its purpose is to raise the inner awareness of each individual till complete calm of the mind is reached. It brings complete mind control. With this the systems of the body function harmoniously. Ultimately, the integration of the physical, mental and spiritual is complete. Thus we find things a human can do to move towards this state of oneness, typically called practices. Our effort is extremely important. This effort raises us up so the hand of grace can come and touch us. Just as all roads lead to Rome, so all true paths lead to the One. Ashtanga is a complete path, one of practice, that ultimately results in this state. The term Ashtanga cannot be dated but its earliest written reference currently available is from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This is a string of statements completely detailing the practice and result of yoga. Its emphasis is practice and if followed, under guidance of a teacher who has had the experiences, the results are definite. Patanjali explains the state of the mind, the troubles and blockages we all have, states our true nature and what happens at the different stages of reaching this state. The key he offers to us all is the approach to practice. This is where the term Ashtanga is first mentioned as he offers it as the blueprint for practice.
When translated from the Sanskrit in to English, Ashtanga means “Eight Limbs”. Hence, we find it composed of eight elements. These are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. When analysed we find the key to harmonious living encased within. Explaining these in a nutshell they are – how I treat others; how I treat myself; how I hold my body (posture); how I breathe and control over it; how to control the senses, not being their slave; how I direct my attention, that is concentration; my expanded consciousness so concentrated that a state called meditation occurs; and finally the state beyond physical descripition, beyond the mind, a sense of our true nature, ultimately merged with the One, known as samadhi.
Patanjali is very openminded about its practice. He offers no doctrine and no rigidity. His concern is with the state of the mind. What he has given us is the analysis and breakdown of the path. Some approach it from a devotional standpoint, some from a discriminative one and others through action and work. All these approaches when looked at include the eight elements. His approach is to offer a direct path to the sincere practitioner. Ultimately it weaves in knowledge, devotion and work. Thus, when Krishnamacharya and Jois looked upon this practice it was clear it included all elements offered by Patanjali. Hence its name became “Ashtanga”.
Asana – the starting point
The initial focus of Ashtanga under P. Jois is on asana. The misunderstanding mind thinks that’s all it is. But just as 90% of the iceberg is hidden deep below so too is the depth of this practice. And this can only be discovered through one’s personal experience in practicing it. To get to our true nature there are many layers to peel away. As we function in an extremely physical and external world the point of entry is naturally physical. So one begins with a set of asanas (postures). While doing them focus on the breath is encouraged. Control over the breath and the respiratory system itself is subsequently developed. One layer deeper. Encouragement to focus the eyes on a set point (drishti), to limit distraction and aid in mental control, is then advised. This gets deeper when one begins to be able to apply the inner forces at our core (bandhas). From this base comes a great strength which has a large effect on the operation of the mind. Thus, as the practitioner advances they go through levels of physical development, they gain control over the breathing function, this in turn aids in mental control, the growth of inner forces builds concentration. One is then moving closer to be able to be still and reap the rewards in meditation.
Practice is the building block
The glue to all of this, however, lies in yama and niyama – how I treat others and myself. These are patterns of behavior, a reflection of the psyche and its healthiness. Beginning with the physical practice and going deeper one finds the elements of yama and niyama become stronger in their life. Yama states we should never harm anyone or thing, in thought, word or action; be truthful; do not take what does not belong to us (non-stealing); conserve our vital energies, don’t waste them frivolously; and only having or receiving what is needed, non-hoarding. Niyama emphasizes personal physical and mental cleanliness; cultivating a level of contentment; accepting all that comes and seeing it and direct practices as modes of purification; study of ourselves and scriptural texts; and finally a level of devotion or surrender to the higher or creative force. If these are not strong within us the achievement of higher states is impossible. In other words, Ashtanga emphasizes certain practices but the heart must become clear and open so finally grace can come and salvage us. Daily we practice the asana, breath and more. We become aware of how yama and niyama guides us to live. Keeping these qualities in mind they start to grow and become us but it is continual practice that changes and opens things within us that allows these qualities to ripen. Thus through practice of these limbs a complete transformation within occurs. And this is the real way to assess it for yourself. How have I changed? Not superficial changes like a better body, etc. but my approach to life, others, myself, my level of peace, calm and contentment, the clarity and awareness I possess within, my strength and concentration of mind. Patanjali is the first to say be this scientist, experimenter, experience it yourself and know the truth. Thus one must practice.
Practice – from the gross to the subtle
There is an infinite number of asanas. Ashtanga has arranged key ones very intelligently into different series. Six in total, primary, intermediate and advanced A,B,C,D. As explained, they systematically work on breaking down old destructive patterns and peel away the layers. Initially, the primary series, works on the gross level. The body needs to be opened and strengthened. This achievement will be obvious in how one feels. Going deeper, the intermediate series of asanas sets about working on the strength and cleanliness of the nerves. A more subtle level. This takes longer but will also be noticed within. Moving on from there the work in the advanced series, of which there are four, is on subtle depths and inner strength to help raise the vital force. Common to all this is the link known as “vinyasa”. Each pose has a certain number of movements with a breath tied to each movement. Ultimately it results in a harmonious functioning of body, breath and mind. This in itself could be termed meditation. The breath is done in a particular way so that it is even, strengthening and purifying. This is known as “ujjayi” breathing. To progress the student must be involved in the process. This means watch the breath, concentrate on what you’re doing, focus the mind. While in the asana, breathing, there is a gaze point, known as “drishti”. A wandering attention is usually coupled by wandering eyes. Direct the attention through the eyes, breathe and focus. Not rigidly. Eventually concentration builds and more mind control comes. As the mind strengthens one begins to see fewer blockages and problems in the body. The key to it all though is the work done at the core or base. Known as the “bandhas” they are locks, preserving vital energy, which then operate as a gateway, directing this energy so the effect is achieved. Tremendous inner strength and a strong mind is the result. Their cultivation is essential to progress in the different limbs. Mula bandha, the root itself, when strong and operational, is immediate concentration and mind control. A strong force is felt within.
How to practice
One should learn from a competent teacher, who has gone through the practice themselves and understands its effect and challenges that arise. This is logical as on any journey one wants a responsible and experienced guide. Thus the teacher has invested much time in learning and practice. And it requires time. Initially one will be led through the first set of poses of the primary series. However, the student is required to then learn this sequence. This builds more strength through less dependence. At the same time the teacher will direct the student in the correct breathing method, where to focus the gaze and how to work the power center at the base. After a certain period of time it all starts to fuse together harmoniously. When the vinyasa is done correctly then the appropriate breath is done for a move in or out of the asana, breathing is strong, the mind is focused and change can then begin. Best results are found when one learns and progresses one asana at a time. Again the quality of patience comes in. Though an asana may appear easy there is an adaptation and learning time. When done competently the teacher will add on the next asana for the student, guiding them in the correct manner. Both strength and flexibility are developed. Hence, balance. When the student has a lot of difficulty in the asana the teacher will adjust them to help them get it. In essence, they are helping the body learn it. New neural messages to the brain have begun. This is the point in the series the student practices up to. One could always go on but you will find that asana will never be properly learnt. So working to here the student overcomes this obstacle, creating the needed change within, and justifiably moves on. As previously stated, the asanas are arranged in a scientific manner, so progression through the series builds the student on all levels. Of course, you can analyse and reason it as much as you want but you’ll find it a waste of your time. The only answer is experience through practice. And this shows as the mind becomes clearer and stronger.
One can experience the positive results straight away. Yet at the same time there will be many new experiences, some of them being “pain” in the body. These are actually a positive sign that changes are in process. Patience and perseverance are required. Initially one finds a more open and strong body. In fact, the physical shape itself gets transformed. The body operates more efficiently and throws off any unnecessary waste. This will be in the form of fat, toxins, etc. Not just the outer appearance but more importantly the inner health and vitality is improved. All the asanas work deep on the inner organs. A balance of both strength and flexibility develops. Through the power of the vinyasa the respiratory and circulatory systems are developed. If there is stiffness or disease in the body it will be accompanied by a lack or block of the circulation. The movement between asanas really maximizes circulation, flushing out old blood and toxins and allowing fresh, oxygenated blood to pour in. Within time greater health is achieved. From this base one is equipped to go deeper within. As circulation increases with the breath, the nervous system strengthens. This means it can carry a greater current. Similar to upgrading your electrical lines at home to handle greater voltage or moving from a dial-up internet connection to high-speed cable. Lightness and space is felt within. As these systems function better so does the activity of the brain. The ability to concentrate and get tasks done increases. This leads to less of a mental load and greater clarity. It then leaves you with a greater sense of peace and calm of mind. To be able to switch from activity to stillness. But these are benefits that take many years of devoted practice. Fortunately the practice engenders a love within and the desire to practice increases along with the regularity of doing it. There will be dirt along the way, the stuff within us that has to come out. But it is worth it yet hard.
Ashtanga is a comprehensive approach to practice. Many do asana and think that is all ashtanga is. This is only the beginning of the journey. As one practices, all the elements are cultivated so one goes deeper and starts to understand what Patanjali is talking about. It is a system to work with. It is true and has definite positive results. The problems that come up for us are a reflection of our inner state. To blame the practice is a weak way out. We must learn to look within us and see what is not functioning right. This is then yama and niyama in action. As these clear up and strengthen all the limbs start to come together.
In conclusion, ashtanga vinyasa gives the practitioner a practical key or tool to work with daily to allow the changes to occur within. The initial start point is physical. It is up to the individual how deep it will go. Patanjali states one must practice for a long time, continually, no stop-start, and with complete sincerity for the practices to bear fruit. The level of intensity is also up to us. If you plant a seed and really care for it, it will grow. And eventually it blossoms and bears fruit. As Pattabhi Jois says, “practice and all is coming”. Couldn’t be more true. Experience it for yourself. Practice !!