Ashtanga Yoga is an ancient system of yoga which is explained thoroughly in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This approximately 2,000 year old document outlines an "eight limbed" method of practice (yoga sutra 2:28). The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are each defined in the latter part of the second chapter of the yoga sutras.
Unfortunately, people have gotten busy, and they have lost track, at times, of what yoga truly means, and what it truly is. We should all rest assuredly, however, that true yoga still exists, and it will likely never die. Yoga is the property of humanity, and thus with humanity as its keeper, will always be a victim of human error and misunderstanding, which is ironically pointed out within the yoga sutras as something which is pervasive.
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 and 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. 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 very difficult and physically demanding, but the intensity of practice can be variated to suit the individual (Yoga Sutra 1:21-22). 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.
Ashtanga Yoga’s sequencing is widely believed to be derived solely from the yoga korunta, with some changes through transcription and practical application through research done within the chosen lineage, namely by Sri K Pattabhi Jois and the students of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, which has been open since 1948 as a global center-point for Ashtanga studies. Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya 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. As a result, the current system of Ashtanga is taught in 6 contemporary segments. Most practitioners focus on the first and second series’ of Ashtanga Yoga, maybe for good reason.
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).
The world has seen an explosive expansion of yoga variation and practice throughout the world, some for the better and some definitely for the worse. It is clear that there is a lot of good yoga out there, you sometimes must dig to find it. It is the stance and mission of Ashtanga Bellingham to give credence and ultimate respect to all people who are on the path of yoga, while also staying true to the lineage and practice of Ashtanga Yoga. 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.
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. It was his life’s work and focus. He taught Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, just as Krishnamacharya had taught him, continually, and through his entire life. 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.
Ashtanga Yoga is often practiced in the morning. This is the time most suitable for the rigors of the practice. Later in the day our thoughts can cloud our ability to practice without distraction. Since Ashtanga Yoga can be very demanding, there are opportunities in the morning to “look” at what your mind does while you practice. Ashtanga Yoga is nearly universally accepted as a morning practice.
Ashtanga Yoga is best practiced continuously throughout the life of the aspirant. It is not good to start the practice and stop again. It is in the best interests of the practitioner to continue steadily, no matter how limited the asanas may be. Keeping up with your practice can be what defines your practice. It could be said that your progress in Ashtanga can be measured, if at all, by your consistency of practice over a long period of time (Yoga Sutra 1:14).
Learning Ashtanga Yoga can be a challenge at first, and the results can be mixed. All practitioners should be careful when selecting a yoga teacher. There is a great deal of confusion about this topic. Currently, Ashtanga Yoga has authorized and certified teachers, who have studied in Mysore, India. At the very least, your teacher should be able to identify where, within the lineage, his or her studies originated from; if they cannot do this, you are probably best not learning there.
Perhaps it is good to know that Ashtanga Yoga is heavily steeped in Samkyha philosophy, an ancient eastern philosophy that predates most of the Eastern Religious traditions that utilize it. While Samkyha itself is non-theistic, it has not hindered its incredible intellectually satisfying prowess from becoming the root of more religiously oriented dogmas. While Ashtanga Yoga practice has very little to do with any kind of religion, its place of origin certainly connects the practice of yoga to what is now called Hinduism. It is very important to practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga, and teachers of the art, that it remain separate from any religion, as it was intended by the great masters of yoga. Ashtanga Yoga is not a religion.