Many wonder what Ashtanga yoga really is, since it is often called the ‘classical Indian yoga’. It is a vinyasa style yoga that was first popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois in the 20th century. His students brought the ashtanga system to the west for the first time. In Sanskrit, the word ‘ashta’ means eight and ‘anga’ means limbs. Ashtanga or eight-limbed yoga is a practice and philosophy that develops a person’s psychological and spiritual health. Ashtanga yoga was recorded by the sage Vamana Rishi in a text called Yoga Korunta. This text was discovered by Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the National Archives of India. He then passed down this knowledge to his disciple Pattabhi Jois and this was used as a basis by Jois to develop the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system. Jois had been teaching ashtanga yoga since 1948 according to the sacred tradition of guru parampara or succession through disciples, until his death in 2009.
Ashtanga yoga is considered to be a dynamic form of hatha yoga, the roots of which are tied to a small town called Mysore, located in the southern part of India. The sage Patanjali mentioned the eight limbs of spiritual yogic practice in the text yoga sutras as, yama (moral codes), niyama (self-purification and study), asana (posture), pranayama (breathing control), pratyahara (control over senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (union with the object of meditation). The first four are considered to be external cleansing practices while the last four relate to internal cleansing.
Ashtanga yoga is to be practiced in its correct sequential order that gradually leads its practitioner to rediscover his or her highest levels of physical, psychological and spiritual consciousness. The first series of Ashtanga yoga begins with ten sun salutations, five repetitions of surya namaskara A followed by five repetitions of surya namaskara B. This is followed by standing poses done on each side. Next, the practitioner begins one of six series of different asanas and ends with a closing sequence. The practice of the asanas is introduced little by little depending on the capacity of the practitioner. With regular practice, the disciple shows a progressive growth in strength, stability and flexibility.
The six series includes the primary series, intermediate series and the advanced series that has four subparts. The primary series is called yoga chikitsa which detoxifies and realigns the body. The intermediate series called nadi shodhana is useful in purifying the nervous system by opening or clearing up channels of energy. The advanced series is called sthira bhaga that includes more advanced postures that require higher levels of flexibility and a deeper understanding of the practice. Each level needs to be completely mastered before moving on to the next level. The student needs to maintain this discipline with regularity and devotion to acquiring steadiness of the mind and the body.
Ashtanga yoga has myriad health benefits as it aims for the purification of both the body and the mind. It has a dynamic and physically demanding routine with synchronization of breathing and movement to produce an internal heat designed to purify the body. The practice of asanas heats the blood improving blood circulation and overall cardiovascular health. It relieves joint pain, removes toxins and diseases from the internal organs. The body heats up and produces sweat that carries the impurities out of the system. The regular practice of ashtanga yoga improves strength and flexibility, and aids in stress management and inner peace.
Some of its benefits are the following-