For many years Ashtanga yoga was tirelessly taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois ("Guruji") of Mysore, South India. Ashtanga yoga is an
ancient system of yoga that was described by Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta. This text was imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in
the early 1900's by his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari, and was later passed down to Pattabhi Jois during the duration of his studies with
Krishnamacharya, beginning in 1927. Sadly in 2009 Guruji passed away at the age of 93. Today, Guruji's grandson Sharath and daughter Saraswati
continue to share the teachings at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore.
Ashtanga yoga is one of the most popular forms of Hatha yoga practised in the West. It is a classical method that is renowned for it's dynamic and flowing sequence of asanas (postures). The traditional method of teaching Ashtanga yoga focusses on the individual to ensure that each student practises according to their own ability. With the committment to a regular practice Ashtanga yoga can help to promote self awareness and realisation.
In Ashtanga yoga the postures are practised with
(i) Vinyasa - each movement has a specific breath.
Breathing and moving together while performing asanas warms and thins the blood, so enabling it to circulate more freely. This improved blood circulation promotes healing by removing impurities, accumulated waste and toxins in the body. This process is aided by sweating. Raising heat and sweating are an important part of the Ashtanga practice. So the purpose of vinyasa is for internallly purifying the body.
After the body has been purified, the nervous system and then the sense organs can also be purified. This purification can take years of practise. The sense organs are always wanting to look outside and prevent self-awareness. However, through determination and regular practise, this outward looking habit can be controlled. After this is accomplished, mind control comes automatically. Thus, by following the correct vinyasa the mind will eventually become calm.
(ii) An even Ujjayi breath.
We work towards each inhalation and exhalation being the same length and being performed using the Ujjayi technique (partial closing of the glottis). Breathing in this manner purifies the nervous system.
(iii) Bandhas - specific muscular contractions.
The purpose of using bandhas is to promote the correct circulation of energy, to give lightness, strength and health to the body, and to help build a strong internal fire.
In the Ashtanga system, 2 bandhas are used; mula and uddiyana bandha. These are the pelvic floor/anal and lower abdominal muscular contractions. It is said that when mula bandha has been perfected, mind control is automatic.
(iv) Dristhi - specific gaze points.
Dristhi is the place where you look while in the asana. There are nine dristhis: the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, thumb, hands, feet, up, right side and left side. The correct use of dristhi purifies and stabilizes the functioning of the mind.
So correct and regular practise of Ashtanga yoga enables a practitioner to develop a form of moving meditation. By practising asanas with vinyasa and focusing on the ujjayi breath and the bandhas, we can unlock energy and generate prana/lifeforce within ourselves. If we also withdraw the senses by using the dristi, we can start to meditate on what we are doing and keep the energy we have generated in the practice within us. Then we can move towards a state of yoga chikitsa, yoga therapy or profound healing. This healing can be used positively for example to quiten a busy mind, to remove restricted movement or pain in a hip, a knee or a back etc, to correct the body on a structural or emotional level, or to answer such questions as "Who am I ?" and "Why am I here ?". Guruji often used to say