History of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga is historically difficult to define. Is it a physical practice, a mental practice, a spiritual practice, or all of the above.  Is it exercise, is it therapy, is it performance? Practitioners will align with different motives and definitions of practice making it particularly difficult to come up with a suitable definition that fits all practitioners. That is why Ashtanga yoga is perhaps best identified by the history of the name, and the techniques that gradually became associated with it.

Ashtanga yoga means 8 limbs and its first known use is in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali where it describes an 8-part method of practice. Many of the ideas and practices outlined in the Yoga Sutras had already been developing in India for thousands of years. What makes the Yoga Sutras stand out is that they compiled variegated strands of yogic theory and praxis in a systematic way. However, yoga techniques are used by a variety of different traditions alongside that of the Yoga Sutras, which speaks to their versatility.

Sutras are a type of literature that is written in short aphorisms that are meant to be explained through commentary and there is a long and rich commentarial tradition associated with the Yoga Sutras. In Patanjali’s original treatise and early commentaries we don’t see many of the techniques that we recognize in Ashtanga yoga practice today. It is through the commentarial tradition that over time we see the introduction of techniques that have influenced modern yoga practice.

Ashtanga Yoga, as practiced today, has it’s basis in the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya and his student K. Pattabhi Jois. Jois claims that the practice comes from a lost manuscript called the Yoga Korunta.  As of now, there is no known existing copy of this manuscript and very little is known about what it contains. Jois often quoted a verse from this text which stated “O Yogi, do not practice asana without vinyasa.”  The linking of breath and movement in sequences of asanas, then would have its basis in this text. It is not clear what the relationship between the Yoga Sutra and Yoga Korunta may have been. Nor is it clear why Jois chose to name his method of practice Ashtanga yoga since there is no mention of these techniques in the Yoga Sutra despite Jois attributing his style of yoga to this early source.

The fundamental practices of Jois’s system of yoga are:

Tristana method – body posture (asana), regulated free breathing with sound (ujjayi) and gazing points (driśti).

Vinyasa – synchronized breath and movement progressing through fixed sequencesof postures

Bandha – the use of internal muscle engagements and energetic locks

Jois began teaching western students in 1964 in his home in Mysore, India.  He subsequently made several trips throughout the world at the invitation of his students to propagate this form of yoga. It has gradually spread, through the efforts of many of Jois’s early students, to be practiced around the globe today.  It has heavily influenced modern yoga through the introduction of vinyasa that is fundamental to many styles and schools of modern yoga.

Along with the spread of the system, more and more students began to journey to India to study with Jois.  The method of teaching became gradually more codified and the system institutionalized. Originally Pattabhi Jois named his small shala the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (AYRI).  The name was eventually changed to the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI).  In 2009, Pattabhi Jois passed away leaving the institute in the care of his daughter, Saraswati Jois, and his grandson, Sharath Jois.  During this evolution the process of becoming an authorized teacher through the institute became more defined. While some dedicated practitioners made the journey to Mysore, India to study with Jois and his grandson Sharath we also see many dedicated practitioner groups have sprung up around some of Jois’s early western students. The introduction of modern media tools has also led to the dissemination of the system to lone practitioners or small groups of individuals. This diaspora of Ashtanga yoga practitioners has, as is common in the history of traditions, led to differences in interpretation of the method while still maintaining enough continuity for students to clearly identify the practice tradition. This has also led to debates around legitimacy regarding qualifications to teach based on affiliation with certain teachers, institutions, or interpretations of the method.

In 2017, reports surfaced that Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted a number of former students in plain sight, often under the guise of giving asana assists. This abuse had been observed and acknowledged by many within the ashtanga community but until the rise of the #MeToo movement, people who had spoken out had not been heard.  The sexual abuse and harassment Jois perpetrated, was instead ignored, tolerated and minimized due to a culture based on unequal power dynamics which included the positing of Jois as ‘the guru’ who’s methods couldn’t be questioned and the attribution to him of spiritual and healing power.

The inherently unequal relationship between teacher and practitioner in any profession is one which can be easily manipulated and it is power dynamics such as these that allowed abuse in plain sight to be rationalized, repressed and ignored only to be publicly acknowledged years after Jois’s death. Amayu seeks to address these power dynamics in working to equalise as far as possible, the relationship between teacher and practitioner.  In re-imagining Ashtanga Yoga for the future we hope to preserve the restorative and healing elements of the practice that have inspired thousands of practitioners for decades, while divesting it of any harmful pedagogy.