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 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 sequences
Bandha – the use of internal muscle
engagements and energetic locks
Jois began teaching westerner 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 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. The name was eventually changed to the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. 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 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 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 20017, reports surfaced that Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted a number of former students in plain sight often under
the guise of giving asana assists. These women, Jubilee Cooke, Karen Rain and others, released powerful statements that shared their #metoo stories. The behaviour of Jois had been normalized and minimized throughout the community of practitioners through a variety of power dynamics including the attribution to Jois of spiritual and healing power. It is power dynamics such as these that allowed abuse in plain sight to be rationalized and repressed only to come up years after Pattabhi Jois’s death. It is power dynamics such as these that Amayu seeks to address in re-imagining Ashtanga Yoga.