“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bounds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
The term Ashtanga yoga is mentioned for the first time in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali around 200 B.C. It is a traditional kind of yoga that consists of eight principles (Asthanga = eight-limbed). These are:
Yamas - moral codes in relation to the society (how we relate to others)
Niyamas - moral codes in relation to ourselves (how we relate to ourselves)
Asana - postures that purify and strengthen our body (how we relate to our body)
Pranayama - breath control exercises (how we relate to our breath)
Pratyahara - control over our senses (how we relate to our senses)
Dharana - concentration of the mind (how we relate to our mind)
Dhyana – deep meditation, moving beyond the mind
Samadhi - deep realization and inner union
The above principles could be the subject of thorough discussion; a mere theoretical approach though would be of no great use since each person, through his own personal practice, is experiencing each of the aspects in a different way. We believe that in order for a practice to be complete it should comprise and pay attention to each of the individual principles. This will establish the progress of the practitioner and will make it complete and thorough.
The first two principles of Ashtanga yoga are important since they set the frame of our practice and put the foundations upon which we put everything we gain through it. In the 1st step, called Yamas, we are asked to honor principles such as: non-violence, truth, honesty, self-control and non-possessiveness.
In the 2nd step, called Niyamas, we are asked to care for the cleanliness/ καθαριότητα of the body, mind and senses, and to develop self-acceptance, determination, persistence, self-observation and faith to our practice.
In the 3rd step, called Asana, we exercise our body by taking various more or less usual postures. These asanas when combined with breath and mind control bring us in alternate states of existence. This acts beneficially as it awakens our senses and unclogs our body through a process by which emotions that have been suppressed into the body are gradually released and expelled.
The next step is Pranayama, the control of the breath. Through various breathing exercises we learn how to control our breath and hence purify our spirit.
Next is Pratyahara, the control over the senses where we try to develop non-attachment to what we experience. Having awareness during our practice we are going to realize that our body each time responds differently. In some occasions it will be strong and flexible, in some others it will be feeble and rigid, while some other times we may fund our balance to be steady or not. Though Pratyahara we are asked to not become attached to a certain achievement. In this way we learn to get satisfaction and truly enjoy our practice as we can respond to it at each particular moment, not as we would wish to perform or by yearning previous achievements.
The next step, called Dharana, focuses on our ability to control our mind. We exercise in learning to hold our attention still. This can be achieved by focusing on the sound of our breath and by keeping our gazing point fixed during our practice, by repeating a phrase as done in other practices, or simply by being aware of a routine action of our daily life.
In the 7th step, called Dhyana, we develop in meditation, the ability to hold the mind in a state of calmness and serenity where consciousness is aware not of the action of meditating but solely of the existence of one shelf.
The last step, called Samadhi, describes the clarity of spirit, the liberation form everything trivial and ephemeral. During the practice and in time the practitioner will start experiencing moments of complete awareness and bliss.
Usually, someone will start his practice with the physical postures, developing in Asana; as he progresses though and with proper guidance he will also start entering the rest of the aspects. This is of great importance since all eight steps are interlinked in a way that resembles the individual parts of the same chain. For that reason and if we wish our practice to be complete it would be unfavorable to just do the sequence of postures mechanically, without concentrating and listening to our body. In order to gain the maximum of this tradition we need to practice it as it is, not just the aspects that are more appealing to us, and we need to do so with awareness, patience, persistence, adaptability, faith and gratitude.
A distinctive part of each yoga school is its lineage: the chain of people who have received, learnt and transmitted the knowledge onwards.
Ashtanga yoga has its roots in the teachings of the great yogi T.K.V Krishnamacharya. Based on an ancient text known as Yoga Korunta, he developed the series of the Asthanga Vinyasa system. A loyal student of Krishnamacharya and later on a great yoga teacher was Shri Pattabhi Jois. Through Pattabhi Jois this yoga system became known to the western world in the early ‘70’s and started spreading worldwide thereafter.
Nowadays, the Ashtanga tradition is being spread from his descendants: his son Manju Jois, his daughter Saraswati, his grandson Sharath and distinctive students such as David Williams, Richard Freeman, David Swenson etc.
As for Europe, the dissemination of the system began in the early 80’s by Derek Ireland who opened the first Ashtanga yoga sala in Northern Crete, Greece. It was there that the great Greek teacher Kristina Karitinou was taught. She is still teaching today, primarily working to generate proficient teachers that will continue this tradition with love and enthusiasm.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system was spread worldwide by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009). It is a method that gives the feeling of meditating while in movement. This is because each movement is linked with the breath, the gazing point is specific (Drishti) and the concentration is sharpened in order to hold certain part of the body locked (Bandhas).
Nowadays, there are 6 sequences of asanas: the 1st one is for the beginners, the 2nd is of intermediate level, while the rest are practiced by advanced students. All of these series begin and end in the same way, only the middle and essential part differs since in each series the focus changes. In this way, each series has a different effect on us. The 1st one brings strength, aligns the body and grounds the spirit; it is very important since it sets a proper base for the next series. The 2nd one works somewhat differently from the 1st acting upon the nervous system. The advanced series work to harmonize strength, flexibility, endurance and balance in a more intricate way; they comprise demanding postures that bring ourselves in more extreme states of existence.
The student already from the first lessons learns how to combine movement and breath and how to hold the gaze fixed and the body locked. In class each student works independently and according to his level, he practices the series at which he is, at his own pace and according to his abilities, adjusting the postures whenever is necessary. The presence of the teacher is discrete. Unlike other yoga systems, in Ashtanga the teacher does not guide the class simultaneously by indicating the next posture; he moves around the students giving personal comments, suggesting variations or helping someone to go deeper in a posture. This kind of class, where the students work by themselves under the discrete presence of the teacher, is called Mysore style (Mysore is the town where Pattabhi Jois used to give classes). Guided classes take place occasionally but their aim is to inspire and give rhythm to the students.
At this point we have to stress out that it is of minor significance the sequence that someone will reach and this is because yoga is something else than plain gymnastics. For instance, if we asked an acrobat or an athlete to do the postures of the system, he most probably would perform pretty well. This does not mean that he is doing yoga. In our practice the importance lies in the attitude with which we approach what we do, regardless our performance or the level that we manage to reach. Working with full consciousness and turning our attention inside we engage the centers of our senses: the eyes stay focused, the ears are listening to the rhythmical sound of our breath, the nose is breathing, the mouth remains closed, and the mind is occupied on the one hand with the application of postures and on the other hand with the senses that the body experiences. In this way, through our practice, we train our body in order to acquire flexibility, strength, endurance and balance, while at the very same time through observation we move closer to ourselves and we develop harmony, confidence, responsibility and adaptability.
Someone that flirts with the idea of trying this particular method might be discouraged by telling himself that he is not sufficiently flexible, young enough, adequately healthy or strong. All these traits are going to blossom gradually through proper practice. There is no prerequisite whatsoever. All it takes is to breathe deeply, to observe what is happening at the sense level while practicing and to be adaptive to what the body can or cannot do each particular moment. Yoga is for all and as in every other system, in order to experience the results it needs patience, persistence and effort. So once again, yoga is for all but for the lazy.