Imagine this: You take a class in a strong dynamic style of yoga called “Ashtanga Yoga” while on vacation somewhere and then go looking for it near where you live. You call a local studio and say “do you teach Ashtanga yoga?” They respond “yes”, but when you get there it’s not the type of class you had experienced. What happened? And what is this “Ashtanga” anyway?
First, let’s clarify that the term Ashtanga (meaning “eight limbs”) as it is commonly used in the Yoga tradition refers to the philosophical principles in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. That means any yoga class that bases its philosophy on the Yoga Sutras could be called “Ashtanga Yoga”!
That could be the end of the story, but when you dig deeper into it, that idea itself becomes confused. What those eight limbs are and how they should be practiced is a whole additional question. When looking at Patanjali’s eight limbs you will quickly realize that eight is just a number put on a conceptual categorization system which points to principles and practices which number much more than eight! There have been yoga scriptures before and after that have used different numbers- like “Shadanga” (six limbs). In addition, many of these limbs are left fairly vague as to their actual practice, which is a fundamental question to ask anyone who espouses practicing the eight limbs.
Second, like in the story at the beginning, the term “Ashtanga” has, confusingly, been used to refer to the vigorous Hatha Yoga practice method taught by the late Shri Pattabhi Jois of Mysore. Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioners (we sometimes call ourselves “Ashtangis”) have fairly successfully branded their practice with this name. Two separate issues arise here: First, what is the real relation between Ashtanga of Patanjali and the Ashtanga Vinyasa method of Pattabhi Jois and by extension what is the true method and origin of Pattabhi Jois’ Vinyasa Teaching?
The answer to the first part hangs on two possible aspects: that the practitioner is practicing all eight limbs or that there is a direct lineage connection back to Patanjali, as some people have asserted. To really be an Ashtangi, besides practicing a vigorous postural practice, it means also practicing the other seven limbs of Yoga of Patanjali, however exactly how is not totally explained by Pattabhi Jois. A common answer to this line of questioning is that all eight limbs are being practiced within the postural practice itself. However, this leaves certain limbs like meditation (Dhyana) being interpreted as movement meditation.
The idea of the Pattabhi Jois Vinyasa method having a direct connection to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is either pure conjecture or a way of saying that the method is an expression of Patanjali’s philosophy, which is only a very general and indirect connection. The “Ashtanga Vinyasa System”, as it turns out, it does not have a clear origin story, as many of us had been told. The original story was about a lost scripture, the “Yoga Kurunta”, that been found and was the basis of the Vinyasa system. Pattabhi Jois would quote Vamana Rishi, the author of the Yoga Kurunta , saying “Oh Yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa”. But over years the story has gotten less and less clear. The Ashtanga Vinyasa origins point back to Pattabhi Jois’ teacher, Krishnamacharya and possibly his teacher in Tibet. The current version seems to be that Krishnamacharya learned the system from his teacher in Tibet. Some specifics of the technique and some general sequencing have shifted over time, from Krishnamacharya to Pattabhi Jois.
From the point of view of a yoga program being developed and passed on this is natural and normal. What it points toward is the on-going and further development of “Vinyasa”, as we are seeing today. With the origin story continually changing and the specifics of the practice being changed over time, the idea that there is one true “vinyasa system” has become less and less tenable. An observer or even devoted practitioner should ponder whether the belief in one way, one formula and method being the ultimate method might better be seen as an evolving and more flexible system.
All this really means is that all the references to “Ashtanga” are more elusive in reality than it appears on the surface. Ashtanga, in whatever interpretation, is still powerful and relevant, but just not in the absolute definitive forms that some are seeking. This may seem like bad news, for those who want the set system with hard and fast rules to exclaim their “Ashtanga” to the world. But this can also be seen as the beauty of real, live, adaptive Yoga transmission at work, leaving the door open for real inquiry into what ashtanga is for each practitioner in their encounter with the principles and practice frameworks given by Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois and others. They help point us in the direction of the growth of the many limbs of our own Yoga.