What makes Ashtanga Yoga Ashtanga?

What makes Ashtanga Yoga Ashtanga?  It’s not necessarily the sequences.

While Primary, Intermediate, and Advanced series are part of ashtanga, they are not what really makes the practice ashtanga.  

Ashtanga means 8 limbs, and asana is only 1 of those 8 limbs.  it is not just the asana sequences that make it ashtanga.

Just a reminder … Yoga is a state of mind, not an asana

What are you thinking as you do your yoga? What are thinking as you go through the rest of your day?  This is the true roots of your yoga. Realizing how your thoughts effect your physiology and your life — literally your life’s reality. 

What makes what we do Ashtanga Yoga?



Drishti (mindstuff)

The Yoga Korunta (the text Pattabhi Jois speaks of that outlines where the practice of ashtanga comes from) did no so much put together primary series, intermediate, or advanced — according to Manju Jois (Pattabhi Jois’ eldest son) and others who were around during those times, Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya researched and intelligently put together the sequences.  What they learned from the Yoga Korunta is how to do your yoga postures — Pattabhi Jois likes to quote one of the passages from the Yoga Korunta which was written bu the sage Vamana “O yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa” (“Vina vinyasa yoga asanadin na karayet”), this quote is telling you how to approach the practice ~ it was not the series that were outlined in the yoga korunta it was how to do your asana, these elements include:

Vinyasa – includes breath and movement and is the key element of ashtanga. Setting the habit of being aware of your breath and moving your body in rhythm with a smooth deep breath. Eventually this becomes a habitual way of moving and pieces of this will come off your mat and into your daily life with profound benefits.  Vinyasa increases our awareness.  This is also the heart of the viniyoga tradition which is what Krishnamacharaya taught through his elder years instead of ashtanga. 

Bandha – bandhas pull our nervous systems into the mix, by engaging bandhas you are stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system — especially with your uddiyana bandha you are stimulating your vagus nerve. In addition to breath awareness, our nervous system balance is a very important part of our health.  Bandhas also teach us how to move with lightness, and bandhas support energy flow in the body in general — I like to call them “little movers”. They support the movements of lymphatic fluid, blood, neurons, etc. 

Drishti – really drishti is about controlling mindstuff by reigning in your sense of vision to keep the mind from becoming a monkey mind. 

These little elements give us a way to approach our practice of postures.  Aside from these elements, ashtanga does give us a framework for asana — but it is not so rigid!  It’s a loose framework; you start with some sun salutes, move through some standing poses, then to the floor for some forward bending, spinal twisting, and some back bending, then on to inversions before finishing with the 3 finishing lotus flowers.  It’s a framework and you need to figure out how and what you need in your practice for that day.  That takes a little time, and experience, and guidance from a teacher.

What else makes it Ashtanga?

Intensity — at intervals.

In David Williams book he speaks about when Pattabhi Jois came to CA to teach, David asked him to observe him teaching a hatha yoga class.  At the end of his class Pattabhi Jois said “Oh, the students will get old before they get well.  The practice they are doing is not strong enough to cure them.”

David was quite shocked, but upon reflection decided he was right, and ended his hatha yoga class, inviting them all to come to his ashtanga class — and many did.  He never taught anything but ashtanga yoga again after that.

And Sweat too …

Sweat is emphasized in the ashtanga practice to help with detoxing the body. When our blood gets hot enough to sweat, we release a lot of toxins and impurities from the body.  Primary series was designed to help the body detox.  So the intensity has to be enough to make us sweat.

Remember the interviews with other yogis in Mysore outside of the Jois family who studied ashtanga yoga in the 30s and 40s with Krishnamacharya?  I blogged about them several months ago — one point that was made in one of the interviews is that throughout the yoga practice you “work, relax, work, relax”.  In the west it seems the relax part has been forgotten.

We need some intensity; but this is where the western mind gets carried away… we don’t need or want the entire practice to be intense. Instead we want intervals of intensity. 

For example in primary sun salutes start us out with a little intensity. Standing poses slow down for a bit and build in intensity. Seated poses start at a lower intensity and build into a pretty intense interval from marichyasana series through  garbha pindasana then slow down again from baddha konasana to the end. 

Second series builds and peaks then slows down again as well. Pasasana through ustrasana is the building of intensity; laghu vajrasana through vatayanasana is quite an intense interval, then slows down as we get to parighasana, gomukhasana, and supta urdva pada vajrasana — only to be picked back up again through the back bending series before it finally slows down to finishing. 

We need those intervals of some intensity to help the body detox and strengthen both in cardiovascular and muscular development. Without some intensity the health benefits are less. 

Too much intensity or too long of an intense practice you lose benefits and increase your risk of injury. 

Consistency … within reason …

Many who have been in the ashtanga community of heard the “rule” you have to do ashtanga 6 days per week practice or its not ashtanga… don’t believe them. It’s just someone pulling a power play on you.    

Let’s put this in perspective;  6 days per week of 1-1/2 hour intense practice is too much for most people.   2-3 days per week with that intensity would be more appropriate with 2-3 days per week a softer / shorter more meditative practice with some extra time for pranayama would be a better balance.

But really consistency is important.  You don’t get fit after one workout.  You don’t eat a healthy meal once and improve your health. Consistency, persistence or both!  We do need a consistent mostly daily yoga/exercise/meditative/deep breathing practice of some type.

SHOW UP … and do something …

Basically we just need to show up most days and tune in to what we need for our practice that day.  Consistently.

Food & Lifestyle are part of Ashtanga Yoga too.

In Yoga Mala it gives some “rules” for the ashtanga yogi regarding moderation of food, sex, and speech, and also stresses the importance of eating the right amount of food (not too much not too little), finding the right amount of sleep, right amount of physical intimacy, and not mixing with undesirable people — Pattabhi Jois states all these things in excess are obstacles to the practice of yoga.

I like what he says about not talking too much … when you talk too much the power inherent in your tongue decreases and your power of speech is destroyed.  Talk of spiritual and meaningful matters increases the tongue’s power; speech related to mundane matters or gossip destroys the power of the tongue and shortens your life span. 

Applying Critical Thinking to ancient text books …  While I like to study the text books that are centuries old, I also think it is important to apply critical thinking to what I am reading.  No one text book should be regarded as a bible in my opinion.  There are nuggets of good information in the ancient texts and there  are nuggets that just won’t apply to our day and age, location, culture, or that are just outdated. 

Applying critical thinking to some of the advice to walk the yogic path:

On Food~

Both Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya stated the importance of clean balancing food for yogis.  They both recommended Ayurvedic sattvic diets of rice, ghee, milk, and sugar and not very many vegetables!  In India this may be wise since food is contaminated and low in nutrients due to poor soil health, however I’m not sure I’d recommend it.  While Pattabhi Jois did seem to keep his health through his 60s, beyond that he struggled with “diabesity”.  If he did still follow the diet he recommended in Yoga Mala the rice and sugar probably did not help with that.

In America, Indian food may or may not appeal to an American yogi — and you don’t need to eat Indian food to follow the lifestyle.  

What is important is that you find the foods and diet that is suited to you and that you can digest well — including ample amounts of in season organic vegetables.  This is not easy to do and many people struggle with figuring out the foods that are best for them, this is why I became a Functional Medicine certified Health Coach! 


Which brings me to community.  Ashtanga yoga seems to build community … maybe because with all the “rules” I just outlined above we can only hang out with each other … or maybe the daily practices, and just sharing in the depth of the ashtanga practice in talking with each other, who knows!  But I do know community is an important part of our health and is inherent in those who brought Ashtanga yoga to the states.  

Here in Maui the initial group of ashtangis that brought Ashtanga Yoga to the states started practicing together in the 70s and are still friends (David

Left to Right: David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, Manju Jois November 2015

Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, Stephanie Gilgoff, Harry, Jack, David Swenson, Danny Paradise, Ricky Heilman, John Pollock, and a handful of others I have not gotten to know so well) and they still practice — some together, some in their own homes — they still celebrate times together, and share in community for over 50 years now.  They were all brought together by the practice of Ashtanga Yoga and still have their community.

Nancy Gilgoff and David Swenson walking together. Bali Asthanga Conference April 2015

And in my world it is similar, many of my friends that I met in the late 90s and early 2000s are still part of my community — and what’s fun is half of them are not in the states!

Of interest, many students would actually “live” with their teachers for a period of time.  Maybe sometimes that was because there was no place else to stay … but also it taught the importance of lifestyle factors in the practice of yoga.  

In Maui many of us have lived with Nancy for a period of time while studying in Maui and got to experience an authentic student/teacher relationship that most on the yoga path do not get to experience in today’s culture. 

In summary; what makes what we do ashtanga?

  • Doing our asana with vinyasa, bandha, and drishti
  • Having intervals of intensity enough to make you sweat
  • Consistent mostly daily practice 
  • Lifestyle and appropriate food 

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