Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ashtanga Yoga - "Some Assembly Required"

Ashtanga Yoga. What is it really? What does it encompass? Why do it? These are all good questions that cannot readily be answered in one hour, one day, or even in one year. To paraphrase from one of my favorite movies, Ashtanga yoga is like an onion, with many layers. In the coming blog pages, we will explore the terminology, traditions and history behind the Ashtanga practice, as introduced to the West in the 1970's from Pattabhi Jois, Manju Pattabhi Jois and David Williams, and it’s subsequent growth and popularity through the next several decades.

There are so many places to begin - there is the deep well of yogic philosophy behind the Ashtanga practice that merits study, there are the beautiful rich Indian traditions, there are the Sanscrit definitions and terminology so foreign to us Westerners, and there is all the alignment and poses that define the physical aspect. So much to learn!

So, let’s start with the basics: what is the definition of Ashtanga?

This word is derived from the Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali (another very old text which we will discuss at a later date) where it denotes yoga’s eight limbs. Ashta = limb and anga = practice.

The eight limbs are:
yama = restraints
niyamas = observances
asana = posture
pranyama = breath control
pratyahara = sense withdrawl
dharana = concentration
dhyana = meditative absorption
samadhi = to bring into harmony

But how does this relate to what we practice in class? The Ashtanga (or Astanga) system was devised to accommodate the layman who did not have an entire day to devote to the study and practice of yogic asana and philosphy. The Ashtanga series (of which there are now six) was designed to consolidate the eight limbs of yogic philosophy into two hours with the focus on asana. This way the layperson would still receive the great benefits of yoga without having to become a renuciate.

The term Ashtanga is often used interchangeably with the phrase "Power Yoga". The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Power Yoga was a term coined by Beryl Bender Birch and others to make the Ashtanga practice more approachable to Westerns. Some studio’s advertise "Power Yoga" but it may not be the Ashtanga sequence. There are also slight variations between the most traditional form as taught by Pattahbi K. Jois in Mysore India, and other Western and Indian teachers. The beauty of yoga, is that a person can take these asanas and make them their own over time.

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