What makes a practice ‘Ashtanga enough’ to be Ashtanga?

As Bobbie and I thought in recent posts about the guidelines that hold Ashtanga students back from more poses and the positive effects of stretching beyond the usual sequence, a topic came up that did not surprise me: the “traditional Ashtanga method.” The rules and regulations, so to speak, of our particular form of yoga were hovering around the recent discussion here.

One commenter paraphrased the description from the Jois website; but even that, as a 2012 version, is it the “traditional” method? Traditional suggests having stood the test of time. One hears pretty regularly of something “new” being taught in Mysore these days.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that even “the source” has changed — and always has. And as we’ve argued here before, in the first years after Westerners first encountered Pattabhi Jois, the practice changed due to research. It even was part of Guruji’s institute’s name. That also allowed for different individual practices suited for different students’ needs.

Rather than getting hung up on “traditional” versus “not traditional,” I’ve been thinking about what’s fundamental to Ashtanga, what makes it Ashtanga and not, say, Power Yoga, flow or even Iyengar.

For me — and I emphasize for me, although I assume that’s understood, and that I’m no way claiming to be an authority —  the fundamentals, the things that need to be present (or at least sought after) for a yoga practice to be Ashtanga, are:

  • Controlled, slow, audible breath through the nose. It’s critical that our breathing during Ashtanga be different from our normal breath; that’s part of what makes the practice something else, something extra. We’re working with prana here, after all.
  • Activated bandhas. This goes with the breathing, and with our engagement with our energetic body.
  • Moving in time with the breath. Not quite vinyasa, but close.
  • A focus on drishti and trying to see God in all things.

That’s it. The poses and sequence we know as Ashtanga — beginning with Sun Salutes, moving through the standing poses, etc. — almost make the list, but don’t. And that’s because of the example of someone with severe physical limitations who perhaps can only sit in a chair and raise his/her hands up in time with the breath, and does so with right intent and as part of Sadhana.

That person is doing something I’d describe as Ashtanga — more so than many people. I’ve seen a lot of folks doing acrobatics, with no regards to the quality of their breath or whether it is linked to movement. These people might be doing First Series or Second (or beyond) in the proper order, but if we’re going to get all judgmental about it (which we already are), I say they are missing the point of the practice. They are getting a good workout, though. (My snap judgment way of sensing these not-doing-Ashtanga practices? If I don’t enjoy practicing next to the person.)

I suppose I’m leaving out an obvious element: Being taught by an Ashtanga teacher or considering yourself part of the Ashtanga tradition. Probably important, true. But I think someone could essentially stumble upon the key elements of Ashtanga independently, and so it may not be a requirement. (That said, I’m very much a believer in the importance in getting the Parampara from a teacher and being part of a teacher-student relationship. But you have to account for autogenesis.)

What I note as I look at my list is I’m clearly talking about a practice that isn’t rooting in Prakriti. It’s about the energy body (or deeper). And it’s about seeking yoga, or as Guruji is said to have put it: “Seeing God in all things.” That may explain why I’m not sure Ashtanga yoga can be taught in schools in the U.S. without violating the First Amendment. It operates on other levels, which much of the yoga-as-exercise (as practiced in the West) ignores.

I’ll also add that I explicitly say these four features at least need to be sought after, because otherwise I’d have to drop myself from the list of Ashtangis — and plenty of other folks, too. Who gets it perfect every time? My breathing often is too quick and thin; my bandhas don’t stay engaged enough. But when I notice these shortcomings, I do try to reapply myself. The Ashtanga practice is one big reapplication, in a sense.

Or there’s another way to look at this: The old saying about pornography holds true to Ashtanga for me: I know it when I see it. If someone is breathing and moving properly and has a focused gaze … it’s probably Ashtanga, or “Ashtanga enough.” For me, anyway.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

12 thoughts on “What makes a practice ‘Ashtanga enough’ to be Ashtanga?”

  1. Are you referring to Ashtanga Vinyasa asana or Ashtanga as in Patanjali’s 8 limbs?
    Yes, these elements of tristhana MUST be present, or sought after, for a practice to be considered Ashtanga, however just because they are intended, does not mean it’s Ashtanga Vinyasa. For me, if we’re talking about Traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa asana practice as taught by S.K Pattabhi Jois, then I’d add in a couple (and I’ll borrow your disclaimer… this are “for me” as well.)

    1. Vinyasa.

    “Moving in time with the breath” is too vague to me. A “vinyasa flow “or “power class” would fit into your guidelines, which could be any set of postures chosen by the teacher. Although it might be fun, and I’m not saying it can’t lead to transformation in it’s own way, but it’s not a traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa asana practice. I believe one of the reasons people chose to avoid Ashtanga is because it’s hard. Yes, it’s hard. We’re talking about self-development and a good hard look in the mirror. Anything that forces that everyday is naturally going to be met with some resistance. But from a physical standpoint, the asana sequence is designed intelligently to cleanse the body, and the nervous system to enable us to handle what comes up when we do look in the mirror. A non-traditional approach, such as a western “Vinyasa” class, would be to pick and choose some of the postures, likely embellish some, add some others, change the basic order and perhaps skip the ones that are met with resistance. For example – something like Mari D. A very easy asana to avoid, but if you come to the practice like I did, where that posture took A LOT of patience then, there is much more to be learned by working through it than avoiding it. That is where the real essence of the practice lies. If the sequence is too loose then it misses the point. From my understanding, if we’re talking “traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa asana”, then the foundation of the physical sequence does not change. We don’t skip something just because it’s hard or we don’t like it. That is, if there is a modification, even in the most extreme cases, the physical intent of the modification is the same physical intent of the full expression as set out by the sequence. The modification isn’t meant to replace the specific asana indefinitely as a stagnant representation. As a practitioner advances, the sequence will shift to continually allow the student opportunity to grow. That also does not mean that as an experienced practitioner or teacher after many years of uninterrupted practice, you can’t do or teach a “light ashtanga vinyasa”, and indeed, sometimes that’s needed. Knowing what that means and what to practice takes experience and understanding. It takes having been through the foundation. Otherwise, our natural tendency to avoid that which makes us uncomfortable, becomes our guiding light and again, we miss the point. I’ve had some very enjoyable and memorable practices while going “off script”, but I wouldn’t call those specific asana sessions “traditional ashtanga vinyasa”.

    1. Parampara.
    The lineage of learning must be traced back to Guruji. This doesn’t mean your teacher needs to be authorized, as that’s not always a possibility. However, somewhere along the line, you need to be able to link it back to Guruji in a straight line. Even if it means you learned to practice at home with a video or a book (yikes!). Who is instructing? Who was their teacher? And their teacher… and so on. At some point, there needs to be personal contact directly with a teacher. If not, it may be Asthanga Vinyasa, but I wouldn’t classify it as “traditional.” Looking at the definition of traditional we get: existing in or as part of a tradition, where tradition is the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation); long-established.

    Maybe this topic will come up with Sharath in conference this week:) There are changes, or even reverts back to what Guruji was doing going on in Mysore now. One of the examples is the transition to second series. Current teaching in Mysore is that if a student has not progressed beyond Dwi Pada Sirsasana (about half of the series), then they continue to practice at least half of primary (first half day 1, 2nd half day 2… alternating days), prior to Pashasana. This is what they “used to do” at the old shala and in some cases, how Guruji’s students have always taught.

    1. Thanks for adding these. I’m definitely talking Guruji’s Ashtanga here. And I suppose I’m trying to see how others view things. So you picked the ball up perfectly.

      I think I edited out of my version that the Vinyasa needed to be there for 99.9% of practitioners — except those who just are too physically limited. Absolutely most of the time, I’d want to “see” that, but as I thought about it, I decided it wasn’t absolutely critical — again, because I think Guruji’s system ultimately operates at a level deeper than that. Vinyasa is a great way for most of us to access that level. To your good point about avoiding what’s difficult — and we know avoidance is not the answer — I probably should have added another element (and if you search our site, you’ll see I’ve harped on this a lot): Tapasya. I want to see effort, too. There can be effort in the person who can only sit and raise hands or in someone doing the vinyasas. The Sacred Fire needs to be stoked. Again, for almost everyone, the sequence as Guruji taught it is the way to go.

      Also, I never experienced the same direct linkage between breath and movement in a Western yoga class — maybe a few that were VERY Ashtanga based, maybe… — as in Ashtanga.

      I’m getting too wordy — it’s before practice, so apologies. Yes, for 99.9% I’d probably be looking for what we all know as the sequence, but I wouldn’t want to miss the person who was REALLY doing Ashtanga (as I think Guruji intended it) off in the corner with a bunch of props.

      Parampara for me gets trickier. For one thing, if I’m imagining this exercise as my seeing a person’s practice, it might be hard to tell if there’s been a relationship with a teacher. And I mentioned the idea of autogenesis. There might be someone on a deserted island somewhere where David Swenson’s book once washed ashore. Perhaps in that setting, that person understand and studied the fundamentals so well … that they got to Samadhi.


      1. Hey Steve,
        We’re on the same page here with your great post, it’s hard not to be wordy:) I can see how Parampara is tricky. I certainly think one can practice Ashtanga and learn it from one of the numerous excellent tools out there, but when it comes down to it, it’s not the “traditional” way of learning. So, for me it would remove the “traditional” aspect of it.

        Vinyasa is tricky too. Sequence aside, the correct breath with the movement is vital. With beginners who are having a hard time allowing their breath to lead their movement, I have them try to reverse their breathing for part of a sun salutation. They catch on really fast when they try to inhale for that first forward fold! They may have extra breaths for quite a while, even years; I don’t think that strays from tradition, it would fit into the “student working at their own level”, provided the inhale or exhale matches the transition and they are keeping up internal heat. Hopefully that makes sense.

        I 100% agree on the Tapasya. Effort, with sincerity and directed focus.

  2. In reference to those whom may be perceived as doing acrobatics, it may be a bit judgemental to think that they are not doing Ashtanga regarding their breath etc. Inherent in the practice is trying new things or expanding on the practice. The breath is typically sounded out I think to focus the mind as the end result to achieve a stilling.

    I teach yoga and my focus is on the breath among other things. The breath to follow a steady flow may take years to cultivate. I think what should be stressed is the awareness. One who is lacking in breathing prowess may still be practicing Ashtanga, the key I think is the awareness as opposed to what is actually happening to the breath without overt control. After all it is not pranayama. It is asana.

    1. Hi Nick.

      It sounds like we’re meaning the same thing, maybe saying it differently. When I talk about people who are just out there doing acrobatics, I mean folks who don’t seem to have any concern about linking their breath to their movement or cultivating a more controlled breath. (If you’re aware of your breath, chances are it will begin to get more controlled as a result, right?) Of course I’m being judgmental (I admitted as much). I’m not normally. (I don’t think.)

      As for years to cultivate, that’s what I’m trying to point to when I think about there being at least the intention for breath and bandhas, etc. We’ll never perfect it — but I feel like we should at least be trying to. (So maybe I can boil things down more. As long as you’re trying to do Ashtanga, you are.)


  3. The essential part for me is “seeing the divine in everything”, especially in your Guru. There is so much questioning of the “method” in the West. For me the Ashtanga Yoga series is a prayer that I give to the divine. Each breath, each movement, each look – I would never question my Guruji. I am the hard rock and he is the water which is slowly slowly molding me.
    The West has the questioning mind but much of yoga can not be explained, just felt. There is no way to separate yoga from the Divine in India…it is a pathway to the divine and your Guru leads you down this pathway.

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