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Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga- A brief history

Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a traditional system of practice with its roots being passed down through a lineage of teachers (Parampara).


The Traditional Style of Spreading Right Knowledge

“Acknowledging the student/teacher lineage”

The Sanskrit word, Parampara, describes how to pass on the right knowledge from a teacher to a dedicated student. This system follows a strict code of honoring the line of teachers that have come before. In this tradition, knowledge must be shared with the student by building up slowly towards a personal practice. According to this system, the foundation and survival of a lineage depend on the connection and devotion between the student and teacher. One can see the teacher and student as links in an ever-growing chain. The student needs to practice with the total surrender of the mind, body, and ultimately one‘s ego. The only way that this valuable knowledge of Yoga can be acquired is through persistence, patience, sincere dedication, and trust in the teacher. Only after several years of study and practice under the guidance and support of the teacher, can the student progress on the path of sharing Parampara (right knowledge) with future students. The teacher‘s goal must be to share what they have learned exactly as their teacher shared the knowledge. The teacher has the responsibility to guide and support the student when they are stumbling on the path of yoga. This tradition of passing on knowledge through a clear lineage is practiced in various streams of spiritual teachings in India.

Shri Pattabi Jois, the founder of the Ashtanga Yoga Institute, compares this Parampara tradition to stepping into an ever-flowing river that has chiseled a path toward the Ocean of Consciousness. Shri Pattabi Jois also warns of the dangers of the student immersing in any random river, and that some rivers dry up before they reach the destination. One must be sure that the tradition one follows, is rooted in the basic ethical principles that all sincere spiritual paths practice: There is no guarantee that the student will attain enlightenment in this lifetime, but through taking the courageous step to surrender to the knowledge and the teacher, the student will start progressing on their noble path.

Ashtanga vinyasa jumpback

Roots in the ancient Yogic Text, Yoga Korunta
The traditional teaching method is based on the ancient and practical text ―Yoga Korunta recorded by the Sage, Vamana. The text teaches that Yoga asana must be done with Vinyasa (the connection of movement and breath). “Vina vinyasa yogena asana dihna karayet.” Oh yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa. The Yoga Korunta also mentions using a three-fold approach to yoga-asana called Tristana. Tristana consists of Ujjayi Pranayama (breathing technique), Bandhas (energy locks or seals), Drishti (looking focus). Through this method, practitioners develop control of the senses and a deep awareness of themselves and their inner sensations, emotions, and workings of the mind. The Yoga Korunta was transcribed in the early 1920s by the Guru, T. Krishnamacharya, and his student Shri Pattabhi Jois (who went on to design the Ashtanga Vinyasa series‘ that we know today).

The structure of the Series

The asana practice of the Primary series is made up of five parts:

  1. The warm-up: Opening Chant and the Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B
  2. Standing postures: Forward folds, spinal twists, standing balances
  3. The series: Seated forward folds, seated twists. Followed by arm balances, seated hip openers, and core balances to prepare the body for back-bends for the Intermediate series.
  4. Closing sequence: Back bending, inverted postures, deep breathing.
  5. Relaxation: corpse pose. closing chant

The Primary Series – Yoga Chikitsa (Yoga Therapy)
The Vinyasa has a heating and purifying effect on the body. The body‘s movement increases the heat and blood circulation that flushes through the muscles, the nervous system, as well as the glands of the lymph system and endocrine system. Toxins are then released from the body through sweat glands and the kidneys. This gradual process of body purification needs to be done with patience and awareness. There is no rush to move through a multitude of asanas. It is better to allow the body to adapt and open up to the practice. If one rushes through the postures, the therapeutic nature is lost and the practitioner might become sick instead. It is important that the teacher checks to ensure that the position of the body and the movement of breath are correct in each asana before moving the student forward so that one may reap the proper benefit of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

Beyond the Primary Series
Traditionally Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has four series, the primary series, the intermediate series, and advanced series A and B. As the students progressed in their physical practice, advanced series C and D have been developed and added to the system making a total of six series.

  • Primary series: Yoga Chikitsa (Yoga therapy)
  • Intermediate series: Nadishodhana (nerve/energy channels cleansing)
  • Advanced series: Sthira bhaga (centering of strength)
    • Advanced A: third series
    • Advanced B: fourth series
    • Advanced C: fifth series
    • Advanced D: sixth series

When asked by students: ―Why not just one series? Can one not attain Samadhi from the Primary series? Sri Pattabhi Jois responded that if the student doesn’t understand the essence of Yoga, the teacher must give them more asanas. If they still do not get it, more asana. Some students need one series, others need six. Different students, longer paths, same goal.

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