The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga - Part I

Ashtanga Yoga is a wonderful practice for the body and mind. It is an evolving practice that is changing and growing to suit people of all ages and abilities. At least that is its potential. The tradition and its changing nature can be a difficult thing to reconcile.

Understanding some of the principles at work is important. At some point in a student’s learning process, they will have difficulty, physically or otherwise, and either needs to be encouraged to keep going, to focus on the standard technique, or needs to be given an alternative in order to facilitate the appropriate change.

This basic choice is true for every practice, whether it be asana, meditation or something else. Do you stick with the technique, tradition, or standard, or do you vary it? At what point is a variation appropriate? My thoughts on this are simple – it is not a matter of whether you vary the tradition (any tradition) but when. In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential.

To embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view – though it can take years before you either master a method or tradition, or know enough to let it go. The problem exists when discarding a tradition or technique arbitrarily, or too early, just as much as clinging to it for too long.

One thing I have observed is that different practitioners have a different attitude as to what the Ashtanga Yoga tradition is, depending on when they learned it. Most of the teachers who learned in the 60s, 70s and 80s do not teach as strictly as those who learnt from 90s on. The tradition has changed, the sequences have changed, and the style of teaching has changed. There are both good and not so good outcomes from this. For example, for many practitioners, there are advantages to doing less jump backs than what is presently taught; advantages to altering some of the sequencing and changing the intensity of the practice from day to day. It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are of adherence to the tradition.

It is simply a matter of timing – when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example – or deviate with an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation. That is, I would not usually introduce an alternative in the first six months or so of learning Ashtanga, and often longer. After the initial learning phase it is important to consider the needs of the student rather than blindly following the tradition. It is important to consider whether the standard Ashtanga is appropriate (and often it may not be) and then notice if you do not teach an alternative out of fear, rigidity or inability.

I find it curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga. I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful. Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function.

It is important to accept that teaching methods will vary from person to person – we are all going to teach with our own unique style with a different understanding on what is appropriate. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day. There is nothing innately spiritual, holy or sacred about them. Sticking with a tradition (whatever that might be) and following the standard is truly rewarding and absolutely appropriate for most students for a period of time. Just not for everyone, and definitely not for ever.

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga seems to be a relatively new system, despite some opinions to the contrary. Apart from the obvious fact that the sequences have been changed by Pattabhi Jois over the years (usually for the better in my opinion) based on all the evidence currently available it seems obvious that Prof. T. Krishnamacharya (the teacher of K.P. Jois) invented the system during his years at the Mysore Yoga Palace – and was influenced by the Western Gymnastic tradition, no less. I find this inspiring. He brought together concepts from his own traditional background and made something new, vibrant and useful for people around the globe.

It is only in recent times that we are seeing committed practitioners of Ashtanga Vinyasa who have been doing so for more than 20 or 30 years. The evidence for what actually works, particularly in the long term, is still emerging. What is interesting is that one of the common themes to stop practicing Ashtanga is that if it is too rigidly applied it becomes unnecessarily difficult and often injurious. Some openness towards experimentation, and the original concept of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (Mysore) should still apply for all teachers and practitioners.

What Makes Ashtanga Yoga Unique

The Ashtanga Series are unique in a number of areas:

1. Ashtanga Yoga is one of the only Yoga practices that equally develops strength and flexibility. Other asana methods, as far as I can tell, do not emphasise strength in equal measure to flexibility. There is a bias towards developing flexibility. In some cases this may be appropriate (Yin Yoga for example) but in general I find this imbalanced. Why is flexibility more important than strength? It is not. In my opinion, one without the other is imbalanced, both physically and mentally.

2. The other aspect that Ashtanga offers is self practice. No other method places a greater emphasis on self practice – 99% of all Ashtanga teachers I know are practicing regularly. In addition, it takes a great deal of commitment and experience to teach Mysore style, or self practice classes, and even more commitment and experience to do it well.

Self practice is the best way that I know to become truly meditative in your Asana practice. Why are there almost no Iyengar teachers doing self practice groups – and teaching them, not just practicing in them? The same for general Vinyasa classes, Bikram Yoga, Anusara Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Sivananda Yoga etc. Self practice is the way forward!

In India I have met just a few teachers of Hatha Yoga and Iyengar Yoga who conduct classes in a Self Practice format. Each was wonderfully skilled and accomplished in his own way and able to work with a diverse group of students doing seemingly random asana independently. It takes a great deal of skill and discipline to teach self practice classes. To teach self practice really well, it also takes a lot more compassion.

3. Ashtanga Yoga usually facilitates greater physical results than other methods due to emphasis on flexibility and strength, the discipline of self practice 5-6 days per week. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga transforms the physical body. In some cases, however, the results can be negative – an overemphasis on physical lightness, loss of body weight and mental rigidity. Just because you are physically flexible does not make you a flexible person.

Without set sequencing, without some commitment to self practice, both the results for the body and the focus for the mind are usually limited. A key benefit of a set sequence is that it keeps you honest. You are forced to do postures that are difficult or problematic for you rather than only do the ones you may like or which feel good. The problem with this is that if too rigidly applied, you will then be forced into a posture that causes you injury. Avoiding difficult or problematic postures is a major flaw, particularly with styles of Yoga that don’t work with set sequencing. Both beginner and advanced practitioners can fall into this trap, which leads to building up your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses, which leads to further imbalance rather than less.

4. Adjustments. I think one of the greatest skills most Ashtanga teachers have is communicating the practice through their hands. Most Ashtanga teachers give great adjustments, though some adjust too often and too forcefully. Once again, if adjustments are too rigidly applied they can lead to injury. This is an area I think is under utilised in most other systems, though part of the reason for this is the format of led classes rather than self practice – it is easier to give adjustments in Mysore style classes because you have more time to watch and observe, rather than talking the whole way through.

5. Observance of the Moon Days. Ashtanga Yoga is the only system that I know that deliberately follows the cycle of the Moon, and teaches us to pay attention to this cycle and how it affects our bodies.

Some Deficiencies in the Ashtanga Method

Some observations I have made over the years show me where Ashtanga Yoga is potentially imbalanced. This is not harsh criticism of the method or the sequencing – I love Ashtanga Yoga, and still practice the Series. They have served me well and continue to do so, however these are my observations of the areas we need to be aware of:

1. Rajasic, Surya based Energy. The Ashtanga practice is particularly heating and upward in nature (therefore more masculine in energy) and tending to a Rajasic style practice. This is not a judgment of right and wrong – as there are both good and bad qualities to every technique, and to every person. It is futile to try to exempt Ashtanga from the human condition. For example, the Surya energy of the practice is enhanced through the linear nature of adhering to the sequences and tradition, doing right side first in most postures and focusing on drawing upward constantly with the three Bandha. I no longer find it surprising that the students who most seek to deny the Rajasic effect of the Ashtanga practice are the most trapped by this quality.

Etymologically Surya and Rajas are synonymous, and Chandra and Tamas are synonymous. Surya is Sun, and Rajas is active. Chandra is Moon and Tamas is inactive. The combination of Sun and Moon, masculine and feminine is Sattva, or true rhythm and balance. In most modern Yoga practices, Surya and lightness are ascribed positive qualities and Tamas and heaviness are ascribed negative qualities. This merely points out the imbalance of teachers and students who focus this way. Both are important, neither is good nor bad. For this reason, some years ago, I began teaching most of my students the Moon Sequence, a combination of Yin based sequencing and gentle Vinyasa. The Moon practice balances the Surya Ashtanga.

2. Getting stuck on the Primary Series. In the first Ashtanga Series there is a lot of emphasis on the jumps commonly resulting in tension in the shoulders and wrists. There is also a lot of emphasis on forward bends and the hamstring muscles which can aggravate many lower back conditions. Furthermore this sequence does not particularly emphasise the flexibility in the shoulders, rather it develops more shoulder strength.

It is important to balance each aspect of the body – upper and lower, strength and flexibility, left and right, inner and outer. In the early years of K.P. Jois teaching the Primary Series did not have so many jumps, or so many postures. You did not have to jump back both sides, and many postures were linked together in groups of three and four with a Vinyasa after each set. This latter method is still useful for many students, whether beginner or more experienced.

One of the key points of Asana practice is to open the body; which then opens the mind. Sooner or later alternative sequencing helps to further open the practitioners’ body once the set sequences of Ashtanga have been fully explored. For some students this may be halfway through Advanced A (the third series) for many students it is somewhere in the Primary Series. As most human beings cannot practice all of Primary let alone some of Intermediate, once again it is a question of when to change the sequencing. A key benefit of alternative sequencing and postures is that the practice can be tailored to individual needs, versus assuming that one or two sequences can be universally applied to all practitioners.

Each of us has a different view of what the tradition is. So empirically it is impossible to all teach the same. Every teacher I know practices and teaches the sequencing with some kind of variation on the tradition (whether a breath, alignment, or a posture). It is just a matter of degree. Also, physically, Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.

For example, how do you teach someone missing one arm, or in a wheelchair? Or with schizophrenia? Although I do think the surrender and devotion to the practice (and to the teacher and tradition) is really important, it is more important to surrender to your higher purpose, the higher good, higher consciousness. Sooner or later that has to lead you from the standard approach, else you will be stuck.

3. Lack of technical advice. A classical, traditional Ashtanga teacher does not teach technique classes – it is frowned upon in Mysore. Advice on how to accomplish certain postures, alignment details, and technical advice is simply not a part of the system. Of course most teachers do offer a quiet word or two in a Mysore style class, but this is rarely done for a group. As a result many long term Ashtanga practitioners remain oblivious to many pertinent details that would help. Having said this, one advantage to a lack of technical input, is that it leads to greater devotion, surrender, and experiential learning. You can get out of your head, and just experience it for yourself without too much external stuff clouding the process. Personally I think balance between the two is optimal – time for practice without interruption, and time for clear specific instruction. A good teacher should allow for both.

4. Following from point 2 and 3, here are some structural areas that often need more input.

A. Shoulder and Upper Back Sequence. My biggest structural criticism of Ashtanga and many Hatha Yoga classes, is most teachers do not spend much time on developing openness in the shoulders and upper back. It is just as important as any other area. For example, opening the hips and flexibility in the lower spine is emphasized a great deal more, both in Ashtanga and Hatha classes. I often give a shoulder sequence to Ashtanga students as homework, and sometimes introduce it within the Primary Series.

B. Variations for the Hips. After teaching many Ashtangis the Moon Sequence, which has more variations for the hips, I found many students relieved and excited to add this to their repertoire. The Moon Sequence seems to have made many aspects of the Primary Series more accessible – both physically and psychologically. I have been able to introduce the Primary Series to some students who would not have done so unless they had been introduced to the Moon Sequence first. For example many of the hip-opening postures in this sequence take pressure off the knees, relieving many knee complaints that are common with Ashtanga Yoga. For my own practice I did not need this so much when I began devising the Moon Sequence as my hips were already reasonably open. However, I definitely needed the energetic benefit of this sequence.

C. Standing Postures and Leg Strength. Once you have worked through most of Primary, and eventually started Intermediate and then possibly on to Advanced a few years later, there are no variations that are traditionally allowed in the Ashtanga standing postures, as opposed to many possibilities through the sitting postures. Most Ashtangis become strong in the upper body and some build core strength (and some do not) and few become truly strong in the legs, by comparison. Standing postures are often glossed over in daily practice, increasing the tendency for weaker legs in comparison to upper body strength. This is clearly an imbalance. A regular variation on the standing sequence is useful and ideal. Although it might not be strictly ‘necessary’ it is so much better if you do.

D. The Side Body – the area from under the armpit to the side of your hips and buttocks. There are few Ashtanga postures that consistently work the side of the body, both for flexibility and strength – some standing postures such as Trikonasana, Parighasana in Intermediate, Vasisthasana in Advanced A. Gaining better awareness, flexibility and strength in your side body is an integral part of a complete Yoga practice.

5. One last aspect that Ashtanga Yoga does not utilise, and that I have only partially used in my own teaching is the use of circular movements, either based on some kind of contemporary dance, or Chi Gung and other Chinese based practices.

Tradition vs Exploration

Ashtanga practitioners tend to be both consistent, and in order to practice 5 or 6 times per week, they tend also to be a little rajasic, at least in the first few years. Ashtanga also attracts the character type that is more driven, and causes most students to lean in that direction. It attracts skinnier, vata type constitutions and tends to make students change towards that constitutional type. The unfortunate fact is, the skinnier you are the easier it is to do 95% of the postures. The important thing to consider is that some of this is good, too much is not. Accept your constitution and your experience, allow change to occur rather trying to control the outcome.

Based on no evidence to the contrary, it seems obvious to me that Prof. T. Krishnamacharya invented the Ashtanga sequences, borrowing many of his ideas from Western gymnastic training. I think that is a great thing that he borrowed from other systems and invented something very valuable, while still adhering to the traditional foundation of Yoga. It is Yoga for the modern woman and man. Since Krishnamacharya’s time, Pattabhi Jois further modified, refined and adapted the sequences to his own needs and, I believe, to the particular needs of the Western students who came to learn from him. Despite denials that the Series have changed since that time, it is obvious that they have. I hope it keeps changing, because as I change and it changes, we travel and evolve side by side.

As I see it, over the last 20 years, the Ashtanga tradition has become more puritanical, strict and hierarchical. Although this may not be true in every case, across a large group of teachers and students there is greater rigidity compared to when I first started learning. At the other end of the spectrum, I see a great deal of variation in the Vinyasa Yoga method being taught – I would say that this is the most popular method of Yoga being taught around the planet. Given that the bulk of Vinyasa Yoga is stemming from Ashtanga Yoga, to really understand either of these completely would mean embracing both of them.

There are more and more Yoga practitioners around the planet, some who see themselves as traditional, and some who do not. The traditionalists tend to be more formal, disciplined and strict, but they tend to have greater depth of experience in their particular field that the non-traditionalists lack. The non-traditionalists tend to be more open as people, gentler and less dogmatic. If I take a peek at any of the old religions, we can see, historically the same tendency. Indeed, all societies and cultures follow this same model: the hard centre versus the expanding edge.

This polarity holds true for every method, tradition, religion and culture on the planet. For any of these to remain dynamic and stable at the same time, means embracing both polarities – every system needs to evolve else it will become stagnant and every system needs stability from which this change can flourish.

It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, yet find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.

Practice with Love

Matthew Sweeney