Ashtanga Yoga: An Authentic Practice
by Paul Fox
The Ashtanga Yoga classes at Camyoga are increasingly busy at the moment. Why is this form of yoga proving to be so popular with students? I believe the answer lies in the authenticity of this practice and the connection it has back to the renaissance in yoga in the 1930s.
In an age where hatha yoga has grown, evolved and developed into myriad forms and styles – many of them excellent – there is still a place for a practice that lies at the heart of the hatha yoga tradition. It was in the 1930s that the great yogi Krishnamacharya re-invented and revitalized the discipline of hatha yoga which had largely fallen out of favour in India. While teaching at the Maharaja of Mysore’s Palance, Krishnamacharya was exposed to many influences, including Indian wrestling, body building, Swedish gymnastics and other disciplines then grouped under the title of “physical culture”.
He evolved a system of dynamic hatha yoga, incorporating sun salutations almost for the first time into the yoga tradition (their exact origin is unclear with some claiming they existed a few decades earlier in the yoga tradition, while others claim they were a warm-up routine for wrestlers).
Krishnamacharya developed hatha yoga as a complete and comprehensive discipline. He then taught it to his main students, BKS Iyengar, his son Deskikachar (much later) and to Shri K Pattabhi Jois, the Guru of Ashtanga yoga. We can confidently say that almost all the hatha yoga taught in the West has its origins in the work done by Krishnamacharya. He is truly the founding father of modern hatha yoga. Pattabhi Jois – who passed away a few years ago in his 90s – developed the yoga of Krishnamacharya further into the current system of Ashtanga Yoga.
The practice is divided into Primary Series, Intermediate and Advanced. Most led classes are Primary Series, with other series explored in self-practice “Mysore style” classes or during specialist workshops with visiting tutors, like my own teacher, John Scott.
The Primary Series is quite possibly the greatest vinyasa ever written. The exact sequence of poses perfectly opens the body, with each posture leading the way to the next. When practiced diligently it is said to heal body and mind and is known as “Yoga Chikitsa” – yoga therapy. The Primary Series is perfectly suited for chair-sitting westerners as it contains a lot of forward bends to counteract the shortening of hamstrings from our sedentary lifestyles. The strength needed to lift and lower to and from the floor also builds power and stamina that it also often missing in our inactive lives.
If you haven’t already tried Ashtanga Yoga then consider giving it a go this Autumn with myself or Emma Lindsay. In my classes this Autumn I will be focusing on one or two poses each class to build up confidence and competence in the practice of ashtanga yoga, together with the usual emphasis on breath (ujjayi), bandha (engagement of core) and drishti (looking place).
As Pattabhi Jois was fond of saying, "practice, practice and all is coming".
Paul Fox has been practicing yoga intensively for 17 years and holds the British Wheel of Yoga Teaching Diploma (1999), A two-year Ashtanga Yoga teaching diploma from John and Lucy Scott (2006) and a Yoga Sports Science Yoga Sports Coach Diploma (2011). View Paul's classes here.