When I first visited KP Jois house in late 1995 I did so with the desire to study classical Ashtanga Yoga. I interviewed him closely what sort of yoga he was teaching and he affirmed that it was indeed Patanjali’s yoga. That made me sign up with him. In the following years we Ashtanga yogis often sniggered at the Iyengars because we smugly thought we had it over them. Already the name of our yoga showed that it was a true, authentic and ancient form of yoga, whereas theirs was a yoga named after a modern person, it’s founder. But this initial hubris was long ago replaced by a questioning of what Ashtanga today is, and what it should be.
What classical yoga actually is?
The term Ashtanga refers to the stanza II.28 in the Yoga Sutra, where yoga is called eight-limbed. In his commentary on the Yoga Sutra I.1, Rishi Vyasa says, yogah samadhih, i.e. yoga is samadhi. What he means is that the first seven limbs of yoga are ancillary yoga and only the eight limb is true yoga. And this does not mean that the seven limbs are the process and the eight the result. No, it means that the first seven limbs are the preparation and samadhi is both the process and the result. For Vyasa goes on to say that there are two types of yoga, samprajnata and asamprajnata yoga. You may know these two words as the names of the two types of samadhi, cognitive samadhi (samadhi with cognition of object also called objective samadhi) and super-cognitive samadhi (samadhi beyond cognition of object or objectless samadhi). With calling these samadhis ‘yoga’ Vyasa again affirms that only samadhi is true yoga but he also shows that the objective samadhi (with its seven types) is the process to the state of objectless samadhi (of which there is only one, the final samadhi).
The Yoga Sutra then goes on to devote almost 100 of its stanzas to samadhi. That is more than half of the 195 stanzas. This fact should make it clear that yoga mainly deals with samadhi. Samadhi is not something that comes about spontaneously or mysteriously but objectless samadhi comes about through the detailed, technical process of the seven objective samadhis.
Taking the birds eye view we could call the seven objective samadhis ‘yoga stage two’.
Prior to the seven objective samadhis the first seven limbs are practised, which we could call ‘yoga stage 1’. Apart from the first two foundational stages involving ethics yoga stage 1 involves asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. For the purpose of this article I will now try to summarize these limbs of yoga in short, simple sentences. More comprehensive descriptions I have given elsewhere.
Yogic asana is not just sitting with your back, neck and head in a straight line but it is the process of taking your body through the process of a whole range of yogic postures. These postures are accommodated by focus on breath, mudras and focal points during which some aspects of the following limbs are anticipated and trained. Through such practice we ready the body, breath and mind for formal sitting practice.
Pranayama, the fourth limb, is not just Ujjayi breathing but a sitting practise in which you perform alternate nostril breathing using mantra and visualization until the breath has been made long and subtle (dirgha sukshmah). Only then internal and external kumbhakas (breath retentions) with maha-bandha (simultaneous use of all bandhas) are applied.
Being established in pranayama, yogic meditation (the combined process of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana) is a formal yogic sitting practise in which the breath is extended and the mind focussed on sattvic objects including mantra, chakras, kundalini, divine images and sacred geometry. In this whole triple process of yoga stage 1, i.e. asana, pranayama and yogic meditation ancillary aspects such as kriyas and mudras play an important role. Another important aspect of yoga is bhakti. So is the term ishvara pranidhana (devotion to the Divine) mentioned by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra four times.
This process is described in the so-called Yoga Darshana, i.e. the philosophical school of yoga, which consists of the Yoga Sutra and its attached tradition of commentaries and sub-commentaries. In the Sutra none of the techniques of the lower limbs were described but only the effect or result achieved through their correct practice. So devotes the Sutra only 3 stanzas to asana, four stanzas to pranayama, one stanza to pratyahara and a few to dharana and dhyana. For brevity the author of the Sutra focused only on samadhi and it was left to yogic texts compiled in the following centuries and millennia to fill in those gaps.
While there can be conflicting opinions on what limbs were emphasized when one thing can be said for sure: there is no evidence in classical texts whatsoever that the mere practice of postures was at any time considered Ashtanga Yoga.
Some problems with contemporary “Ashtanga Yoga”
In the light of all of the above we have to ask ourselves whether the name Ashtanga Yoga is correctly used to describe the asana-sequence and vinyasa based system handed down by the now disgraced KP Jois. We must sincerely ask ourselves whether Jois’ yoga is not in fact Ekanga Yoga, one-limbed yoga.
One of the core-tenets of yoga is the dis-identification with the body. The fifth klesha (forms of suffering) listed by Patanjali is abhiniveshah – fear of death. It is produced by identification with the body. Also the first klesha, avidya (ignorance) arises by identifying that what is eternal (purusha- the consciousness) with that what is temporary (the body). Patanjali’s yoga aims at decreasing identification with body. The more one dis-identifies with the body one’s sense of self can expand and spiritual experiences can come about.
Different to that modern Ashtanga culture seems to actually increase identification with the body. It’s linear, top-down delivery through sequences of postures seems to have the effect that the value and sense of self of a person is defined by how many postures and series they can perform. This has made the style very popular with Western students as it plays into the Western mindset of acquisition. Posture and series can be acquired like real estate or academic degrees.
The obsession with gymnastic levels of performance of asanas in contemporary Ashtanga Yoga goes hand in hand with a neglect of higher limbs practice. Young people who enter Ashtanga are regularly brain-washed away from higher limbs practice with the nonsense statement that you need to have conquered certain number of series of postures before you can start. There is no evidence of anything of the like in any yogic text. It is an idea that has been entirely invented in the 20th century, possibly as recent as the 1960’s or 70’s.
The dark side of overemphasizing the limb of asana is that students then tend to over-practice it. They tend to become zealous, ambitious and fanatic about their asana practice. This overemphasizing asana and the resulting ambition seems to me the number one reason for injuries in modern Ashtanga Yoga. If third series will open the Pearly Gates for you, you better go at it with a vengeance. If students are told they need to conquer second or third before they can practice the higher limbs, they tend to practice with such despair and aggression that they develop a lot of wear and tear in the bodies. I have never seen this in students who were established in pranayama and meditation adjunct to their asana practice. Many people come with a thirst for spiritual experiences to yoga. If the techniques such as pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana are then withheld, students are desperately trying to wring out of the body what the body was never designed to give. This leads to injury.
This self-violating and self-abusing tendency in modern Ashtanga Yoga, however, is completely in conflict with Patanjali’s teaching for he says in sutra II.16 heyama duhkham anagatam, i.e. ‘future suffering is to be avoided’. Or in simple words, don’t hurt, flog and abuse yourself.
I will go on now to discuss a few arguments that are regularly posted to defend the Ashtanga-status of KP Jois’ yoga.
Have not a few third series students been taught pranayama and therefore the whole system can be called Ashtanga yoga?
Pranayama is not to be limited to a small elite of students who have achieved a ridiculous, Olympic-gymnast level of asana proficiency. It is to be taught to all students who have become proficient in a sitting asana such as Virasana. For me pranayama probably was the most beneficial part of yoga to learn. Even more so than asana. Why would that be withheld from 99% of practitioners who will never be able to master dozens of advanced asanas?
And then what about the other incredible aspects of yoga that Jois has never taught at all? What about the whole gamut of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana? It is these techniques that give you spiritual experiences. It is these methods that quench your spiritual thirst. It is these aspects of yoga that can truly change your life and possibly our society as well.
Aren’t Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, and Dhyana not already present in the Asana practice? Is not everything already happening on the mat? All yogic limbs contain the same structural elements. When practising meditation or pranayama we assume an asana such as Virasana, Siddhasana or Padmasana. But by doing so we would not say that we have practised the limb of asana sufficiently. Similarly, when we are practising the full course of yogic asanas we are integrating pranic and mental aspects of yoga such as focusing on the breath (structural element of pranayama in asana) and drishti and bandha (structural elements of dharana in asana). But by integrating these structural elements of pranayama or dharana into asana this does not mean that “pranayama or dharana are now sufficiently practised”. They are only introduced through their structural elements to prepare for their true practice and to make asana more efficient. T. Krishnamacharya stated that to get the various benefits of yoga, the respective limbs have to be practised. That is asana for physical benefits, pranayama for pranic benefits and meditation for mental benefits. Asana practice, which includes ujjayi, bandhas and drishti, is the ideal preparation for a formal sitting practice of pranayama, dharana, etc, which should then also be made up of yoga’s structural elements. But in order to practice them and derive their benefits a formal siting practice must be engaged in.
Can asana practice by itself if done in a self-reflective mode teach you so much that it by itself constitutes yoga?
I’m not saying that you couldn’t get self-reflective by practising asana. You can. Of course you can learn a lot about yourself by practising asana. It is great that some students found some form of wisdom simply by continuing their asana practice over a long period.
But this is not what the classical process of yoga is about. For you can learn about yourself through almost any activity continued over a long period in a self-reflective mode. Such as playing an instrument. Or painting or sculpting. Or bringing up your children, being in relationship with a partner, caring for somebody, gardening, landscaping, tending to animals, or building houses. But this is still not yoga as the ancient yogis created it. We would not call being in a relationship or parenting yoga simply because it taught us about ourselves. Or maybe we do and maybe this is exactly our problem today. For I have read phrases such as “the yoga of relating” and “parenting is the new yoga”. It’s great that we can learn through parenting and relating but can you see how the term yoga is today so de-valued and neutered that almost anything-yoga-goes?
Following this train of inquiry I conclude that the modern Ashtanga Vinyasa method is in dire need of re-integration into Patanjali’s eight-limbed path. If this was not to happen the term Ekanga Yoga may more aptly describe its current make-up.