Ashtanga or only Ekanga Yoga?

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.

Classical texts

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.

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle began his practice of Raja Yoga in 1978 and added Hatha Yoga a few years later. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.
Posted in Ashtanga Yoga, Teaching.

11 Comments

  1. I am not sure what name would be most suitable for the system handed down by KP Jois. What I suspect is that by that system, for practitioners like myself that start practicing in middle age, and get stuck in the middle of the primary series, it may take and extra lifetime to get to Pranayama.

    I prefer the way you teach the system, and find your books extremely helpful.

    Kirshnamacharya himself taught Pranayama “very early”, even “from day one”, at least to Srivatsa Ramaswami. (Ref: http://wildyogi.info/en/issue/huge-variety-krishnamacharyas-teachings-interview-srivatsa-ramaswami) He also taught Dharana, Dhyana through chanting.

    In his book “Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind – A Guide to Personal Reintegration”, A. G. Mohan gives a list of only 20 postures. Clearly emphasises adapting the postures and sequence, and deciates a chapter on Pranayama and Meditation.

    In his book “Emergence of Yoga”, dedicated to the tradition he inherited from his father, T. K. Sribhashyam states that a practice session always starts and finishes with Pranayama.

    T K V Desikachar emphasizes the higher limbs in his book “The Heart of Yoga Developing a Personal Practice”, and includes the Yoga Sutras (although I do prefer the commentary in you book “Ashtanga Yoga Practice & Philosophy”).

    Clearly most of the other teachers taught by Krishnamacharya himself, teach higher limbs earlier.

    I wonder if the way KP Jois did it evolved based on the demand he was getting from western students, or was done intentionally despite the demand for Pranayama for example.

    Thank you

  2. Dear Gregor, I have always struggled with the name ashtanga vinyasa yoga. To make this practise a compleet 8 limbed practise the student must incorperate this, in it self great asana practise, into a broader practise. One can look for great teachers, like yourself and many others wit a background in AVY, to get guidance in the other limbs.
    Also the student can read the scriptures and commentaries. I was dragen into this inquiry through starting a mysore practise and Reading your wonderfull book about the primary series. So having said that… the practise can open that door for the student, if the student is hungry for it and becomes a seeker. It also brings the importance of advanced asana’s into perspective. Only then the practise becomes ashtanga yoga. Thats up to the student. Don’t expect guidenace in that out of mysore. But whats in a name :-)?

  3. Thank you so much great teacher, I have been practicing ashtanga yoga for over 20 years and was recently thrown out of my community because I share the same view as you which I have had for the last 10 years since I first visited my Mysore and realized that the yoga being offered there is not the yoga that I want to be a part of. I have learned to study on my own and incorporate all eight limbs into my practice and have tried teaching students how important, if not more important, are the limbs outside of asana. I have learn to study on my own and incorporate all eight limbs into my practice and have tried teaching students how important if not more important are the limbs outside of asana. Your books on the subject of yoga have been my only teachers for the last six years and even though I have never met you personally I consider you one of my greatest teachers and now that you have found the courage and potential of this age to speak the truth from your heart I too feel more comfortable sharing my views with my students on how to practice yoga even if it results in my exclusion from the greater community of Ashtanga practitioners. Thank you for continuing to uphold uoga and those who self appoint themselves the authority on the subject.

    • Thanks a lot for expressing your appreciation, Samuel. I just need to respond to the “great teacher” epithet. I do not aspire to be a great teacher but simply a friend to my students and facilitator for their growth. I am encouraging my students to question and criticize me so that they may take responsibility for their own growth and practise. Ultimately I believe that teachers that allow adulation by their students will automatically fail. A teaching that empowers the teachers instead of the student will fail. This is exactly what happened and is happening today even more in the so-called Ashtanga Yoga. So let’s forget about the greatness and simply be fellow travelers on this journey. If I can make improvements on your journey, then great. That’s all. Gregor

  4. This is a refreshing article ! I came to “astanga yoga “ at 27 … full of inspiration i was fully absorbed in my practise , studied in Mysore ( with Ayengar) and now looking back ( i am 43) i can see how caught in my ego i was … i also sadly can identify with the sniggering at other yoga forms in the past … but in the last few years i have felt disillusioned with my practise … dropping it almost in order to start a new. Your books have been a big inspiration for me and i now see that this attachment to Asana series is a trap for the ego if one is not careful ,and with out the other limbs it is like gymnastics … these teachings are often missed out by other Astanga yoga practitioners. Thank you for your words …. i look forward to meeting you at the Glastonbury workshop next week !

  5. Gregor, thank you for a really fine overview. It also made me wonder if you might be willing to share with us what a typical (or an ideal) day is for you? I mean could you break down how you integrate the 8 Limbs of Yoga in an average day, including your schedule, as well as the amount of time you dedicate to each? It would a great support for us to have an insight into what your living experience of yoga routine is on an daily basis. And do you rest from your practice on new moon and full moon days?

    Thank you,
    Mark

  6. Very good read, dear Gregor, thank you. My boyfriend, who practices a bit of yoga, and I think only so to please me, asked me recently – why is it called Ashtanga yoga? This question popped up as we were passing by an AY studio in my town, where I used to practice, and it is written all over the windows – Ashtanga yoga. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to answer, so I said what I’ve heard. That it’s more correct to say Ashtanga yoga method, because ashtanga yoga as a concept is something different (I explained Patanjali’s system to him). Then, he asked: Ok, so why isn’t “method” written on the windows, there’s enough room? We laughed and continued with our walk. This is a funny episode but I think it says a lot. And what a great idea to call it Ekanga. Thank you for a great article.

  7. The more we think that we found the meaning of Yoga, word and practice, the more we get caught in the same circle of ilussions.
    Very good article, it is a progress for everyone to read something like this, but, there are a lot of interpretations that can lead to the same ilussions.
    Not everyone knows about the difference between Astang and Ashtanga. The second one seems to be an invention.
    Not everyone knows that Ayurveda is Astang Yog. 8 limbed.
    II 16 is not what you interpreted. Is more : the pain that did not appeared can be avoided.
    Yoga Dharshana at the root is Vasistha Yoga, and Suddha Raja Yoga, and not Patanjali Yoga.
    Patanjali Yoga is Manas Yoga. It cannot be pure Raja Yoga, something that is learning us to supress the mind fluctuations. It is not about supressing. It is something more. But Patanjali Yoga is a step to Raja Yoga. It is necesary to understand and practice Paranjali Yoga.
    And Yoga can be the parenting, music, poetry, business, and manny more.
    Yoga is a state of mind. A practice that can be adapted everywhere, anywhere. It is the science of the absolute.
    You can practice just non violence and to get to samadhi.
    Depends on the past lifes karma. Or the Yoga practice of your soul from the past lifes.
    So, it is very vast this Yoga. And Ayurveda, and Vedanta, and Raja Yoga.
    The mind rigidity of the west is a continuous source of steps, practices and new understandings. And ilussions.
    With love, Constantin !

  8. I don’t want to get into what Shri .K.Pattbhi Jois did or didn’t do. But this for sure. When we speak of pranayama then we differentiate between simple pranayama exercises of anuloma viloma & that practiced in the method of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga . Hence many practices & much sweat later we begin with long puraka & rechaka. But this you know as you teach this method ,correct, so when do you teach Kumbhaka? To the newbee who wants to do only pranayama or to those that have a solid meditation practice, I believe not? The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa is a slow method, unlike some forms of Hatha Yoga that one can progress quite quickly & do some fancy advanced poses early in the peace. It takes time to culture ,prepare the body & mind to access those areas & then irrigate them with the even flow of prana. There are some that are doing exercise when they practice Yoga & then those that are seriously working with or through the vitarkas, (thoughts tendencies or urges) that are provoked. “The higher goals of Yoga cannot be attained while rajas & tamas are prominent in the citta.” (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali , Edwin F. Bryant)
    Ps Shri. K Pattabhi Jois has not been disgraced, it is those that have left the school to pursue their own paths that are now crying ‘wolf’,over a dead mans grave …

    • Gabriella,
      Pranayama is not something to be limited to an asana elite. It must be taught to all. T Krishnamacharya believed that it was the most important aspect of yoga. If somebody was too sick to practice asana he still taught them pranayama. Pranayama must be made available to all who wish to practice it as its benefits cannot be attained by asana.
      Of course we do not start teaching pranayama with teaching kumbhaka. A sound approach would include teaching Nadi Shuddhi first (i.e. alternate nostril breathing without kumbhaka). But very soon thereafter we must determine the nostril predominance in the individual and suppport Nadi Shuddhi with Chandra or Surya Bhedana respectively. So may a person with a medium solar aggravation (breathes more often through the right nostril) practice Nadhi Shuddhi on 3 or 4 days per week and Chandra Bhedana on the others. Another very important aspect is that instead of counting numbers during pranayama the respective bija mantras (Vam/ Ram) must be mentally pronounced and their associated visualizations (moon and sun) in the appropriate locations must be performed. With all of this in place, digital counting is then activated, rather than counting numbers in ones mind. These are some of the necessary early steps before tackling kumbhaka.
      I am surprised that you say KP Jois did not disgrace himself. If 15 women coming forward describing sexual abuse and assault at his hands is not “disgraced” what is?

      Do you mean that the women who spoke out are wrong?

      Or do you mean that any amount of sexual abuse and assault performed by KP Jois cannot touch him?

      How is it that he can do all of this without disgracing himself and other mere mortals are disgracing themselves by simply disagreeing with his views?

      Isn’t that a fully fledged religious fundamentalism displayed here?

      Gregor

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