Astanga yoga (also spelt ‘ashtanga’) stems from an ancient tradition of practices designed to purify and unify the mind, body and spirit.
It was popularised throughout the world by yogi and Sanskrit scholar Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who taught at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, South India until his death in 2009 at age 93.
We practice astanga yoga by combining breath control/focus (pranayama) with flowing movements (vinyasa).
As we move through different postures (asana), we focus our attention on the breath, gazing points (drishti) and energy locks (bandhas).
By combining these elements we warm and stretch the body, focus the mind, and develop inner strength and confidence. Students work through different series of postures, slowly expanding capabilities and self-awareness. Physical benefits can include increased cardio-vascular fitness, strengthened internal organs, improved concentration, increased general strength and flexibility, and better resilience to stress.
The word astanga literally means ‘eight limbs’.
The physical yoga postures (asana) that we see on the surface are just one of the eight limbs/branches of astanga yoga.
The other limbs include ethical restraints and observances (yamas and niyamas), breath control (pranayama), internal focus of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and unity/contemplation (samadhi).
Pattabhi Jois taught that practicing and mastering asana is essential for cultivating the other limbs of astanga yoga.
Astanga can sometimes be a demanding practice, challenging our perceptions of our own capabilities and expanding our personal expectations. As with almost anything in life, what we gain through this practice depends on what we put into it. The rewards can be enormous if we approach our practice with ongoing patience, humbleness and dedication. Through a deeper knowledge of self, comes freedom from limitations.