You walk into a room that has fallen completely silent. Students are standing at attention as if waiting for their sergeant to arrive. You look around trying to catch a pair of sympathetic eyes, but fail. Then, as if from a cloud of smoke, the teacher appears. The room erupts in a chant, “ommmmm… vande gurunamam charanaravinde…” It’s an intimidating scene, at best, and exclusive at worst.
Ashtanga yoga. Maybe you’ve heard of this yoga tradition, but it’s possible you haven’t. Then, maybe your experience was like the scene I just described, and you’ve steered clear ever since. In the next few paragraphs, I hope to demystify what is known to be the “house-holder’s” practice, because it should be just that- a practice for those engaged in ‘life’ as an employee, employer, wife, husband, sister, or mother. It is a practice for those of us that don’t have hours upon hours to dedicate to spiritual life, however much we wish we could. This is not yoga for a monk in a cave. This is a practice for the guy on the train.
And it begins with The Invocation. “Invocation”, already a fairly serious word ripe with mystery. To me, it is a way to ground yourself in the present moment before beginning the practice & a moment to muster up the courage & commitment required for the series of postures to follow. The Invocation looks like this:
The Invocation above appears on the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute website. There’s more on Pattabhi Jois to follow, but let’s get comfortable with the opening mantra first.
Translation of the Invocation:
I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed,
Beyond better, acting like the jungle physician,
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara.
Taking the form of a man to the shoulders,
Holding a conch, a discuss, and a sword,
One thousand heads white,
To Patanjali, I salute.
The words may mean absolutely nothing to you at first glance, so let’s dissect it a bit. The first line recognizes all of the teachers in the lineage that have allowed (you) the practitioner to participate in this tradition. The second line states the goal of the practice: self-realization. The lines that follow describe the guru Patanjali, who is credited with writing the Yoga Sutras. In line with Hindu culture, it is not truly known if Patanjali ever really lived or if “Patanjali” was a name or archetype given to the work of a collection of gurus. Either way, the Yoga Sutras is the first known text to codify the practice of yoga.
Once the Invocation is stated, asana, or physical practice, begins. Regardless of the number of years one has practiced any other yoga tradition(s), every Ashtanga-yogi first learns the Primary Series or “Yoga Cikitsaa” (Yoga Therapy). You may have noticed the word “series”. Yes, it’s called a series because a practitioner does the same series of poses every time they get on the mat until they move on to the next series, which for some of us may take a lifetime. The immediate question is then, “Doesn’t it get boring?” If we were talking about passive entertainment, then yes, I guess, it could get boring. Yet, we’re talking about a path to self-realization. The Buddha sat under the bodhi tree for seven days without moving, so ashtanga seams slightly more eventful than that. Plus, I think you get to know the subtleties of you mind, body, and the practice through this kind of consistent effort.
Following the ashtanga vinyasa practice, is the Closing Mantra (or prayer, but if you are prayer-averse pretend I didn’t mention it).
This mantra is popularly translated as:
May all be well with mankind.
May the leaders of the earth protect in every way
by keeping to the right path.
May there be goodness for those who know
the earth to be sacred.
May all the worlds be happy.
Now, I think we can all get on board with that one.
Getting back to the physical practice for a moment, there are another two unique attributes of ashtanga yoga: ujjayi breath & the use of bandhas.
Translated as the ‘breath of victory’, the ujjayi breath is a long audible breath. The wave-like sound is created through the expansion and contraction of the throat. Think of taking a long gasp in through the nose on the inhale. Then, as you exhale slightly tighten the throat to allow for sound. Allow the oxygen or prana to fully expand the lungs all the way down to the pelvic floor, out toward both ribs, and up into the chest. Ashtanga yoga teacher, John Scott, describes these actions as “free breathing”. It should be more of a passive ‘allowing’ of the breath than an active effort; awareness without the need to control.
Translated as ‘bond’ or ‘arrest’, bonds are locks in the body, which one can engage, that draw energy toward a specific location. The two bandhas used in the Ashtanga Vinyasa system are Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha, which draw the energy or prana from the root into the upper chambers of the body.
Mula, is Sanskrit for “root” or “base”. Therefore, Mula Bandha, also known as “root lock”, is located at the base of the spine or as described by B.K.S Iyengar, “the body from the anus to the navel is contracted and lifted upward towards the spine.” The feeling is that of pulling up the center of the pelvic floor and perineum.
Uddiyana is Sanskrit for “upwards”. The Bandha, which is one of the three classical bandhas, requires a pulling in and up of the belly button. The bandha not only moves prana or energy upwards, but also is known to strengthen and tone abdominal muscles. In many spiritual yoga tranditions Mula Bandha is considered ‘incomplete’ without Uddiyana Bandha.
Although the bandhas are easier to engage during an exhale, ashtanga yoga practitioners should seek to hold the bandhas throughout the practice while still breathing fully into the lungs. The only time the bandhas are released is during savasana or final relaxation.
This introduction would not be complete without presenting the father of ashtanga yoga, K. Pattabhi Jois. The following are a few facts, but I highly encourage anyone to continue to study him & his legacy. Two excellent books are Yoga Mala, by Pattabhi Jois & his grandson Sharath Jois, & Guruji, A Portrait of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois Through The Eyes of His Students.
- Born July 26th, 1915 on the ominous day of Guru Purnima, or Full Moon Day, 150km from Mysore, India.
- At the age of twelve, Jois attended a demonstration by the great teacher Krishnamarchaya and became is student the very next day.
- When Jois later codified the Ashtanga yoga system, he claimed that it was based on the “Korunta”; a book that was given to Krishnamarchaya by his teacher, but which he claims never to have actually seen himself.
The Future Of Ashtanga Yoga
K. Pattabhi Jois departed his physical body, at the age of 93, on May 18th 2009. The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, which he founded, continues to be run by his only daughter Saraswathi Rangaswamy and his grandson Sarath.
Do your practice & all is coming.
-K. Pattabhi Jois
If you feel drawn to the ashtanga yoga tradition, it is important to find a knowledgable teacher & a sangha or community that you believe is right for you. Traditionally, the practice requires an ashtangi to be on the mat six days a week (except for “moon days”, which are new & full moons, and is another post entirely). In other words, you are going to be spending a lot of time with these people, so make sure you’ve found the right ones. There are also plenty of teachers online that could help you get started until you find your tribe. In fact, I have an upcoming online webinar that will help you create a solid home practice while you wait for “the teacher to appear”.
Be sure to add any questions to the conversation below. I am always happy to answer.