A Brief History of Astanga Vinyasa Yoga

By Beri Golding As a history major in college and a recovering “perfectionist” few things can be quite as frustrating as trying to find precise factual evidence regarding the history of yoga. Deciphering myth from truth, avatar from character, sage from spiritual superhero, all contribute to the flavorful philosophical backdrop of yoga. Traditionally yoga was embraced as an oral tradition, passed from guru to student. Thus a great deal of resource information traces the history from most modern to most ancient. Astanga in sanskrit translates to mean “eight limbs” and refers to the eight limb path to enlightenment described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, (1915-2009) also known as Guruji is the founder of the Astanga Yoga Institute and is credited with popularizing Astanga yoga. At age 12, Guruji attended a yoga demonstration at his middle school. Upon witnessing the impressive skills of the yogi, T.Krishnamacharya, Guruji was inspired to learn more about the ancient practice. After interviewing Guruji, Krishnamacharya, agreed to take him on as a student. For two years, unbeknownst to his family, Guruji practiced every day before school, adhering to the the strict discipline of Krishnamacharya’s teachings. The system of yoga that became Guruji’s life’s work referenced not only the teachings of his teacher, Krishnamacharya, but also his teacher, Ramama Mohan Brahmachari, in addition to the teachings recorded in the ancient text, the Yoga Korunta, written by a sage named Rishi Vamana. T. Krishnamacharya (November 1888-February 1989) often referred to as the father of modern day yoga was introduced to yoga at a young age through the study of sanskrit, vedic literature and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. No one knows a lot about Krishnamacharya’s true yoga journey, much of his biographical information is blended within myth, mystery, fact, and contrasting view points/memories from those who knew the iconic figure. Some of his most well known students (aside from Pattabhi Joise) include Indra Devi, B.K.S. Iyengar, and T.K.V. Desikachar (his son). Regardless of his enigmatic legacy, according to “Yoga” A Yoga Journal Book author, Linda Sparrowe, Guruji, credits Krishnamacharya with “perfecting the Astanga Vinyasa system, a tradition that he says draws inspiration from the classics- the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and the HathaYoga Pradipika.” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras outlines the eight limbs of astanga yoga as: yama (restraint/moral codes), niyama (personal observances), asana (physical practice of poses), pranayama (breath control/restraint), pratyahara (sense control/withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), samadhi (enlightenment). While westerners tend to emphasize the third limb, or asana component of the practice, the beauty of astanga yoga is that it calls for awareness of the  system as a whole. Much like a choo choo train, each limb represents a car, and in order for the train to perform its duty as a transportation system, they work together.  By definition the word “vinyasa” translates to movement with breath and emphasizes synchronizing the movements of the physical body with corresponding breath. Vinyasa sets the tone for the practice with the invocation of the Sun Salutations (surya namaskara A and surya namaskara B).The astanga practice is a deliberate, pre formatted style practice including 6 main series: Primary Series (Yoga Chikitsa: Yoga Therapy), Intermediate also known as second Series (Nadi Shodhana: Purification of the Energy Channels), Advanced Series (Sthira Bhaga: Strong Devotion), Advanced A, Advanced B, Advanced C, and D. In addition to the opening sun salutations, the vinyasa is reoccurring as it comes in between the poses within each respective series. In addition to the practice of moving the body with the breath, the practice emphasizes engaging the energy locks within the body (bandha) to ignite heat from within to detoxify the body, as well as dristhi, meditative gaze, intended to quiet the mind. This yoga providing a treasure chest of tools embedded within a rich historical foundation to assist the yogi in the practice of going beyond the fluctuations of the mind.

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