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The History and Philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga

The History and Philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga

Yoga has come a long way, and in these modern times, the average yogi has a wealth of options when it comes to classes and styles of yoga. Each style of yoga can be vastly different from the next, all linked with a focus on physical and mental strength, flexibility and mindfulness. Ashtanga yoga is a style that can be the most intensive, and requires a lot of disciple and determination. 

Ashtanga yoga is a standard set of asanas, focusing on breath, and internal mental space. Ashtanga yoga is a rigorous workout, and it’s known for its fast pace and difficult postures. Ashtanga typically features more traditional transitions and poses are held for a longer time than in some faster modern styles of yoga. Ashtanga is a great style of yoga for those who want to get a good workout and also clear their mind

It’s most similar to Vinyasa, however, it differs as Ashtanga series stays the same every time, whilst a Vinyasa flow can differ from class to class. Ashtanga also incorporates many aspects such as chanting and breathing that are parts of traditional yoga, and vinyasa flows can sometimes leave out. 


Ashtanga yoga can bring you back to the roots of yoga - that is, inner peace within yourself and mindfulness. It’s easy to lose sight of this with the exercise focus yoga can have in modern times. The term Ashtanga yoga literally means ‘the eight limbs of yoga’. This concept was first brought to life in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, which is a text that outlines to purpose of a yoga practice, and the principles you should strive to live by if you are a yogi. 

The eight limbs of yoga make up an eightfold path. This is a set of guidelines on how to live a better life, through the practice of yoga. This path, or ‘eight limbs of yoga’ help to outline both the importance of the postures and physical practice of yoga, but also lay out some ethical guidelines to take off the mat and into your everyday life. Ashtanga yoga helps yogis to become closer to these guidelines, as it places an emphasis on all the yoga limbs, and is very much a spiritual as well as physical practice. 

So how was the practice developed?

K. Pattabhi Jois developed the practice of Ashtanga yoga, and was very heavily influenced by the concept of the eight limbs of yoga. Pattabhi started his yoga journey as a student of T.Krishnamacharya in the 1930’s. He studied at the College of the Maharaja in Mysore, India. Here he studied the Yoga Korunta, an ancient text that is said to be written by sage Vamana Rishi. It is said that he wrote the text to help people heal through yoga. 

Pattabhi’s practice of Ashtanga yoga focuses on a set series of yoga poses that are linked together through breathing. Ashtanga differs from many other modern styles of yoga in that the Ashtanga sequence is always the same. Traditionally, Ashtanga yoga is performed without any music, or lighting that you might find in a modern yoga class. 

The idea behind this is that by removing these external factors that can influence your yoga practice, you start to bring your attention and focus internally, focusing on the inner aspects of yoga - to start thinking about the spiritual practice as well as the physical. 

Ashtanga yogis progress their way through six series of Ashtanga sequences. Ashtanga is designed to be a daily yoga practice, so you’ll see improvements and progression day by day. Each practice will comprise of four parts. An opening sequence, one of the ‘series’, back-bends, and a set of inverted asanas to finish off, and then as always, a savasana. 

The opening sequence always begins with 10 sun salutations, followed by several standing asanas.  The six main series are referred to as the primary series, the intermediate series, or Advanced A, B, C or D. Newcomers and yoga beginners will start with the primary series. 

The Ashtanga primary series is the most important of the yoga series, as it forms the basis of the whole system. In Ashtanga, advancing to the most difficult series isn’t the goal, rather, maintaining internal focus is. This is why daily practice is highly emphasized. 

This emphasis on internal focus, combined with the physical intensity of the practice can sometimes give Ashtanga yoga a scary reputation! However, if you feel up to the challenge, and are physically fit enough for  Vinyasa, you’re prepared enough to tackle Ashtanga. Any yogi should try it at least once. Ashtanga allows you to explore yoga in a different and deeper form. 

By Amy Cavill

Why not try our 9 days of Ashtanga Yoga Immersion series and find out Ashtanga's benefits for yourself?


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