Clearing up confusion around the name and origin of “Ashtanga Yoga” by Raji Thron

Ashtanga (meaning “eight limbs”) is a term commonly used in modern Yoga circles, associated with the yoga philosophy elaborated in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. That means any yoga class that bases its philosophy on the Yoga Sutras could be called “Ashtanga Yoga”. In a sense, that could be the end of the story, but in this case, it’s just the beginning.

The Yoga Sutras are the fundamental yoga scripture that most yoga practitioners refer to even though there are many different scriptures in the wider yoga tradition. Ashtanga, or the “eight limbs”, is a short-hand way of describing the key aspects of the path of yoga, from ethical principles, postural and breathing practices to meditation. What the eight limbs are and how they should be practiced is a whole additional question, which can be addressed separately. But , we are here to see where the confusion is and possibly create clarity.

The name “Ashtanga Yoga” has, confusingly, also been used to refer to the vigorous Hatha Yoga practice method taught by the late Shri Pattabhi Jois of Mysore. Using the name Ashtanga implies a connection to Patanjali’s eight limbs. So, what is the real relationship between Ashtanga of Patanjali and the Ashtanga Yoga method of Pattabhi Jois and by extension what is the origin of the method of Pattabhi Jois’ Yoga Teaching? Is there a discernible line between them or is it a connection in name only?

A line to Patanjali’s Ashtanga would mean either a yoga practitioner is actually practicing all “eight limbs” or that there is a direct lineage connection back to Patanjali, or both. To really practice the eight limbs means that besides practicing a vigorous postural practice, it means also practicing the other seven limbs of Yoga of Patanjali. Exactly how is not always totally explained by Pattabhi Jois or various other teachers for that matter.  A common perspective is that all eight limbs are being practiced within the postural practice itself. This leaves certain limbs like meditation being interpreted as movement meditation. Also, what about the rest of our lives? Many yoga schools say they believe in practicing the eight limbs, or in other words, practicing the yoga philosophy of Patanjali, but again exactly how would be spelled out by each teacher.

The idea of a direct connection to Patanjali turns us to the origin of the “Ashtanga Yoga Method” of Pattabhi Jois. As it turns out, it does not have as clear of an origin story as many of us had been told. The original story was about a lost scripture, the “Yoga Kurunta” that had been found and was the basis of the system. Pattabhi Jois would quote Vamana Rishi, the author of the Yoga Kurunta, saying “Oh Yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa”. But the scripture was nowhere to be found, as Jois said “it was eaten by ants.”

Using the phrase “Ashtanga Vinyasa” becomes helpful to give a distinction between the philosophical principles (Ashtanga) and the Hatha Yoga practice method (Ashtanga Vinyasa). The origin of Ashtanga Vinyasa points back to Pattabhi Jois’ teacher, Krishnamacharya and possibly his teacher in Tibet. The current version of the evolving story seems to be that Krishnamacharya learned the system from his teacher in Tibet. With the origin story continually changing plus aspects of the practice being changed over time, the idea that there is one true “vinyasa system” or direct line back to Patanjali is not clear at all.

All this really means, however, is that all the references to “Ashtanga” are not the absolute definitive formulation that some are seeking and that it is simply a convenient name to indicate a general philosophical perspective. This may seem like bad news, for those who want the set system with hard and fast rules. But it can also be seen as the beauty of real life Yoga transmission at work, leaving the door open for real inquiry into what the eight limbs mean for each practitioner in their encounter with the principles and practice frameworks given by Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois and others. They keep pointing us in the direction of the growth of the limbs of our own Yoga and life.

Next time, I will discuss the “eight limbs” themselves!