What is Ashtanga Yoga? A Brief History

There was a time when yoga was…well, just yoga. But the modern practitioner today is inundated with options, and in gyms and fitness classes, yoga is often used as a loose term to describe a type of workout. 

Here’s the thing: there are so many more styles of yoga than what you’re used to in a gym. And while each style (in theory) uses the same poses, the way in which each style practices them, and the philosophy in doing so, is wildly different from one style to the next. 

Ashtanga yoga is a classic example of this. It’s a highly traditional style of yoga and about as far from restorative classes as you can get. In fact, it’s one of the most physically and mentally rigorous styles of yoga. 

And as dedicated Ashtangis will tell you, you’ll come out the other side wrung out, sweaty, and feeling like a completely new person with a whole new lease on life. 

What is Ashtanga yoga? And how did we get the style as we know it today? Keep reading to learn more. 

What is Ashtanga Yoga? 

Before we dive into the history of Ashtanga, let’s talk about what Ashtanga is (and isn’t). 

Ashtanga yoga, sometimes called Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, is a dynamic, challenging, structured style that connects movements of the body to the breath. It was developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and T. Krishnamacharya in the 20th century and is derived from a system of Hatha yoga found in the Yoga Korunta. 

Vinyasa vs Ashtanga: What’s the Difference? 

For the sake of clarity, let’s take a moment to distinguish between Ashtanga and the vinyasa styles which many yogis are more familiar with. One of the most obvious differences is in the class structure. 

Vinyasa classes are variable in length and content. You may never visit the same vinyasa class twice (unless, of course, you re-watch yoga classes on YouTube). 

Ashtanga, on the other hand, is much more structured. In an Ashtanga class, practitioners will perform the same series of poses every time in a sequence that never changes. The idea is that once students memorize the sequence, they can practice it as a type of moving meditation. 

There are six series of poses in Ashtanga: the primary series, the intermediate series, and the four advanced series. 

That might not sound like very many until you realize the second key difference between vinyasa and Ashtanga: Ashtanga is hard. Even experienced yogis struggle to keep up in their first Ashtanga class.

This is in part due to the poses and transitions that are unique to Ashtanga. For example, the Ashtanga jump-through, a transition from down dog to seated by jumping your legs through your arms to L-sit without setting the feet down at any point on the way through, is exactly as difficult as it sounds. 

It’s also one of the most basic transitions you can expect in Ashtanga. And every transition includes a vinyasa (put it this way: there’s no mystery about where the legendary Ashtangi upper body strength comes from). 

According to teachers, that’s part of the lesson: you’re going to fail. A lot. The practice teaches you how to keep trying anyway, even if you fail 200 times before you get one success. 

Ashtanga is also difficult because it’s long. The primary series takes 90 minutes to two hours to complete in its entirety. But most students will spend months or years working a quarter or half primary series before they build the required balance and strength necessary to practice the complete primary series. 

Styles of Teaching Ashtanga

Ashtanga is taught through two methods: Mysore style and led classes. 

Led classes work more or less like vinyasa led classes. A teacher leads the class through one of the series at the same time, guiding and counting using traditional Sanskrit counts. Many teachers don’t complete the series alongside their students and instead move throughout the room to make adjustments. 

The more traditional method is Mysore-style classes. In these classes, teachers don’t call out poses or offer counts. Instead, students move through the series at their own pace, with teachers moving throughout the room to assist. 

The benefit of Mysore classes is that you can practice at your own discretion. It’s not uncommon to see a beginner practicing the primary series alongside an advanced student working on the third or fourth series.  

A Quick History of Ashtanga Yoga

This brings us back to the history of Ashtanga, which is easier to understand once you understand the practice itself. 

Mysore style classes, for example, are named for the small south Indian town where Sri K. Pattabhi Jois taught Ashtanga from the late 1930s until his death in 2009. 

Ashtanga’s roots are deep. The style traces back to the Yoga Korunta, an ancient text written by Vamana Rishi. That text was imparted down the ages, eventually passing in the early 1900s from Rama Mohan Brahmachari to his student, Sri T. Krishnamacharya. 

Krishnamacharya passed its teachings to Jois when Jois began studying with him in 1927. This text heavily influenced Jois in the development of Ashtanga yoga as it exists today. 

This is best seen through Ashtanga’s philosophical grounding in the eight limbs of yoga

  1. Yamas, dealing with one’s sense of integrity
  2. Niyamas, dealing with self-discipline and spiritual observance
  3. Asanas, the physical postures of yoga
  4. Pranayama, the breath, literally translated as “life force extension”
  5. Pratyahara, sensory withdrawal from the external world and stimuli
  6. Dharana, or concentration
  7. Dhyana, or meditation
  8. Samadhi, or ecstasy, when the practitioner merges with their point of focus and transcends the self to connect with the Divine

Jois deliberately structured the Ashtanga practice, from the postures themselves to the deliberately barren environment, to take the practitioner through the eight limbs by streamlining their attention inward. Ashtanga is physically difficult, but the point is to focus on the internal elements, not the postures themselves.  

Ready to Start Your Ashtanga Journey?

What is Ashtanga yoga? 

The short answer: possibly the perfect style for you. 

The long answer: a difficult practice requiring patience and a certain level of fearlessness, but also a deeply rewarding practice. 

Want to learn more about yoga? Check out our blog for more great tips to deepen and improve your practice, like this post on how to clean your mat (and why you should).