History Of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Modern terminology of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is an ancient system of spiritual, physical practice that was taught by a sage called Vamana Rishi. He documented it in a book called “Yoga Korunta“. Originally it was taught to the group of children who were studying in a boarding school, called Gurukula (literally meaning, the family of the master), that was run by a certain enlightened master. It was meant to create interest for yoga in young people so that they didn’t need to hold a position for a long time or be concerned about the deeper, spiritual part of yoga. Rather, yoga was presented to them in a playful, flowing sequence so that they could just ‘touch-and-go’ in and out of a pose of an asana. It is almost like hip-hop dancing of the modern time. Seeds of spiritual practices were sown into the children’s mind at a very early age through the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system. It was taught from master to disciples in monasteries and ashrams for centuries. In modern times, T. Krishnamacharya was introduced to Yoga Korunta and the Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga by his master, Rama Mohan Brahmachari. He passed down this system of yoga to his students, such as BKS Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and others in the 1920’s.
The main aspects of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are as follows:
The word ‘vinyasa’ refers to the breathing during the movement of each asana. Each movement happens on either an inhale or an exhale. Each asana is assigned a certain amount of vinyasas – for example Surya Namaskar has 9 vinyasas.
Synchronizing the breath while moving in each asana starts the internal cleansing process as the temperature of the blood increases. As it is believed that thick blood is what causes disease in the body, the blood is cleansed by the heat generated because it thins the blood and allows for better circulation. With the increased blood circulation that is a result of the movement and the breath (as in Vinyasa asanas), the blood can flow freely around the joints and through the internal organs, relieving any pain within the body as well as removing any impurities and diseases that is released from the body through perspiration during the practice.
Perspiration (sweating) is a necessary and important outcome of vinyasa because it is the way that all the impurities of the body are removed. As the blood in the body heats through yoga, the toxins are brought to the surface to be removed in much the same way as when dirt and impurities rise to the top of molten gold when it is boiled in a pot. This cleaning process by generating heat in the body through Vinyasa makes the body healthy and strong.
After years of practicing, the process of purification of the body can spread to the nervous system and sense organs, however this requires strong determination and diligent practice particularly because the senses are difficult to control: they are always distracted looking outside, and the body falls easily into laziness. Vinyasa creates the foundation through which the senses, and subsequently the mind, can be controlled.
Tristhana refers to the three aspects of attention or action: posture, breathing and focal point/gaze. These aspects are related to three levels of purification that are accomplished at the same time during yoga. The three levels are comprised of: the body, the nervous system and the mind.
There are 9 Drishtis (focal points) where one should look depending on which asana one is practicing. Through focusing on Drishtis the mind is purified and stabilized
The 9 Drishtis are:
- The space between the eyebrows
- Right side
- Left side
Through asanas the body achieves strength and flexibility. In order to cleanse the body internally two elements are in use: Air and Fire. In the body fire exists 4 inches below the navel and it contains the life force energy (or Kundalini). For fire to burn it is necessary to have a supply of air which is supplied by breathing.
In breathing, the rechaka and puraka (inhale and exhale) should be the same length and should remain steady and even throughout the practice which is necessary to purify the nervous system. Long even breaths result in rhythmical, even and controlled breathing that strengthens the internal fire – in much the same way as when a fire is stoked to keep it from growing out of control or snuffing out completely. This increases the heat in the blood resulting in the purification of the body and also the burning of impurities from the nervous system. When the internal fire is strengthened one’s digestion, health and lifespan are all increased. Similarly, uneven or rapid breathing results in imbalanced heartbeat that also causes the whole body and autonomic nervous system to be imbalanced.
The breathing system also involves the use of bandhas (locks). The Mula (anal) and Uddiyana (abdominal) bandhas seal in energy and give lightness, strength and health to the body. They are also important in strengthening one’s internal fire. Through bandhas, one can achieve the correct breathing to properly benefit one’s asana practice. Likewise the mind can be controlled through the practice of mula bandha.
The yoga shastra states that the divine dwells in our heart in the form of light. According to Pattabhi Jois there are 6 poisons that surround the spiritual heart: kama, krodha, moha, lobha, matsarya and mada which are: desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth. After many years of dedicated yoga practice the heat generated will burn away these poisons allowing the inner light to shine forth!