History,  Teaching Ashtanga

Check This Out: Ashtanga Yoga is Not Hatha Yoga

Guy Donahaye wrote an awesome post this morning on Ashtanga and Hatha Yoga. For the original article, Go here

1186031_10151830927967667_339548884_n Ashtanga Yoga is not Hatha Yoga

There has been much debate about the origin and development of Pattabhi Jois’ system of asanas over the years. There has been much less interest in placing his asana system in the context of ashtanga yoga as a whole, or indeed, the yoga darshana as a whole.

Guruji used to say that his teaching was “original Patanjali Yoga.”

What are the implications of this?

Modern scholars have been quick to assert that the practice of asanas did not appear until about 1000 years ago in the literature of Hatha Yoga – as described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita etc., and of course, the question has recently been revived as to whether Pattabhi Jois’ system of asana is itself an ancient or modern, or a modern version of an ancient practice. – 1. 

Indologists generally think that Patanjali lived about 1000 years before the advent of the Hatha Yoga texts – so Guruji’s claim to the “original” teachings of Patanjali are controversial  (in the eyes of western scholars).

Guruji’s statement about original Patanjali Yoga stems from Krishnamacharya’s transmission of the Yoga Korunta:

“Rama Mohana made me memorize the whole of the Yoga Gurandam in the Gurkha language. The various stages of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra are dealt with in that book in a very precise but extensive commentary. That is necessary because Sutras are by definition very concise. In the Yoga Gurandam, the various kinds of Yoga poses and movements are described with great clarity. Only after studying this book can one understand the inner meaning and science of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.” – 2.

According to Guruji the Yoga Korunta described drishti, bandha, vinyasa and groupings of asanas according to their therapeutic, purifying or strength-giving qualities.

We know of no other authoritative texts which properly explain the role and practice of asanas in Patanjali Yoga, so, as far as we know, the Yoga Korunta is unique. Although the Yoga Korunta text is apparently lost, the wisdom of its teachings flourished through Krishnamacharya and his students in the systems of Vini Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga and Iyengar Yoga.

There are other early texts – Nammalovar’s Tirumantiram (5th century), Yoga Yajnavalkyasamhita (2nd C BC – 4th C AD) which list asanas. Some of these texts have only come to light recently in translation and their dates are contested. Recent finds in excavating the Indus Valley Civilization have uncovered seals depicting yoga postures over 4000 years old, so tracing the appearance of asanas to the medieval Hatha Yoga texts no longer seems convincing.

Asana has always been a part of hindu culture.  In a society which traditionally always sat on the ground, not in chairs, various seated positions were naturally adopted. Different asanas are adopted for different activities – for instance baddha konasana is also known as “cobbler’s pose” – it is the position used by cobblers to make and mend shoes – the toes and feet forming the “workbench” on which the shoe maker works. As is well known, other postures are suitable for meditation and pranayama, playing music or performing rituals – these positions have been used since time immemorial in hindu culture. To say they originated in or with a text is absurd. That is a bit like saying that music did not exist before it was written down.

Not only was asana simply a part of life, but yoga in South India was merged in the knowledge of Ayurveda. These two are regarded as sister sciences and both Guruji and Krishnamacharya had a deep interest in the connection between them. Krishanamcharya was also connected to a South Indian stream of knowledge that went back through his ancestors to great Tamil sages and yogis of the Nath lineage.

But setting aside the of question of age or origin, we notice that this debate has distracted us from a much more important question:

Is Ashtanga Yoga Hatha Yoga or is Patanjali Yoga something quite different?

Norman Allen: “… (the way) people use that word: Hatha Yoga, is worse than the use of Ashtanga Yoga – much worse. [To use Ashtanga Yoga generically as a system when there are only a few postures even mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (none, actually)?]
“… Hatha yogis had different ideas about what to do: using the body as an instrument for emancipation.  They wanted to have the pure crystal body.  They wanted to use this to transmute the soul and use it as real vehicle. They are the ones that cut the little ligament under the tongue to catch the soma, which we saw take place with that man in Pondicherry. He had to have extreme vows of brahmacharya. They couldn’t go and take their intestines out and wash them without continence – that’s Hatha Yoga. The co-mingling of the sun and the moon, the Shiva/Shakti is where it’s at. They would not be prepared to do Hatha Yoga if they knew what Hatha Yoga was.” – 3.
Guruji referred to the teachings of Hatha Yoga as “North Indian”, and in general dissuaded us from taking interest in them – implying that various practices were regarded as “degenerate”. In addition to asanas and pranayamas, Hatha Yoga utilizes mudras and kriyas: practices such as drinking one’s own urine, covering oneself with ash, cutting the tendon beneath the tongue so it can be “swallowed”, etc.. (see Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita)

So what is the role of asana in Ashtanga Yoga – as distinct from Hatha Yoga?

Most of our vocabulary about yoga comes from the hatha yoga texts – nadis, chakras, kundalini – these are Hatha Yoga concepts. The hatha yogi is pursuing a tantric, ecstatic experience of his physical and subtle body through various practices including asanas, ultimately desiring to free himself from all attachments and merge with higher consciousness.

In Hatha Yoga there is talk of balancing prana and apana, of kundalini rising, of chakras opening and becoming active and an ecstatic union with the divine, brought about by the transmutation of the physical and subtle bodies. As Norman Allen points out above, the path of Hatha Yoga is austere and Guruji did not favor it at as a good method.

In Patanjali Yoga, samadhi is defined as deep concentration or absorption. The method of attaining samadhi through ashtanga yoga is described by the 8 steps. The first four steps are known as “external”, the succeeding steps are called “internal”. The external steps prepare the yogin for sitting meditation. These external steps concern healing, purifying and strengthening the body and mind. Once the body is fit for steadiness the internal steps can begin.

While the hatha yogins pursue ecstasy as the medium of their sadhana, the South Indian tradition which flourished with Krishnamacharya, was focused on an internally focused path towards stilling the mind. Asana in this context is viewed as therapy – preparation for sitting and the internal practices.

“… he (Krishnamacharya) says yoga is what he calls ashastra-shastra-chikitsa, which means it is like surgery without instruments. It is to be done very carefully, but without any provocation, because, he says, the body itself has the instruments to do the operation…” – 4.

While Krishnamacharya was known in later years for his therapeutic work, this is a theme which flowed through his work from the beginning. He had a deep knowledge of Ayurveda which informed his yoga teaching. Guruji was also very much concerned with healing. His one book, Yoga Mala is about yoga chikitsa (therapy). He worked at the Ayurvedic Hospital in Mysore and received many referrals from doctors – patients they could not cure.

“… (according to Krishnamacharya) the first sutra of the second chapter (of the Yoga Sutra) is the sutra on healing. That is:
tapaḥsvādhyāyeśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyāyogaḥ 

… The word tapas covers so many things: changing the food habits, pranayama, asana, all those things are the tapas part… he also presented the idea that asana is svadhyaya, making you understand something about yourself.” – 4.

Patanjali says further: Kriya yoga is for reducing the afflictions (causes of suffering) and establishing the state of samadhi.

It is often stated that Patanjali yoga does not envisage asana practice as we know it. He only speaks about a steady comfortable posture as a prerequisite for pranayama and the succeeding limbs. Although not elaborated by Patanjali, asana practice here falls under the category of tapas – purification through effort.

Guruji felt that padmasana was the most important posture – the perfect posture for pranayama and meditation. Most indians who grew up in the culture of sitting on the floor (this has changed in the last few decades) can sit in padmasana. But for westerners this is generally quite a difficult posture. Many supporting postures are required to facilitate comfort in the asana.

Some of Pattabhi Jois’ students have placed the magnifying glass over asana to such an extent that might lead the general public to assume, the traditions of Ashtanga belong to those of hatha or that a certain prowess in physical practice is the desirable end.

When people ask me what kind of yoga I teach – if I say Ashtanga Yoga – the response is often: “oh that is the really physical or hard one”, “the non-spiritual yoga”.

Descriptions like this which come up from googling ashtanga are equally informative:

“One of the most high-profile yoga practices today, Ashtanga has been practiced faithfully by the likes of Madonna, Sting and Woody Harrelson.  It’s gained a reputation as a “go for the burn” workout designed to pump up the sweat and create lean and mean muscle.” – 5.

It is unfortunate but not at all surprising in this age of obsession with the body that there is an equal obsession with mastering asanas or sequences of asanas. Although highly effective in motivating us to practice, this bodily obsession can be a poison to spiritual practice, and has led us to admire physical strength and beauty while missing the purpose and hence correct method of practice. Mastery over sequences of asanas has little to do with progress on the path of yoga.

Western asana practice may be compared to the epidemic misuse of medicinal drugs – we may alleviate some symptoms but through misuse we will exacerbate others. Practice with misguided focus often leads to undesirable results: vanity, injury, pain and humiliation. Without aligning with the purpose of practice, we may become its victim. Yoga is not a training to “create lean and mean muscle.” Without understanding the correct place that asana practice plays in Patanjali Yoga, in Guruji’s yoga, such confusions are not surprising.

But yoga is very effective. Even if one practices with ego, the power of yoga will eventually destroy it. However it is better to inform oneself about the direct way to success – without having to learn the long and hard way. The purpose of asana is therapy – that is all. Physical and somatic therapy. We have to learn to practice accordingly.

Guy: How far do you think the physical practice can take you?

Norman Allen: In most cases probably nowhere, without taking other steps… Without the right intentions, without the right diet, without yama/niyama, it ain’t happening. You gotta make sure that you dissolve the ego, get rid of the ego. If practice becomes sensational and competitive it is completely anterior, it becomes tamasic. You gotta’ become sattvic in potential, in means and in intent, or you don’t have a chance.
Guy: Do you think that asana practice can destroy the ego?
Norman: Practice often amplifies the ego depending where the intent comes. – 3.

I think maybe Guruji underestimated the strength of the western ego – it is much more powerful, confused and obsessive than the indian. On the other hand, perhaps recognizing this, he latched the ego to yoga, knowing that ultimately all obstacles will fall to practice. Either way, by so demonstrating the physical potential of asana practice, many people will fail to understand the purpose and think that asana is the end and not the means.

Like the famous buddhist lesson about the finger pointing at the moon – by becoming obsessed with asana we look at the finger instead of looking where it is pointing.

Some Ashtanga practitioners have reified the asana practice in the absence of an adequate teacher or adequate understanding. People talk about “the practice” as if it were some kind of entity, or that since “all is coming” asana practice will lead to the ultimate. This is nonsense. There are individuals practicing and each has a unique experience.

The sequences of postures are just like musical scales – used for training – these scales/sequences should not be mistaken for real music. We are going through the motion of cleaning ourselves – asana practice is “internal cleaning.” It is not spiritual practice – it is completely self-indulgent. As a more relaxed person we may treat others better but this is a byproduct. To make yoga into a spiritual practice our intentional behavior towards ourselves and others is cultivated through perfecting the yama and niyama. Students can delude themselves that asanas will bring happiness or some other desired ultimate goal, but no, asanas are only for therapy.

The real work is spiritual inquiry in conjunction with purifying practice and the yama and niyama. This inquiry will only bear fruit if guided in the right direction. For this a teacher is essential. Some say that asana practice is the teacher – what can be learned on this level is disappointingly little. The main problem with this idea is that we are conditioned and even our practice is developed according to this conditioning unless a teacher can help one to see/act differently, practice may go on re-enforcing one’s karmas.

Guruji saw asana as the foundation upon which one could build a strong spiritual practice. The first step is chiktsa – therapy, and the second is shodhona – purification. The third step – sthira, is for steadiness – the foundation for sitting – and fitness for pranayama and the succeeding angas.

In the process of ashtanga yoga, as one moves through the successive stages of obtaining a steady and comfortable posture, of purifying the mind through pranayama and the perfection of the yama and niyama, the next stage is pratyhara. According to Guruji the external limbs are very difficult and require a great deal of effort, but the internal – dharana, dhyana and samadhi unfold naturally, once the external have been mastered.

Pratyhara stands between the externally oriented limbs and the three internal limbs. Through pratyhara the senses and organs of action introvert themselves, removing themselves from the temptation of sensual enjoyment. Like the limbs of a tortoise withdrawn, the sense organs merge into the lower mind – manas (the eleventh sense organ, the discursive, wandering monkey mind). As a result manas becomes introverted.

Pratyahra is also the perfection of vairagya – the second essential element along with practice (abhyasa) which leads to mind control. According to Patanjali the highest vairagya leads to “puruṣa-khyāter-guṇa-vaitṛṣṇyam” – discrimination between the nature of buddhi and that of purusa and loss of thirst for anything which can be displayed by the gunas (lack of thirst for the gunas leads the mind to introversion).

Purusa-khyater or viveka-khyater is a central theme of the sutras – all yoga practice is performed towards this end – the ability to distinguish the Seer from the seen. According to Patanjali this apparent confluence of Purusa with mind is called ego – asmita.

Svadhyaya is the second limb of Patanjali’s kriya yoga. The study of yoga philosophy is a form of svadhyaya. Yoga philosophy helps one to lay out an internal map of the functioning of the mind. As distinct from this yoga philosophy also points to the nature of the Self. Meditation need not be directed to external mundane objects, but is much better directed to ideas which express the true nature of the Self.

It is said that the nature of buddhi (intelligence) is similar to that of Purusa. Purusa is said to be without qualities, but certain ideas can point towards its nature. For instance it is said that Purusa is like empty space – it contains nothing – or that it resembles a radiant light with the lustre of the full moon – blissful, all knowing and eternally free. Buddhi has the capacity to take these forms through imagination and meditation – meditation helps buddhi experience an increasingly intimate association with Purusa and through this is able to distinguish itself as separate from it.

Purusa experiences through various organs, the most subtle of which is the buddhi. Each of these organs or “mouths” acts as an interface or screen through which experience is mediated. According to samkhya-yoga there are 24 screens – 4 aspects of mind, 5 pranas, 5 sense organs, 5 organs of action and 5 elements – our experience is recorded on these 24 receptors. Buddhi is the most subtle and internal screen.

One can detect that the increasingly subtle aspects of our experience are felt to be more internal, as existing beneath or behind or within our more “gross” experiences. We have a sense that our identity lies somewhere inside the body… more subtle than the physical body is the prana, more subtle than the pranic body is the mental body and more subtle than the lower mental body is the intelligence. More subtle still, though infinitely more subtle, because one can not speak of it as having any substance whatsoever is the Self.

From within, the mind receives a direct impression of the purusa, projected like an image on a screen. Under normal conditions this impression is hidden by the external noise (rajas) and dirt (tamas) which dominates and preoccupies us (even in sleep) as these gunas are played out on the 24 screens which together form our awareness. But when all the mouths have been shut – when one does not experience through the solid, the sense of smell, the sexual desire, the movement of prana or the lower mind or ego, but only buddhi remains aware and one-pointed, while the others have been suppressed, when samprajnata samadhi is achieved, buddhi “experiences” purusa’s impression which is always present, but shrouded during normal awareness.

Though purusa is said to be “like space” it is also said that it can be found residing in the center of the buddhi, in the cave of the heart or mind, which is located in the center of the chest. Through the perfection of the external limbs, the dirt, the six “poisons” (lust, anger, addiction  greed, vanity/envy and laziness), the covering around the heart which prevents us from experiencing ourselves fully as Purusa, is slowly washed away – then the internal light of the Self starts to shine through.

Patanjali does not recommend a specific meditation for realization (though he does make some recommendations for overcoming obstacles). In the yoga sutra, Patanjali initially says one should totally restrain the functions of the mind – then all we experience is the Self. Later he suggests we can take gross or subtle objects or we can mediate on bliss or identity to attain conditioned/cognitive (samprajnata) samadhi. But the highest samadhi – unconditioned/content-less asamprajnata samadhi can only be attained on total restraint/emptiness.

Dharana, dhyana and samadhi are not really separate – one merges into the other. This is known as samyama. Dharana – concentration is something we are constantly striving for. Dhyana and samadhi are intensification of dharana. Once we understand, through the practice of svadhyaya where to place attention – or rather how to withdraw attention and simply abide in the Self, there is no object to be meditated on. In a progressive introversion of awareness dharana, dhyana and samadhi merge one into the other and the light of the Self is simply allowed to shine as the modifications of mind cease.

Ashtanga Yoga is thus a path of internalization, where the influence of the external world (eg body, mind and sense objects) ceases to make itself visible. The mind eventually ceases to function during this state of absorption and we can experience pure identity, being.

I believe Georg Feuestein coined the expression – enstasy to describe this internalized state of absorption. In contrast to the ecstatic experience pursued by the hatha yogin, the ashtanga practitioner is heading towards the enstatic – the intimate experience of identity freed from the tyranny of the mind which results in the ultimate knowledge, bliss and freedom.


Through teaching asana Guruji gave many lessons – to each individual they were delivered and resonated differently. But all his teachings were coming from the Yoga Sutra as well as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the great epics and the poetry of Sri Shankararcharya… these elements are not inherent in the system of asanas known as “Primary Series” or “Intermediate Series” but were transmitted individually and in theory classes. These teachings are essential to Patanjali Yoga (as one of six darshana (philosophical systems) which uphold the teachings of the vedas as fundamental). These texts need to be explored in order to understand the fullness of the yoga darshana.

Much of what we learned we experienced somatically – this was actually the primary mode in which we received from Guruji. His way of teaching was a unique form of bodywork which moved us beyond our limited perception of what we could or could not do while at the same time releasing us from the feelings associated with this conditioning. Through trusting his knowledge and his hands, many students were able to heal, purify and gain strength. This somatic learning allowed for transformation, metamorphosis and healing.

Ashtanga Yoga is so much more than a series of asanas or an extension of Hatha Yoga, but to get to its heart requires a great deal of practice and study.


1. This question was first raised in print by N. Sjoman in his Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace and recently revisited by Mark Singleton in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

2. The King and the Young Man – interview with T Krishnamacharya

3. Guruji: a Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois through the Eyes of his Students

4. The Yoga of T Krisnamacharya – TKV Desikachar

5. Gaiam Life website

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

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