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Beyond Ashtanga Yoga Part II: Where It Fits In The River Of Yoga

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In my last blog post, I committed myself to doing a series on Ashtanga Yoga, so I am going to dive right in.


What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Some years ago, I used to go to a yoga class which was not specifically and only the so-called Ashtanga Yoga class, but it was strong — Warrior Yoga was the brand name the teacher used some combinations—based on Ashtanga Yoga with the standard vinyasas (dynamic sequences between poses.)

I went to many vinyasa classes over the years, though I took it easier after that, and very occasionally I taught that style myself, though my usual teaching style is gentler, and more restorative. As a student I loved a flowing dynamic yoga asana class, with the almost dance like effect of teacher and classmates moving in syncopated motion, but as I got older, and especially as I put on weight, I found myself getting injuries as I pushed myself to “excel” in class at the same level I had been able to achieve when younger and slimmer.

This is a confession you understand… it is not an example of the correct method of yoga asana practice.  Poses, and vinyasas, should be done with mindfulness, to a level that is healthful and non-injurious to the body.  In the end, I upped my home practice and stopped going to so many classes, and when I do I try to practice at a level where my competitive streak is less likely to be awakened.

So, somehow, I did not get a cue to perform a serious study of the “Ashtanga Yoga” taught by the yoga class. I think most of you are probably savvy enough already to know that there are many such brand names used by teachers to differentiate their classes from everyone else’s classes. Warrior Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Hot Yoga, Bliss Yoga, Vinni Yoga, YinYoga, etc, etc, as well as the more generic terms such as Gentle Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Flow Yoga, or Hatha yoga.

Many of these are clearly constructions and not related to a particular yoga path. The confusion with terms such as Hatha Yoga, and Ashtanga (or Astanga) Yoga, as terms for asana yoga classes, served up with a little pranayama on top, is that both these terms are meant for systems that are far, far more than that. Don’t get me wrong.  I like asana yoga classes with a little pranayama on top. But that is not Hatha Yoga, and that is not Ashtanga Yoga.

This holistic term, Yoga, describes a system that might be compared to a complex river.

Do any of you know a river intimately?  Have any of you been explorers in your arm chair, or, tracking a river to its source? You may have travelled from the river mouth where the water is brackish, salty from its marriage with the ocean, up through the deep and slow fresh waters (or, sadly, polluted waters… but in any case, not salty) to the younger river with waterfalls and rapids, and on still further upwards to the source spring, or the melt waters high up some frigid snow covered peak, or to the water logged rain-soaked and misty highlands where water seeps from the ground in trickles, growing into brooks and streams before flowing on, down to the mature river?

If so, you probably discovered there was not just one source. There can be many tributaries connecting into the main river. In addition, the waterway might fork (technically called bifurcation) into 2 or more distributaries which flow alongside their parent before joining up again later, forming river islands which can be 10’s or 100’s or even 1000’s of square kilometres in size. Sometimes the distributaries may even end up in different oceans. One such evocatively named spot is the Parting of the Waters, at Two Ocean Pass, on the Great Continental Divide in North America. Here the North Two Ocean Creek splits into Pacific Creek and Atlantic Creek, which eventually end up in U can work out where.

In any case, fascinating river systems aside, the different paths of yoga are basically aimed in the same initial direction, and act as tributaries to the main river, so that people coming from different places (metaphorically speaking) can progress towards the sea. Not everyone wants to go the full distance immediately. Not everyone is ready to shoot the rapids.

the eight limbs of yoga | Samadhi

Exploring the Term “Yoga”

To explore this analogy further, let’s analyse the term “yoga”.  It is an ancient Sanskrit word, which is the root of the old English word “yoke”.

In all cases the word relates to joining two or more separate things or entities together, such that they make a unified whole. They still retain their separate and individual existence, but they are existing also as part of the greater whole… the team of bullocks, or the well-made smock, with the embroidered yoke holding all the rest of the garment together.  So, in this sense, the word yoke illustrates something of the meaning of the root term, yoga, which means union.

This union has a specific significance, being the attempted union between the yogi and the Supreme Soul. I will go into further details on the Supreme Soul in the future posts.

Suffice to say that the individual practitioner of yoga remains an individual, even when full union is achieved, just as the sleeve of the smock remains a sleeve when in union with the rest of that piece of clothing. In fact, the sleeve is only sensibly a sleeve when it is attached. It does not fulfill its purpose as a sleeve until it becomes part of this greater whole, the embroidered peasant smock.

A small point aside, the “union of body, mind and soul” that is often touted as an explanation of Yoga is only correct if understood as the body and mind being two horses that are thoroughly tamed and yoked to do the will of the self, who has united her will with the Supreme Soul.


Paths of Yoga and its Ultimate Goal

So back to the river system analogy: All yoga paths are part of a sublime, a word not to be used lightly, but most appropriate here, a sublime system of yoga.  The various names, Hatha Yoga, Jnana Yoga,  Sankhya Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, etc all describe practices that are interrelated waterways of the same river system.

Exactly how each “Yoga” is described and how each “Yoga” relates to another is somewhat fluid, as befits multiple side streams of the same river, sometimes running in and out of each other. For instance Bhakti Yoga includes in it Karma Yoga (action) and Jnana Yoga (philosophical knowledge). And Ashtanga Yoga includes asana and pranayama, both being integral to Hatha Yoga.  However, we can give a basic categorization into 4 main families:

  • Jnana yoga, the yoga of philosophical knowledge and analysis. Sankhya Yoga overlaps from this category and into the next;
  • Mystic meditation processes, which include Ashtanga Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga and others;
  • The yoga of action, or Karma Yoga; and
  • Bhakti Yoga, or Buddhi Yoga, the yoga of intelligent devotion.

All these “Yoga” practices are designed to move one towards the ultimate goal of Yoga: union with the Supreme, but there are many stations on the way, where the practitioner can stop as long as they wish. One of these stations is in an Asana class, doing “Ashtanga” vinyasas, with a strong and vibrant body and a relatively calm mind.

And coming back full circle to the beginning of this blog, What is Ashtanga Yoga?  I have given one negative, and two positive responses. It is not a style of asana yoga class.  It is one path of many in the complete Yoga system. It is categorised as Mystic Yoga.  It is a big subject, and one blog can’t do it justice.

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