Focus on the physical body in yoga only for around 800 years – the development of Hatha Yoga
The focus on physical activities came up much later, about a thousand years after Patañjali. It resulted from the conviction that the body itself offers access to liberation from the material world.
As of the 13th and 14th centuries, this approach focused on cleansing techniques, and particular postures became known as Hatha Yoga (which verbatim can mean “yoga of force“).
To understand the later „branding“ of the yoga style „Ashtanga Yoga“, it is important to know that from the perspective of many of the Indian seers, Hatha Yoga was the more “primitive” or “basic” form of yoga, more a tool to get started on the path.
Some of the texts mention this explicitly:
The royal approach is aṣṭāṅgayoga, the yoga for the mind (it was sometimes even called king’s yoga, Raja Yoga). So who is not ready for this royal path has to get by with Hatha Yoga until he has developed further.
In addition, in the Middle Ages, Hatha Yogis were seen as sinister figures whom one could not trust. Thus, even today, a mother in India may tell her child: ”If you do not behave, the yogi will come and get you.”
Therefore, it is no surprise that most of the ashrams and yoga shalas put themselves under the roof of aṣṭāṅgayoga. By doing so, they did not describe a particular style of āsana practice. The message was:
”We are offering more than body-oriented yoga practice. We are offering the royal path.“
Modern Yoga of Krishnamacharya
Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989), who is often named the father of modern yoga, was also very interested in the yogasūtra. Nevertheless, the style that he taught over the decades used a postural approach in the tradition of Hatha Yoga.
One of the main contributions of Krishnamacharya to the way of performing postures [āsana] was the conscious coordination between the postures and the breath. This approach is called ”vinyāsa“, which can mean “order, connection, composition” in English.
One of Krishnamacharya’s students in Mysuru (at that time named Mysore) was Sri K. Patthabi Jois (1915 – 2009). Since the 1930s, Jois developed an individual yoga style based on the postures taught to him by Krishnamacharya and on the vinyāsa approach.
The style taught by Patthabi Jois
Special features of the style developed by Patthabi Jois are:
- The way of performing the postures’ (āsana) and of linking them with one another is fixed (this is also called vinyāsa). The initial positions are easier to do. They prepare the practitioner for later, more challenging poses.
- Special muscle groups (e.g., pelvic floor) and their correspondence in the subtle energy body – so-called bandha – play an essential role in the performance of the āsana.
- Movements, setting of bandha and the direction of breathing (recaka and puraka, i.e., in- and exhalation), as well as the direction of the gaze (dṛṣṭi) are coordinated with one another (the so-called trῑstānam method). Breathing happens through the nose only, with a slight throat constriction, resulting in some sound both during in- and exhalation.
After years of practice, this style can facilitate a meditative approach to practicing, in the sense of a movement meditation. Nevertheless, due to the increasing difficulty of the āsana, it remains physically challenging.
One of many yoga styles that see themselves in the tradition of the aṣṭāṅgayoga of Patañjali
Initially, Jois did not give his style a particular name. It was just “yoga”, in the tradition of aṣṭāṅgayoga. Back then, a local yoga teacher in Mysore did not need a more specific ”branding“.
His shala (a room in his house for teaching yoga) was just called „Ashtanga Yoga Niyalam“, i.e., ”residence of Ashtanga Yoga“ (my translation). The slightly blurry picture at the top shows the sign at the door. It was taken about 50 years ago.
This name was no pretension or even usurpation by Jois. On the contrary, it would have been seen as pretentious had he given it his name, for instance.
Many other shala would also teach under the umbrella of Ashtanga Yoga, even though their concrete style of yoga would be quite different.
The yoga style taught by Patthabi Jois goes international
Then something unexpected happened: the specific yoga style developed by Jois found its way into the world, initially to the US and then around the entire globe.
Starting point for this “globalization” were the eldest son of Jois, Manju, and the American David Williams. David has given the details of this extraordinary story in his great autobiographic book ”My search for Yoga“ (here is the link to my book review):
David was a searcher, a searcher for the real ”Yoga“. During his search in 1972 – almost half a century ago – he coincidentally came across a yoga demonstration by Manju Jois. David was so enthusiastic about this yoga style that he traveled to Mysore the following year to learn this particular yoga style from Manju’s father, Patthabi Jois.
The above picture of the sign at the shala’s door is from David’s collection of photographs “from the early days”. He told me that the sign was already quite old when he saw it the first time in 1973.
During our telephone conversation, during which he agreed to me using the two photographs from his book for this blog, David also confirmed that the name Ashtanga Yoga was not a specific name for this particular style back then.
According to him, each ashram in Hrishikesh would have claimed to teach yoga in the tradition of aṣṭāṅga, even if it had been offering just one āsana class. The yoga styles taught there would have had nothing to do with the yoga taught by Patthabi Jois. Still, they all put themselves under the umbrella of Patañjali’s tradition.
Now comes the essential difference: none of these other local yoga styles found their way beyond India’s borders; none would go international.
Internationally, the yoga style of Patthabi Jois needed to have a concrete name. There were already other styles known internationally, for instance, the general term Hatha Yoga (see above), Iyengar Yoga, Shivananda Yoga, to name a few. A student would have to be able to call Patthabi Jois’s style differently.