What does Ashtanga Yoga mean – Nomen est omen or rather a misnomer?

What does Ashtanga Yoga mean – Nomen est omen or rather a misnomer?

by | 14. Nov. 2021 | -English Blog-Post, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, General, Yoga Philosophie, Yoga philosophy

The yoga style that I have been practicing for 13 years and teaching for 11 is nowadays known worldwide as Ashtanga Yoga. I fell in love with this style from the very start. Initially, the name was not important to me. However,  I later started to question why this yoga style had this name and whether it was correct, in the sense of „Nomen est omen“.

Let me summarize the answers that I found right away:

  • Ashtanga Yoga as a style of yoga originated in the 20thcentury; it is not thousands of years old,
  • it got its name more or less by coincidence, and
  • there are other yoga styles in India that are quite different that also claim to be Ashtanga Yoga.

To start at the origin of the association between the terms „ashtanga“ and „yoga“, we shall jump back in time to a past long gone.

Originally, yoga was a spiritual path

From a historical perspective, yoga is a spiritual path, a philosophy that dates back 2,500 years and more. Its goal was the disciplining of the mind to reach liberation from the attachment to the material world.

To discipline the mind, the ancient seers recommended several techniques, e.g., purification, strict obedience to specific rules, breathing exercises, and intensive contemplation and meditation.

The list of techniques to be practiced by a spiritual seeker varied. Some traditions named six elements (also called „limbs“), others seven, and again others fifteen. The most known list today contains eight limbs.

ashtanga = eight limbs

This specific list of eight elements is the origin of the term „ashtanga“ (aṣṭāṅga in precise transliteration from Sanskrit):

„eight limbs“ (aṣṭa = eight, aṅga = limb).

 [Short comment on pronunciation: the pronunciation rules in Sanskrit require that the short /a/ at the end of aṣṭa and the short /a/ at the beginning of aṅga merge to a long /ā/ (pronounced like the English “rather”) when both words follow one another. If you want to be even more precise, you will put the tongue upward to the hard palate behind your upper teeth when you pronounce the s and the t with the dot below them, e.g., and. This way of putting the tongue is called „retroflex“. The is pronounced backward, towards the throat, just like „Hong Kong“, a so-called „guttural“ /n/.]

The aṣṭāṅgayoga of Patañjali

The term aṣṭāṅga became known primarily through the yogasūtra of Patañjali, a text that dates back to the 3rd or 4th century CE. However, Patañjali did not invent the term. Instead, he compiled the then-available knowledge on yoga in a brilliant way. Therefore, the term itself must be older.

Patañjali defines yoga as a condition in which one experiences total tranquility. The goal is the liberation of consciousness from the attachment to the material world (kaivalya).

In four chapters with almost 200 succinct verses (also called sūtra), Patañjali describes how someone can reach this ambitious goal.

One of the essential tools is the path of the eight limbs. Patañjali’s definition in the 29th sūtra is as follows:

”The eight limbs are social rules [yama], rules for oneself [niyama], postures [āsana], breath control [prāāyāmā], withdrawal of the senses [pratyāhāra], concentration [dhāraṇa], contemplation [dhyāna] and meditative absorption [samādhiḥ].“ (my translation)

At this point, I do not intend to cover the individual limbs in detail (other blogs will follow).

What is essential at this point is that postures [āsana]- which today, at least in the western world, seem to be the centerpiece of yoga practice – are mentioned by Patañjali in just three sūtra (of a total of 195).

Chart courtesy of Martina Vogt

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 trstānam 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.

Patthabi Jois, Manju Jois and David William 1973 in Encinitas, California, USA

Picture courtesy of David Williams, from his book “My search for Yoga”

„I do not practice Hatha Yoga; I practice Ashtanga Yoga.“

A story that David told me might illustrate this:

In October 1975, Patthabi Jois and his son Manju traveled to the US for the first time upon an invitation by David.

One day, they visited a health food store. In the shop, an American addressed Patthabi Jois with the words, ”You must be this famous guru from India who is visiting. Are you practicing Hatha Yoga?” Hearing these words, Patthabi Jois lost his temper. David: ”I never saw him so angry.“ According to David, Jois shouted at the man: ”No, I do NOT practice Hatha Yoga, I practice Ashtanga Yoga.“ Both David and I assume that he also considered Hatha Yoga a more “primitive” form of yoga – as was described in the medieval texts.

After this first visit, the name for the yoga style taught by Jois was clear – not in a precise way as ”the yoga taught by Patthabi Jois in the tradition of aṣṭāṅgayoga“, but – keep it simple for “branding” purposes – as ”Ashtanga Yoga“.

Jois probably did not even think of naming the style after his name – as for instance Iyengar, also a student of Krishnamacharya, whom Patthabi Jois had taught from time to time, had done.

To quote David Williams one more time: ”Patthabi Jois never thought it would go global.”

In addition, to add more authority to this style, Patthabi Jois always claimed that he was teaching “exactly the way that his teacher had taught him” (which was correct only in a very general way). So how could he claim that it was “his” yoga?

So these days, the “style according to Patthabi Jois” is identified with the name “Ashtanga Yoga”.

The fact that numerous other yoga styles in India see themselves in the tradition of the original Ashtanga Yoga does not count.

This “branding” is, of course, problematic for teachers and practitioners of these other yoga styles that consider themselves to also be under the roof of the aṣṭāṅgayoga of Patañjali.

Just as an example: my pranayama teacher, Sri O.P. Tiwari, who for decades has been the head of the Kaivalyadhama Institute in Puné, has published a book titled “Ashtanga Yoga”. The āsana practice that he describes in this book has nothing to do with the style taught by Patthabi Jois. Sri O.P. Tiwari is quite critical of that particular style. So for him, it must be difficult to accept that the name Ashtanga Yoga is now mainly associated with that style.

Jois Yoga instead of Ashtanga Yoga?

At one of his workshops on pranayama, Sri O.P. Tiwari told us that he met Patthabi Jois’s grandson, Sharath, at a yoga symposium. He suggested to Sharath that he could resolve the “name issue” constructively by renaming the style developed by Patthabi Jois as “Jois Yoga”. You will not be surprised to hear that Sharath answered that he could not do this.

This is obvious in light of thousands of shala worldwide who teach this „Ashtanga Yoga“, including my own.

Of course, ”we“ Ashtanga teachers – well, how shall I put it – we can live quite well with the double entendre of the term „Ashtanga“.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very fond of this yoga style and convinced of its benefits. Otherwise, I would not be practicing and teaching it. I just strongly doubt that this particular yoga style is more helpful for spiritual development than other styles. The probability of reaching enlightenment through Ashtanga Yoga is, in my opinion, as high – sorry, as small – as with all the other yoga styles.

Practice Ashtanga Yoga in the tradition of aṣṭāṅgayoga

Does all of this bear any significance for your practice?

Only if you believe that you are practicing a unique, „holy“ yoga that will automatically lead you to spiritual heights. Should you believe this, you are in for a disappointment. Fortunately, this is not a belief held by many. Nor will the majority of Ashtanga practitioners have enlightenment as their primary goal in the first place.

Practiced regularly and mindfully, Ashtanga Yoga can bring a load of benefits for your physical and mental well-being. That then will motivate you to practice regularly – not the hope due to some abbreviated branding.

Last but not least: Ashtanga Yoga may well allow you to feel what movement meditation means.

Should you experience this meditative state for a more extended period, you may also be able to integrate it more into your daily life. Then the circle will be complete: you will be practicing yoga in the sense of the aṣṭāṅgayoga of Patañjali.

At that point, nomen can be omen.

No matter where you are on your yoga path with whatever your practice is named:

Enjoy it!

 

 

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