Bowing to Ashtanga

A snack from Gujarat

Oddly,when I traveled the world visiting friends and family, meditating and studying/teaching yoga for a year, living out of my two bags, moving cities every few days, weeks or months, eating scores of new dishes, and making friends nearly every day, I never really felt “unstable” or “out of it.”   OK, so when I got those few tummy bugs, I wasn’t all there by any means.  And I do remember days when I longed for a comfortable *new* bed, or a long hot bath, with candles, aromatic oils and tunes in the background (actually, I kinda wish I could do that now!).

Compare that experience to a mere ten days back home in Hawaii (which was predictably splendid!) … then returning to the wintery joy of New York.  Whilst in Hawaii there were a good five or six times when I felt like I was having an out of body experience, when I actively had to remind myself where I was and what I was doing to consciously engage in the situation – to be present.  Upon return, I’ve had a few important responsibilities to see to, notably a writing test for my Masters applications, and a planning meeting with the collective I’m a part of.

Welcome back to the NYC...
Welcome back to the NYC…

While these were grounding activities, in the contemplative moments when I’ve been able to observe how my transition is going, I’d been feeling alien (I did just visit another planet, to be fair!), a bit detached somehow.

This all makes sense considering the intense change of pace, atmosphere – well, everything really! – from NY to HI to NY.  It makes even more sense considering the last few months I’ve been so engrossed in MA applications I’ve neglected my yoga practice in a most unfortunate way.  This little petri dish is feeling a hint more reactionary, emotional and forgetful than usual.  (Yup, all those studies are definitely accurate!)

So, when I’m feeling off I tend to turn to the most reliable, readily available, side-effect free (free, period) medicine I know: yoga.

Primary Series
Primary Series

My practice of choice today was Ashtanga Vinyasa, an interpretation of Hatha Yoga brought to the West by Sri K Pattabhi Jois, student of Krishnamacharya, in the 1930’s.  In this system there are six series of asanas, to be performed in set order.  This practice is not to be confused with Ashtanga Yoga, aka Raja Yoga, aka Royal Yoga, which is based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (in the absence of exact archaeological evidence pinpointing the date of the Sutra’s writing, scholarly conjecture puts the texts somewhere in the range of 100 BCE and 500 CE).

In the grand mural of yogic history, Ashtanga Vinyasa appears in a modern context; in the rather humble outline of my own history with yoga, it appears at quite an early stage.

My first Ashtanga teacher in 2001 was an elf-like man who instructed at a gym I attended.  He moved like water and I wanted to understand how.

*Here’s Richard Freeman, one of America’s most prominent Ashtanga teachers.  I’ve had a few workshops with him, one on Mula Bandha, one on backbends – and both were prana-ful!  Check out the intro sequence, if nothing else, for pure grace of movement! This is an excerpt of the video I used today:


I practiced Ashtanga in Germany for a few months, and then in Tucson with Lisa Schrempp, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the honor of learning from.

Lisa in fish pose with Sri K Pattabhi Jois adjusting (his grandson in the background)
Lisa in fish pose with Sri K Pattabhi Jois adjusting (his grandson in the background)

Ashtanga, an exemplary modern practice fusing ancient philosophy and physical culture of the 1920’s and 30’s, is a beautifully sound practice.  The community of Ashtangis here in NY is massive, their passion for hardcore sweaty practice and global community service a force to be reckoned with (Ashtanga tends to attract type As ;o)).

I’m grateful for the  reliable structure of the practice, something not too common in most modern vinyasa offerings, which provides ample grounding for the wayward traveler.  And for that, I am certainly grateful today.

A (Very Brief) History of Ashtanga Vinyasa

The Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV (1884-1940) ruled Mysore at the time when Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was formulated.  He was a natural introvert, but is known for providing the most beloved period of rule in the state of Mysore by promoting a plethora of cultural innovations in science, technology, education, politics and health.  The Maharaja was known to champion Indian cultural and religious expression, as well as international innovations, most specially in the realm of physical culture.  He is the man responsible for assigning to Sri Krishnamacharya the work of popularizing Indian physical culture at a time when the physical culture of the West dominated most Indian gyms.


Krishnamacharya may be responsible for millions who practice yoga today, but during his stay in Mysore, he taught mainly members of the royal court, with the exception of a very few.  His most important students would prove to be Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (who would bring the sequence he learned from Krishnamacharya to the West, calling it “Ashtanga”), B.K.S. Iyengar (founder of Iyengar yoga, the brother-in-law of Krishnamacharya who nearly died of respiratory disease at a young age before coming to study yoga), and Indra Devi (a Russian actress and dancer,the first foreign woman to be accepted as a student of yoga in India).

In palace records, Krishnamacharya’s classes were consistently categorized as “physical culture.”  His shala was only meters away from the royal-assigned body builders and athletes, also in training under the Maharaja’s auspices.

Krishnamacharya was an incredibly adept scholar of yoga, holding degrees in all the six Vedic darśanas, and studied for years in the Tibetan Himalayas.  His approach to teaching changed with the times.  When Ashtanga Vinyasa developed, his approached merged with the “eclectic culture zeitgeist” of modern India in the 1920’s, and took on an extremely physical nature.  In his later years, in Chennai, he would develop a milder, more therapeutic method.

Pattabhi Jois was taught Ashtanga Vinyasa by Krishnamacharya when he was a teenager.  The philosophies and techniques were said to come from the Yoga Kurunta.  Or at least, that’s what Jois recalls.  The text does not seem to exist anywhere, and is even to said to have been eaten by ants.

(History section mostly paraphrased from Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body.  A brilliant book for any yogi on the path, historian on the hunt, or the culture curious!)

Wherever the practice came from, I’m grateful for its existence.  After two hours of an asana practice that feels familiar and rooted, I’m ready to take this week on with focus 🙂


***If you’re interested in exploring Ashtanga in India, Sri K Pattabhi Jois’ ashram still teaches the practice, led by family members since his recent passing. It’s a rather expensive investment relative to other Indian ashrams, but if this is a lineage you’re serious about, Mysore is the place to go :o)


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