The origins of yoga are often unclear so I have tried to summarise a brief history of Ashtanga yoga and the key people and scriptures which form its development.
An overview of the origins of Ashtanga Yoga
Yoga originally originated from India over five thousand years ago. The term ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ which can be translated to the word yolk. In actual fact the term yoga can be loosely translated to mean ‘coming together’ and yoga can be viewed as a process of training and uniting the body, mind and spirit in order to still the mind, live in the present and create greater connection with oneself. This was summarised in Sanskrit with the words ‘Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodhah’, loosely translated to ‘yoga still’s the minds fluctuations’ or ‘yoga quiet’s the mind’.
Ashtanga yoga is the name given to a specific practice of yoga which uses eight tools to help practitioners achieve this unity, called the ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’. Traditional Ashtanga yoga practice was compiled by the sage Patañjali in the 2nd Century BCE. Very little is known about the sage Patañjali, although he is credited with writing texts on grammar, ayurveda, and on yoga. Patanjali wrote the book ‘Yoga Sutra’ which outlines the philosophical basis of Ashtanga yoga based on the existing techniques and knowledge he had learnt and collected during his life. It was within this book that Patanjali outlined the Eight Limbs of Yoga which can help practitioners achieve this calm mind.
The popular system of “Ashtanga Yoga” that is widely practiced today, traces its more recent origins back to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Pattabhi Jois was a student of Sri T. Krishnamacharya in 1927 at the age of 12. Over the next twenty-five years, he learned and mastered the practices passed on to him by his Guru. Pattabhi Jois wrote a book about Ashtanga practice between 1958-60 called ‘Yoga Mala’. “Mala” means garland, and refers to Ashtanga Yoga as the identical pearls of breath and movement, lined up along a garland. The book was first published in 1962 and published in English in 1999 by an American student of Pattabhi Jois.
While Pattabhi Jois focused on the practice of Ashtanga Yoga, another yoga master, BNS Lyengar, focused on developed and teachings of pranayama, mudra and meditation.
Sri K. Pattabhu Jois and BNS Lyengar were both taught by Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Sri T. Krishnamacharya taught many students and was the original master of traditional Ashtanga yoga, from which many other styles have originated. He originally travelled to the Himalayas in 1916 to learn and study yoga from Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari who orally taught him the important philosophical texts from the book ‘Yoga Korunta’. This book is believed to have contained the exact grouping of Ashtanga yoga asanas. Everything about vinyasa, bandha, dristhi, asana and all six series, as they should be taught to this day, are included in it. The “Yoga Korunta” thus underpins and forms the basis of the Asana Vinyasa Systems of Ashtanga Yoga.
‘Yoga Korunata’, the original yoga ‘bible’, is said to have been written by Vamana Rishi who brought Ashtanga yoga to mankind. Legend says that Vamana Rishi meditated to Vishnu to help him learn Ashtanga yoga. Vishu then taught the Ashtanga Yoga system to Vamana Rishi in the womb who, as legend says, refused to be born until he had finished his studies. The book itself was never preserved and some question its actual existence.
However the roots of the Vinyasa systems of Ashtanga Yoga can be found even earlier. It is believed that they date back to the first written document of mankind, the Vedas. There are four Vedas: the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda and the Atharva-Veda. Two of them include references to the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice, and in particular to the Vinyasa system. The first written Veda is the Rigveda, which traditionally is dated to 8000 BC. The Yajurveda is more recent, but still a very ancient text. In both, you will find explanations about movement and breathing, especially in Surya Namaskara, and the physical and spiritual effects are described in detail.
The important people to know:
Sage Patanjali – Documented the Yoga Sutra and the Eight Limbs of Ashtanaga. Wrote the Yoga Sutra in the 2nd Century BCE
Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari. – Taught Sri T. Krishnamacharya in 1916
Sri T. Krishnamacharya – The original teacher of Ashtanga yoga. Taught Pattabhi Jois and BNS Lyengar in c.1927
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois – Popularised the practice of modern ashtanga yoga. Wrote Yoga Mala.
BNS Lyengar – Focused on the development of pranayama, mudra and mediation
Vedas: The oldest form of Sanskrit literature; four books which include references to Ashtanga Vinyasa practice and breathing (written in 8000 BC)
Yoga Korunata: Supposedly the original yoga ‘bible’. Not preserved; its physical existence is unproven (supposedly written by Vamana Rishi)
Yoga Sutra: The most important book on classical yoga, outlining the philosophical basis of Ashtanga and the Eight Limbs of Yoga (written by Sage Patanjali between 400 BC and 200 AD)
Yoga Mala: Outlines the modern practice of Ashtanga yoga (written by Pattabhi Jois in 1958-60)