Is Your Asana Practice Authentic?




“Nice asana sequences, but I wouldn’t want to practise that way every day.” When I once heard someone refer to the Primary and Intermediate Series of Ashtanga Yoga like that I was shocked. It sounded like heresy.


At the time, I’d been practising “Ashtanga” daily for over eight years. I’d been to Mysore numerous times, felt the shift from Pattabhi Jois’s more flexible style to Sharath’s strictness. I’d studied with numerous Western teachers as well, who varied widely in their degree of adherence to the dictates of Mysore. I learned a lot from all of them, the fundamentalists and rebels alike. I’d even studied with Manju Jois, Guruji’s s son, who has a delightful approach to tradition, genuine and renegade all at once.


But whether their adherence to “the Series” is loose or fixed, these teachers all teach the same sequences, the same Primary, Intermediate and Advanced Series of asanas that are known as “Ashtanga Yoga”. By the way, that name–it needs to be repeated because not everyone knows—is a real misnomer.


A quirk of history has set in stone, so it seems, an unfortunate confusion of terminology. Until the asana practice of that name became popular in the West, “ashtanga yoga” always meant the eight-limbs of classical yoga, as delineated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras around 200 CE. This traditional ashtanga yoga is the basis of ALL genuine yoga. Its eight limbs refer to the process by which pure consciousness becomes disentangled from the world of time and space, name and form. It is not even an asana practice at all.


However language has a will of its own. Language purists can rant and rave all they like about certain usages. But they cannot change the popular tide. Just as the man I heard once bemoaning the loss of the word “gay” (which used to conjure up the image of “a little girl running through a grassy meadow in the May sunshine”, said he), we in the yoga world need to accept that “ashtanga yoga” conjures up the image of a crowded room full of sweaty (mostly Western) practitioners going through their familiar paces.

Where did those sequences come from? Why do some people consider them so sacred?

First there was a lovely story. It has many, many variants, so I can only tell you the version as I first heard it. It went something like this:


.Pattabhi Jois learned the sequences from his guru, Krishnamacharya, the great master of modern yoga who was teacher to the royal family of Mysore. Krishnamacharya learned from his guru, a certain Ramamohana Brahmachari , whom he stayed with for seven years in the Himalayas. But the sequences came from an ancient manuscript, called the Yoga Korunta, which Krishnamacharya found in an Indian library, but which disappeared, unfortunately, eaten by ants in its entirety because it was written on banana leaves. No one living had ever seen it, not even Pattabhi Jois himself. But its existence assured all of us that our practice was thousands of years old.


Some years later came the historical research. A few intrepid Western scholars began to dig deeper. What they discovered shook the faith of many, myself included. Norman Sjorman in The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, and Mark Singleton in Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Posture Practice, proposed new theories, based on the evidence of detailed research into the archives of Mysore Palace as well as Cambridge University Library. British gymnastics, Indian martial arts, and Danish exercise routines all contributed to a complicated process of cross-fertilization that was going on between India and the West in the early years of the Twentieth Century. The Yoga Korunta probably never existed.


Krishnamacharya was certainly a great yogi and teacher, but most likely he created himself the sequences he taught Pattabhi Jois, adapting freely from various sources. And it is also true that Pattabhi Jois added his own modifications over the years.

Because I loved those sequences so much, I continued to practise ashtanga yoga for many years after reading those books. The power of my practice was not lessened by the thought that it was not really ancient after all. Yet something of the magic was definitely gone. The beautiful story was a myth, and it no longer seemed