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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 sacrilege to tinker with the order of asanas.

But I’m happy to say that after spending a few weeks studying with Srivatsa Ramaswami, another disciple of Krishnamacharya, much of that original magic has been restored. The story is still a myth: nothing I learned contradicted what research has revealed. But the age and origin of the asana sequences are beside the point. What really matters is that Krishnamacharya was indeed teaching “ashtanga yoga”, the classical yoga of Patanjali, and Ramaswami is carrying on that legacy.

This recent training in Vinyasa Krama with Srivatsa Ramaswami brought me full circle with the whole Krishnamacharya tradition. Ramaswami studied for three decades with Krishnamacharya and learned a very different way of sequencing asanas, more in line, interestingly, with the way my own practice has naturally evolved.

Ramaswami’s book, the Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga delineates the approach. But it takes experiencing the teaching directly, I believe, to really get it. At least it did for me. I’ve had the book for years, but not until I studied with Ramaswami did it come to life for me.

Ramaswami teaches exactly how he learned from Krishnamachaya, with no agenda other than transmitting accurately. Though many elements of his teaching recall the ashtanga practice of Pattabhi Jois, it is different too, a fact that underscores the point that Krishnamacharya taught in different ways to different people at different times of his life.

Here are some highlights: First of all, ujjayi breath is central to the asana practice. It is the distinguishing feature, much more important than any particular asana or sequence of asanas. Without ujjayi, the poses become merely exercises. With ujjayi, they are asana, third limb of traditional ashtanga yoga. Secondly, the pace is slower, with short savasanas interspersed into the practice (like in Sivananda Yoga). At the end of individual subgroups or whenever the breath becomes agitated, it is important to take rest. Also, pranayama and meditation belong to every practice session, and pranayama is taught to all, right from the beginning.

Ramaswami suggested that if you have one and a half hours to practise in a day, you should divide up your time as follows and in this order:

  • One half-hour of “vinyasa”. Vinyasa means the practice of poses synchronised with the breath, structured differently every day and held for only a few breaths.

  • One half -hour of “asana”. Asana refers to static poses. Only a few are practised in this way. They are: one leg balancing poses (choose one asana and hold for two and a half minutes each side) and Paschimottanasana, Sarvangasana and Sirsasana (hold for five to ten minutes each). If you do variations in the inversions, that belongs to the vinyasa section. Here it is all about stillness, with bandhas added as you can.

  • 15 minutes of pranayama, including bandhas and certain mudras (signifying pratyahara).

  • 15 minutes of silent meditation (dharana, dhyana, samadhi).

The vinyasa section organises asanas into groups and subgroups of poses, according to various themes (supine, prone, standing on one leg, etc.) Each group orders poses from basic to difficult. And trust me, all the most difficult poses you can imagine can be found in vinyasa karma. With each group, you go as far as you can, with an invitation to try the difficult ones to the best of your ability. No one is ever stopped or held back. Nor is anyone forced to do anything they find uncomfortable.

With over 700 poses included, no one is expected to do all of them in a day! But over the course of a week, you should methodically attempt all the groups, designing a practice session to suit your particular needs. However, every practice session should balance vinyasa practice with static asanas, pranayama, mudra and meditation.

Why? Because the understanding is that this is the practice of ashtanga yoga, in the original and classical sense of Patanjali. The eight limbs imply that asana prepares for pranayama, which leads to pratyahara, then meditation and samadhi. Eventually in your yoga session, you practice samadhi. This is what it is all about.

Ramaswami stressed over and over that Krishnamacharya taught traditional ashtanga yoga, as well as Vedic chanting and Indian philosophy. He was a scholar, well versed in all the sacred texts.

Actually, according to the story I heard, Pattabhi Jois decided to call his asana practice “ashtanga yoga” only when westerners started to come, so they would know it belonged to something bigger.

The “ashtanga” sequences had a spectacular appeal, which resonated well with western sensibility. Originally designed for the young boys of the royal family, they were performed before audiences of various dignitaries visiting Mysore Palace. The Maharaja wanted to promote traditional Indian culture, and Krishnamacharya was the palace teacher. Pattabhi Jois studied with him during this period, and later took over the teaching of the young boys himself.

Afterwards in Madras, Krishnamacharya taught people of all ages, including some with various diseases. Ramaswami studied with him during his years in Madras. From working with him for thirty years, he said his guru always taught differently to different people, according to their unique needs and time of life.

All that makes so much sense to me! It also answers the puzzling question that so many people pose: How come the various disciples of Krishnamacharya all teach in such different ways?

I came away from this course with Ramaswami renewed in my feeling of devotion to the tradition of Krishnamacharya in a way I had not felt in a long time. Even the antiquity of the practice felt restored. Though modern yoga practice does incorporate elements from various outside sources, asana, as a part of classical ashtanga yoga, is indeed ancient and can be found in numerous classical texts. Apart from the well-known Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Siva Samhita and the Gheranda Samhita, a vast literature in Tamil also exists, which describes the yoga tradition in a manner very similar to Patanjali.

Finally, it really does not matter which asanas you do. It is your intention and the quality of your breath that counts, as well as the time you devote to the higher limbs. As far as I am concerned, the argument between fixed sequences or asana groups, or even more absurdly over the authenticity of a particular sequence, is a non-issue. But that does not mean all yoga is equal.

Though we might never know exactly what the asana practices of ancient times looked like, we do know what they were for. Asana that does not belong to classical ashtanga yoga, that does not include pranayama and the higher limbs of meditation, is not real yoga.

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