The phrase Ashtanga Yoga, meaning the eight limbs or guidelines of Yoga, originates from the Sutras of Patanjali, dated approximately 200BC. In my opinion any method of practice that is predominantly Asana based can only be considered complete if those eight limbs are included in some manner in each practitioner’s life.
Historically there is little evidence that links modern Vinyasa practice with the meditation practice that Patanjali was teaching. However all Yoga practice has the seed of divinity within it and all methods work towards the same goal, albeit at different rates and with different emphasis. The possibility exists for each and every Yoga method to encompass Patanjali’s Yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga Historical Validation
Most of the older tradition of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga method (some say stemming back to Patanjali) is unverifiable because there is little corroborating evidence in existence. One example that is cited as evidence is the possible legitimacy of the Yoga Korunta. As there is no documentation to back up the claims regarding this book, it must be considered as hearsay.
As far as I know there have been at least two cases, once from a fellow teacher and once in my hearing when Guruji was asked about the existence of the Yoga Korunta. In both cases he merely said that he had seen it in Krishnamacharya’s possession and that “it looked like ants had been eating it”. Apart from this scant evidence there is little else to back up its legitimacy. Claims that Pattabhi Jois helped Krishnamacharya translate the Yoga Korunta, or that he discovered it in Calcutta himself are a little like Chinese whispers: amusing yet false.
One interesting supposition that I came across on the internet was the possibility that Krishnamacharya, being the humble man that he was, did not want to claim the work as his own. Like some authors of the past he ascribes it to a personal pseudonym, Rishi Vamana, in order not to bring attention to himself. This is to say that the possibility exists that he is the author of the Yoga Korunta. After all Krishnamacharya was an adaptive and progressive Yoga teacher and he developed many variations to his teaching style over the years. Regardless whether this is true or whether the book is a validation of the ancient teachings now seems an irrelevant and profitless debate. Without evidence both arguments are empty.
It is almost impossible to track the history of the Vinyasa method because for generations the teacher/student relationship was based in the oral tradition. A student learned through the verbal guidance of the teacher and memorised all that was taught. Although it was the intent of the oral tradition to keep a continuous record of a particular method, it would still be modified and changed with each successive teacher. This can be considered both a benefit, due to its flexibility, and a shortcoming, as no written records were kept. A tradition should evolve and develop with each successive teacher and with each new generation. It should never remain completely static, otherwise it will not keep up with the changing needs and perspectives of different individuals, different societies and different generations. There is as much benefit in a tradition’s changeability as in its capacity to be traditional and consistent.
The altering of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga tradition has become particularly obvious now that it is being absorbed into Western culture. There are many offshoots of this moving system with variations known as Vinyasa Yoga, Power Yoga, Dynamic Yoga and other movement/breathing forms. A valid criticism of these multiple forms is that either they do not know, or are avoiding acknowledging the tradition from where they originate. It is my belief that all present Vinyasa forms stem from the Ashtanga tradition as taught by T. Krishnamacharya and K.P. Jois. So each offshoot system only exists because of the roots of the tradition, and the roots will wither and die if the plant does not expand and flower.
Whether we like it or not the Vinyasa Krama practice has changed since Krishnamacharya’s time. The tradition will keep changing despite any attempts to keep it the same. The Ashtanga Yoga method that we now practice is about 35 years old (as long as Pattabhi Jois has been teaching it to the West) and none its older history can be verified one way or another. If you doubt the authenticity of this statement look at the Vinyasa practiced by Mr. Iyengar as he was taught by Shri T. Kishnamacharya (this is a possibility if you can acquire a copy of the old B&W film footage of these two gentlemen). This film footage varies quite remarkably from the Vinyasa now taught by Guruji.
There is little doubt that the “Eight Limbs” method of Yoga that Patanjali describes in his Sutras concerns meditation rather than Asana or Pranayama techniques. Patanjali is describing Raja Yoga; mind Yoga, rather than Hatha Yoga; physical Yoga. Also, his book is an insightful (albeit intellectual) summary rather than a how-to-practice-meditation manual.
Patanjali’s Sutras describe the function, disfunction and the transcendance of mind through the discipline of meditation. At no time does he discuss Asana practice or Pranayama practice. It is only the translators of his Sutras who do this, often involving a huge leap of faith from 'observing the seat' and 'observing the breath' to include multiple Asana and Pranayama techniques. This would seem to be an attempt to validate the translator’s particular method and inclination. Sitting and observing is simple yet it is often ignored by Asana practitioners who want to “do more”. These simple Sutras of Patanjali are often ascribed greater meaning by contemporary Asana teachers than Patanjali most likely intended.
Personally I believe that although Krishnamacharya often referred to Yoga practice as Patanjali’s Yoga, he did so because he was one of the few individuals who incorporated a truly holistic approach to practice. He included many diverse aspects in his teachings that no other teacher has since been able to replicate. He included therapeutic aspects for each individual, observing the student’s way of life, emotional make-up and particular constitution to determine a complete individual Yoga program.
There is no modern direct lineage stemming from Patanjali. Yet some teachers claim that the method they follow exclusively stems from Patanjali’s Yoga, or is in fact the same as Patanjali was teaching. As there is no historical evidence to back these claims and there is no evidence in the Sutras themselves to support it, any statement of this sort should be considered a fantasy and most likely just an attempt to validate that particular style. As I understand it, the only important consideration is that if a method works for you, either as a teacher or as a student, that is validation enough.
Some scholars of meditation view Patanjali as merely an advanced meditator who was also a professional scholar and grammarian. The implication is that he had the ability and means to write a book, but was otherwise a normal human being. This may seem sacrilege to some Ashtanga traditionalists and other Yoga purists but like many historical figures Patanjali has often been ascribed mythological powers beyond the actuality of his historical placement. It is also acknowledged that Patanjali is the compiler of these Sutras rather than the author. He is handing it down like his teacher did before him and was simply the first to put it down on paper.
K.P. Jois is not the first to call a physical Yoga method after the Ashtanga eight limbs that Patanjali described. After all his teacher, Shr T. Krishnamacharya was known to call the Yoga he taught “Patanjali’s Yoga”. In my opinion, we need to be a little discriminating of the history without making huge leaps in judgment. However the vital link of Yoga practice to divinity should be embraced. One condition does not presuppose the other. In other words, all Yoga practice is divine, but no Yoga practice can be historically linked to Patanjali’s method. After all, no one really knows what that is. If we can include the divinity of a Yoga philosophy such as Patanjali’s Sutras with the divinity of a practical method, we now have a complete system.