Anyone who has ever taken the time to investigate what Ashtanga means will have learned that the word “Ashtanga” literally means “eight (ashtau) limbs (anga).” Confusingly, the word Ashtanga can refer to two things: the practice of physical postures beloved by students of Pattabhi Jois, and the practice of meditation techniques codified and preserved by the mysterious Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra. In fact, Pattabhi Jois, the late guru of Ashtanga Yoga, never made a distinction between the two, often claiming that “Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga” was the same as “Patanjala Yoga,” the yoga of Patanjali.
The irony is that the Yoga Sutra, a series of 195 terse, cryptic aphorisms (accompanied by commentaries to decrypt the sayings), is notably brief on its treatment of asana, the physical postures most familiar to Western yoga students. The text mentions only two requirements for an asana: steadiness (sthira) and comfort/ease (sukha). If you crack open a copy of the Yoga Sutra, you will not find a list of the Primary Series postures.
So where do the Ashtanga Series come from? The traditional story is that all four (later divided into six) series were recorded in a work called the Yoga Korunta, by Vamana. The story goes that Pattabhi Jois and his teacher, Krishamacharya, discovered the last remaining copy of this work in an old Calcutta library. The manuscript was so badly damaged, having been eaten by ants, that it no longer exists. How convenient, right?
One author has gone so far as to assert, with no supporting evidence, that the Yoga Sutra and the Yoga Korunta were bound together into one volume, hence the two traditions are actually one. (See Gregor Maehle, Ashtanga Yoga).
Broadening your vision to include other hatha yoga texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita, and others, one would be hard-pressed to find any descriptions, much less any sequences, that bear any resemblance to modern hatha yoga practice. In fact, it is not until the modern era that we begin to see various compendia on the physical postures. For most modern practitioners the most relevant and earliest books of postural yoga would be:
- Yoga Makaranda by T. Krishnamacharya (1934)
- Hatha Yoga by Theos Bernard (1943)
- The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnudevananda (1959)
- Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar (1966)
Further, the primary, if not sole, purpose of the practice of physical postures is to prepare the body to sit for meditation.
So it is understandable that modern yoga exegetes would look to the Yoga Sutra to serve as the veritable bible of modern-day yogis. After all, published books can legitimize a philosophy or a system of belief, for better or for worse. It is also fitting that the Yoga Sutra includes scripture study (svadhyaya, literally “study of the Self”) into its eight-limb path.
The problem is that there is very little consensus on how the Yoga Sutra should be interpreted and taught. In fact, most yoga teachers who reference the text use a dozen phrases which have entered the common parlance of the modern yoga community. The third book on supernatural powers is often discarded altogether. These phrases are mostly concerned with the equivalence of yoga with meditation and the cessation of thought fluctuations, and of the eight-limb path (especially its physical and respiratory elements). The phrases are lifted out of the context of the rest of the text, lifted out of the context of Indian religious, historical, and philosophical thought, and lifted out of any reliable teaching authority to guide a student’s interpretation of the text. In other words, the Sutra, as used in the modern yoga community, often provide a philosophical patina for a primarily physical practice.
I therefore believe that it is possible to practice yoga postures without any grounding in the philosophy of the Yoga Sutra or any other yoga text. That is, the yoga postures are physical exercises, nothing more and nothing less. Yoga postures will make you flexible, calm and strong, but they will not make you spiritual.
I would go further and state that it is useful, if not mandatory, for a student interested in deepening one’s spiritual life to investigate the tradition in which one grew up, rather than discarding one’s traditions without careful study.
I am open to correction on this point. I’ve found that the following two books have illuminated my own perception of the relationship between postural yoga and meditation yoga.