Ashtanga Yoga Q&A with Tim Miller
Yoga International emailed questions to three top Ashtanga Yoga teachers—David Swenson, Richard Freeman, and Tim Miller. In this Q&A, Tim Miller gives us his clear, firsthand view of Pattabhi Jois’s philosophy, practices, and teaching style, and the connection of the practices to Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga (8 limbs of yoga) in the Yoga Sutra. He also comments on how yoga has changed in the modern world and how it must support the other parts of our life.
Ashtanga yoga in the West has come to mean a set of hatha yoga sequences taught by Pattabhi Jois. What were his main teachings and legacy?
Pattabhi Jois always claimed that he taught exactly as his teacher, Krishnamacharya, taught him. Based on my experience of being his student for 30 years, I can attest to the fact that, over those 30 years, there were some new asanas added and some sequences rearranged. If anyone ever questioned him about the changes he would say, “Now is correct.” Guruji was a combination of yogi, scholar, and scientist—he called his school the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. He knew all of the important yogic texts and incorporated these teachings as he refined the system taught to him by Krishnamacharya. Pattabhi Jois practiced and taught this system for 70 years, making little changes here and there.
Pattabhi Jois practiced and taught this system for 70 years, making little changes here and there.
Eventually there were six asana sequences—primary, intermediate, and four advanced series. The Primary Series is called Yoga Chikitsa—yoga therapy. It is designed to detoxify and heal the body, particularly the gastro-intestinal system, and to build strength and restore the natural range of motion to the joints of the body. The Intermediate Series, or Nadi Shodhana, works at a deeper level to open the energy pathways of the subtle body to increase the flow of prana. The Advanced Sequences, collectively known as Sthira Bhaga, stabilize this awakened energy and further strengthen the body and mind. The different asana sequences give us a very sophisticated and progressive method of cleaning, opening, and strengthening the body, and of steadying the mind and refining our awareness.
One of the great gifts that Pattabhi Jois gave us is the Mysore-style class, where students of all levels can practice in the same room at the level appropriate for them, and each of them can receive individualized assistance from the teacher. He also showed us how to teach guided classes with the traditional Sanskrit vinyasa count and a very specific pacing. Pattabhi Jois’s teachings have now spread throughout the world—thousands of students are now practicing Ashtanga Yoga or some derivative of it.
From my perspective, Guruji’s teachings embody Patanjali’s recipe for a successful sadhana.
From my perspective, Guruji’s teachings embody Patanjali’s recipe for a successful sadhana: “Tapah svadhyaya Isvara pranidhanani kriya yogah.” (Purification, self-study, and devotion to God are the foundation of yoga practice.)
What are the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga? Do you have a favorite limb, and what is the main limb your students overlook?
Guruji used to say “Ashtanga yoga is Patanjali yoga,” meaning that the methodology he taught is firmly grounded in the philosophical concepts presented by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra. He also said, “The first five limbs of ashtanga yoga are very difficult, but the last three are very easy.” The first five limbs of ashtanga yoga—yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara—are called the external limbs of yoga, meaning that they require some kind of external practice. The yamas are guidelines for our conduct as a social being—don’t harm, tell the truth, don’t steal, practice self-restraint, and don’t be greedy. Niyamas give us the key to cultivating a healthy relationship with our self—practice purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-inquiry, and devotion to God. Asana helps us to cultivate a loving and nurturing relationship with our body, and pranayama to do the same thing with our breath.
Pratyahara is the bridge between the external and internal limbs of yoga. When we learn to control our sense organs and direct them inward instead of always outward, then we gain the ability to hold our mind in one place, dharana. Once we can still and focus the mind, we are able to do dhyana, meditation. As our meditation deepens, ultimately it becomes samadhi, or “perfect meditation,” the state of oneness.
How can students apply Ashtanga Yoga to their daily lives, and how can they keep Pattabhi Jois’s legacy alive in the Western world?
Prior to the 20th century, yoga was something that was practiced primarily by monks and sadhus, individuals who had formally renounced the material world so they could dedicate themselves to their sadhana, and almost exclusively by men. The idea was that if you got married your wife would want stuff and you’d have to get a job to provide for her. Then you’d start having children and have to work even harder to provide for your growing family. Soon, you wouldn’t have the time or energy to devote to your sadhana.
This all changed in the 20th century when Krishnamacharya’s teacher, Sri Ram Mohan Brahmachari, encouraged him to get married and teach yoga to householders, including women. Guruji said that in modern times the path of renunciation is only appropriate for a small percentage of individuals and that, for the rest of us, the life of the householder is the correct path. A householder has many responsibilities, including supporting one’s family financially, but also spending time with one’s spouse and children and providing them with emotional support. In this modern model of a yogi, one does not have great amounts of time to devote to sadhana.
Pattabhi Jois was very clear that one’s yoga practice is not meant to consume one’s life, but rather to support all the other facets of life.
Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois developed a concentrated approach to practice intended to give maximum benefit for the time invested, whether it be one, two, or three hours daily. For a householder, with all the stress and responsibility that entails, one’s daily practice is crucial for keeping the body strong and healthy, and for maintaining peace of mind and heart. Pattabhi Jois was very clear that one’s yoga practice is not meant to consume one’s life, but rather to support all the other facets of life.
What is the importance of breath?
Breath is the foundation of the Ashtanga practice. Like life itself, the practice begins with an inhalation and concludes with an exhalation. One of the great contributions Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois made to the devolopment of yoga is the emphasis on vinyasa, the integration of breath and movement. Guruji used to quote the Yoga Korunta: “Vina vinyasa yogena asanadin ne karaye.” (Without vinyasa, o yogi, don’t do asana.) In the practice of vinyasa, breath is the integrating link between the body and mind. Breath naturally initiates movement and also gives a shape and direction to it.
With the great emphasis on breath in the Ashtanga approach to asana practice, it becomes the perfect foundation for the subsequent practice of pranayama.
The Ashtanga practice utilizes ujjayi breathing and vinyasa to stay conscious and connected to each breath. Ujjayi gives an audio component to breath while vinyasa provides a kind of choreography. Staying connected to each inhalation and exhalation calms the mind and also augments the energizing, heating, and purifying qualities of the breath. With the great emphasis on breath in the Ashtanga approach to asana practice, it becomes the perfect foundation for the subsequent practice of pranayama. In pranayama practice the breath is taken to a more internal level, which promotes the cultivation of pratyahara.
We have heard about the annual Ashtanga Yoga Confluence led by the top Ashtanga teachers. What can people expect at the Confluence? Why is it so important to gather as a community annually?
The Ashtanga Yoga Confluence is intended to celebrate and disseminate the teaching of K. Pattabhi Jois. All of the presenters at the Confluence studied with Guruji over many years, and each received a slightly different transmission of his method. As a result, the participants at the confluence get slightly different perspectives on the same practice from the different teachers. What we hope to communicate is an appreciation of Pattabhi Jois as a brilliant and passionate teacher, and a deeper understanding and love for the practice that he devoted his life to sharing with all of us.
Photo by Michelle Haymoz