What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Tania Kemou doing a Yoga pose in front of a temple in india

Ashtanga yoga is much more than the physical practice most people associate it with. It is a whole philosophical system, wisely combining principles of ethics, observances, physical practice and guidance to meditation.

The sage Patanjali is considered to be the father of Ashtanga Yoga as he compiled in his work “The Yoga Sutras” materials from older yoga traditions (notably the Vedas) in the form of 196 Sutras (aphorisms). The Yoga Sutras, written presumably before 400 CE, is one of the most important ancient texts of Yoga, dense and profound, a true treasure of knowledge and a precious guide to every practitioner.

Ashtanga Yoga, as presented by Patanjali in the Sutras comprises eight limbs (Ashtau = eight in Sanskrit), each one adding to the previous one, gradually leading the practitioner to Self realisation.

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

‍1 Yamas

Yamas are ethical rules and moral principles that individuals shall observe in their relationships and interactions with others.

Ahimsa - Non violence
Satya -Truthfulness
Asteya - Non stealing
Brahmacarya - Chastity
Aparigraha - Non possessiveness

2. Niyamas

Niyamas are behaviours and observances that shall rule the individual’s private life.

Sauca - Purity
Santosa - Contentment
Tapas - Discipline
Svadhyaya - Study of Self
Isvara Pranidhana - Offering our actions up to the "Divine"

3. Asana

Asanas are physical postures that are steady and comfortable. For the physical postures to qualify as asanas, the practitioner shall be able to hold them for a long period of time, with the body still and the mind focused. The goal of asana is to bring health to the body and remove pain so that the mind can stay still in meditation.

4. Pranayama

“Prana” in Sanskrit means both breath and life force. In the yoga philosophy, breath is considered to be a bridge, a union between body and mind. The term Pranayama is used to describe breathing exercises and techniques which are used to revitalise the body, calm the mind and build stamina.

5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara means withdrawing one’s attention from external sensory objects and bringing awareness and attention within, examining and observing the true Self, instead of being attached to and ruled by external objects and stimuli. From Pratyahara on, attention is slowly brought to the inner state, preparing the practitioner for deep meditation, whereas the first four limbs deal more with the body and external forms.

6. Dharana

Dharana means concentration, focus of one’s mind on one particular object, idea or state. The object of focus can be the breath, one particular object (eg stone), a mantra or an idea in the practitioner’s mind, whatever can keep the mind focused and make the fluctuations within it cease.

7. Dhyana

Dhyana means contemplation, reflection, deep meditation, uninterrupted flow of awareness. Dharana and Dhyana are interconnected, the first leading to the second.  Whatever the mind is focused on during Dharana, becomes an object of non-judgmental contemplation during Dhyana.

8. Samadhi

Samadhi means putting together, joining, union, whole. Union is also one of the meanings of Yoga in Sanskrit. During Samadhi, oneness with the object of meditation is achieved. The object of meditation, the person who meditates and the act of meditation become one. The meditator becomes so absorbed in the meditation that the mind loses its sense of identity and transcends dualities. Thus, oneness is achieved.

Ashtanga as a physical practice

Ashtanga as a style of physical yoga was codified in the 20th century by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois who is considered the founder of this style.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois established in 1948 the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, dedicated to the teaching of this practice.

The series

Pattabhi Jois organised the asanas taught to him by his own Guru T. Krishnamacharya, in six series. Each series comprises a fixed order of postures and one series leads to the next.

The six series are the following:

Primary series (Yoga Chikitsa or Yoga Therapy)
Intermediate series (Nadi Shodhana or Purification of the nervous system)
Advanced A or third series
Advanced B or fourth series
Advanced C or fifth series
Advanced D or sixth series

The teacher, whose role is key in Ashtanga Yoga, decides when the student is ready to pass from one asana to the next and also from one series to the next.

Mysore style

The term Mysore style, coming from the city Mysore in India where Ashtanga Yoga was first taught, refers to a teaching style where each student, having memorised the series, performs the asanas without being led by a teacher, in a room full of students called "Shala". The role of the teacher is to provide guidance, teach new postures, perform physical adjustments and help students build their own practice with time.


In Sanskrit Tri means “three” and sthana means “place”. The term Tristhana refers to the three main places of focus in Ashtanga Yoga: asana, breathing and gaze (drishti). Asana steadies the body, breathing steadies the nervous system and gaze steadies the mind.


Asana means a position in which we sit breathing. There’s a differentiation between “asana sthiti” (state of the asana) which is still and “vinyasa”. Vinyasa means moving with the breath, and it’s the way we enter and exit every pose. In Ashtanga Yoga every movement has a prescribed breath -inhale or exhale -and the practitioner learns the vinyasa together with the asanas: breath and movement become one. The more the practitioner masters the breathing/movement connection, the more the practice becomes fluid and effortless, a moving meditation.


The breathing must be slow and deep with the inhale and exhale done through the nose and producing sound. The sound is coming from the glottis, the opening of the vocal cords at the top of the larynx.


Gaze (“Drishti” in Sanskrit), or the place where we look at while performing an asana is very important in Ashtanga Yoga. As the eyes focus on a particular spot, the mind also slowly becomes focused and still.


The purpose of performing asana and moving with the breath in a fluid way is to burn away toxins by the internal heat that is generated. According to Pattabhi Jois, with the heat and the sweat the blood becomes hot and boils, toxins are removed and the body becomes healthy and vigorous.