The Art of Ashtanga

Paramguru Sharath Jois explains why there are no short-cuts in ashtanga and what it takes to practise and teach the Mysore-style method.

I moved to Mysore with my partner four years ago to study ashtanga yoga at its source. Practitioners from across the world flock to Mysore to study ashtanga, a form of yoga that was made popular by Yogacharya Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, and his students.

The current lineage-holder of ashtanga, Paramguru Sharath Jois, conducted a two-week Led Primary workshop in Mysore at the Sharath Jois Yoga Centre. I was fortunate to be part of this workshop and delighted when Sharathji agreed to let SanatãnaYoga document his one-hour talk after every class. Sharathji shared advice and knowledge about practising ashtanga, and what it means to be a yogi. Here are his teachings.

Led Primary class at the Sharath Jois Yoga Centre. December 2019.

Yoga is in India’s DNA

Sharathji: I’m glad to see so many Indian students. Yoga came from India. When you practise yoga in India, the experience is always deeper. So many rishis have done tapasya in India and attained moksha. When you practise here, you can experience those energies. I have so many students who come from all over the world and they always keep coming back because they know what they experience here is different. Even if you go to North India, to our great rivers, Ganga, Saraswati… these are places of high energy. They are like this because so many rishis have meditated there. That energy is contained there.

The Purpose of Practising the Yamas and Niyamas

Sharathji: You should practise yoga with one purpose — to remove the ashudhis of the body and mind. Ashudhis means impurities. When we do tapas and practise with dedication, we can attain jñā́na — true spiritual knowledge. In order to experience jñā́na, you have to practise the higher levels of yoga. This takes time. There are no short-cuts.

Led Primary class at the Sharath Jois Yoga Centre. December 2019.

After years of practising all the yamas and niyamas, you will start treating everything equally. You will react to happiness, sadness, gain, loss, victory, defeat, and all emotions with samatha (equanimity). Yoga makes you realise that all these emotions are the nature of life. When you realise this, you won’t get attached to any emotion. You will see everything equally. Your mind will always remain stable. This state of mind is the highest state of yoga. You have to practise all the yamas and niyamas to achieve this state of mind.  Then you develop yogalakshan — the qualities of a yogi.

A stable mind will help you take the correct action in all situations. Yoga brings this stability to the mind. Your thought process becomes stronger and fluctuations stop. But for this to happen, you have to change your lifestyle to suit the practice. You have to become completely dedicated to the practice. You have to experience the practice. It’s the only way.

Finding the Right Guru

Sharathji: To find the right guru, you first have to be willing to be the right student. We all have different gurus in different stages of our life. Our mother is our primary guru. Sometimes students make many trips to Mysore, and each time they come back, they go to a new guru. They try a new yoga style. There is no dedication to one practice. Such students will go to 1,000 gurus, and they will always be confused.

Led Primary class at the Sharath Jois Yoga Centre. December 2019.

Don’t be confused. Practise one style and with one teacher. You have to develop a deep love for the practice and your teacher no matter how much your body bends or doesn’t bend. You go to one teacher to learn one asana, then to another teacher to learn another asana. If the body bends more in one class, that person becomes your guru. Then one day, in another asana, the body won’t bend so much, so again, you look for a new guru. This is a disaster for the practice. If you love your teacher, you will stay dedicated to one practice and trust your teacher. Ashtanga takes time. You have to be patient and dedicated to one teacher and one practice, then you will experience the benefits of your sādhana, and your guru’s teachings.

“To find the right guru, you first have to be willing to be the right student.”

When you touch your guru’s feet, do it with a pure heart, not as a habit. In India, we touch the feet of our elders and our gurus. It is an act of pure love and respect — you surrender to your guru’s teaching and the practice. Mutual respect between guru and shishya is essential for spiritual learning and development.

Teaching Ashtanga Yoga

Sharathji: Teaching ashtanga is more difficult than practising ashtanga. I practised every day for 18 years before I started teaching. You have to experience the practice before you teach it. Don’t come to Mysore with only the intention of getting authorised. Don’t practise with the intention of getting authorised. You have to practise with the intention of pure sādhana. It takes many years of dedicated study before you can teach. When you are ready, I will tell you.

Led Primary class at the Sharath Jois Yoga Centre. December 2019.

Just doing advanced asanas doesn’t make you a good teacher. You need other qualities also. Sometimes students ask me to authorise them just because they know how to do advanced asanas but that is not enough to teach ashtanga. Some people tell me things like they went to the Himalayas and heard a voice that told them they have to become ashtanga teachers, and that is why they come to Mysore. This is utter nonsense. Don’t learn ashtanga from people who hear voices in their heads. I don’t authorise such people.

Teaching ashtanga is more difficult than practising ashtanga.

To be an ashtanga teacher, you have to present the practice the right way. You have to have true love and respect for your sādhana and your guru’s teachings. Then you will learn the right way, and you will teach the right way. Ashtanga is not easy. Even after I authorise teachers, I tell them to assist at the Mysore shala, so that they can learn and experience how to teach the correct way. At the Mysore shala, we have students from all over the world. Teachers who assist at the Mysore shala learn how to teach students from different cultures with different minds and different bodies. Some students don’t even speak English. As a teacher, you should know how to teach everyone even if they don’t speak the same language. That is why the experience you gain at the Mysore shala is important. Without experience, you cannot teach.

Led Primary class at the Sharath Jois Yoga Centre. December 2019.

Don’t Be Asana-Obsessed

Sharathji: I see this in a lot of new students. There is a sense of hurry to get more asanas. Some students start practising twice-a-day or three times. This is not necessary. Too much asana is not good for you. When you practise ashtanga, the body and mind are being affected in many subtle ways. You have to give your organs time to experience the effects of the practice. When you practise too much, you can injure and tire yourself. Use asanas to nurture not to injure. Don’t get attached to asanas. Work hard to get better but don’t become obsessed and addicted. Too much thinking about asanas builds unnecessary ego.

Why are some students in such a hurry? You hurry through the postures without correct breathing. Breath is very important. Breathe through your nose. Never through the mouth. Nose is for breathing. Mouth is for eating. When you hurry through asanas, your breath becomes shallow. This is not correct. Breathe properly. When your practise ashtanga, you have to know in which movement to inhale and which movement to exhale. Keep your attention on your breath. With time, the body will learn how to move during inhalation and how to move during exhalation. Focus on tristana: posture, gaze and breath.

Led Primary class at the Sharath Jois Yoga Centre. December 2019.

Breath controls the mind. If your breath is disturbed, your mind is disturbed. You will get new postures when you learn to breathe the correct way.  Vinyasa regulates breath. We start the practice with surya namaskars to calm the mind and regulate the breath. The more you practise, the more you train your body, mind and breath. The body becomes light.

When you jump through and jump back, do it with crossed legs and activate the moola bandha. This helps to improve the strength of the bandha.

The Commercialisation of Yoga

It is not wrong to earn money by teaching yoga. A teacher has a family, a studio, bills to pay. Life is expensive. I have no problem with yoga teachers earning money. But, you have to be a good teacher. Present the practice correctly. I am against these one-month TTC courses. These short-cut methods to make instant yoga teachers is the commercialisation of the practice and a huge disaster. You cannot become an ashtanga teacher or any kind of teacher in one month. It’s not possible. Don’t cheat your students. It takes years of pure sādhana before you can teach.

Yoga isn’t just about asana. As a practitioner and teacher of yoga, you can create positivity in this world. Use your practice to improve yourself and make the world a better place.

For further information on Paramguru Sharath Jois’ teaching schedules, visit the Sharath Jois Yoga Centre

February 24, 2020
Photos Simon Meier

Leave a Reply