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The Logic of the Ashtanga Yoga Asana System

By Chris Guzik November 23, 2014


The Ashtanga Yoga asana system consists of six series, which are learned sequentially.  We begin with the primary series, also known as yoga chikitsa, or yoga purification.  The purpose of this series is to strengthen and purify the body in preparation for more advanced practices that follow.


The primary series is an example of true genius in asana sequencing.  From a physical perspective, each stage of the primary series is a vehicle to prepare for subsequent stages:  Surya namaskara warm up the body, engage the bandhas and the breath, develop strength, and initiate a rhythm for the flowing practice to come.  Standing postures develop stability and connection through the hips and legs into the earth.  Seated postures create awareness of the hip joints and work to prepare the back for the intense work that will come in back bending.  Closing postures prepare us for post-practice reentry, resetting and stabilizing the nervous activity that often surfaces during the intensity of the practice.


There is an ebb and flow in the intensity of the practice.  Surya namaskara provide a gradual but quick escalation of physical activity and at the same time focus and prepare the mind and nervous system for what is to come.  Standing postures further increase the intensity, which culminates in the balancing postures.  Seated postures initially seem to provide some relief but the intensity quickly ramps up again, escalating through intense forward folds and transitions which involve arm balances. We then find another seeming reprieve during reclined postures, only to arrive at the peak of the practice which comes in backbending.  Closing postures appear to put us on the downhill slope toward the end of the practice but once again we have the final burst of intensity in uttpluthi, where we have to lift ourselves up and hold for ten long breaths before finally taking rest.


Within each segment of the primary series, the sequencing of poses involves interleaved sets of poses and counterposes, which alternately strengthen and open various parts of the body.  For example, the deep forward bends of paschimattanasana, which lengthen the muscles along the back side of the body, are immediately followed by purvottanasana, which strongly engages the muscles of the back body and requires broadening and opening the front of the body.  The balancing postures of utthita hasta padagusthasana require strongly engaging the deep muscles of the hip joints to create stability, and are then immediately followed by ardha baddha padmottanasana, which requires opening and external rotation of the hip joints.  Part of the rationale behind this type of pose/counterpose sequencing is that muscles will stretch more readily after they have been working and are warmed up. As a result of engaging the muscles of the hip joints, the action of working to open the hip joints that follows is more effective and safer.  


Furthermore, the sequencing is structured in such a way that earlier postures in the series prepare us for the postures that come later.  For example, if a practitioner is not yet able to bind in marichyasana C, then working to bring the opposite shoulder past the thigh in parsvakonasana B acts as preparation for the seated twist. Another example is how the standing posture prasarita padottanasana A helps to prepare for bhuja pidasana through working to bring the shoulders behind the thighs in a wide-legged forward fold.  There is a wealth of preparatory work in the surya namaskara – so much so that even advanced practitioners continue to find nuances within the movements of the sun salutations that carry into subsequent stages of the sequences.


It is also the case that later postures can hinder progress toward the full expression of earlier postures that have not yet been realized.  For example, the core strengthening that takes place in navasana can actually make it more difficult to get into deep twists such as marichyasana C and marichyasana D, which come immediately prior to navasana.  A student who is working toward binding these seated twists, then, should not continue to navasana until they have developed the flexibility in the torso to twist deeply.


Students who practice the entire primary series but choose to modify poses throughout the sequence instead of working only up to the pose that is not yet fully realized, may find that progress is slower in realizing the full expressions of these poses, because the student is quite literally taking opposing actions which work against the ability to do these poses.  It is also the case that the conditioning of the body and mind which results from practicing earlier poses provides preparation for subsequent poses.  For this reason, students who attempt to force later poses when they have not correctly prepared through practice of earlier portions of the sequence, may find themselves at increased risk of injury.  This is a critical point that should not be underestimated: only the guidance of an experienced teacher, who has followed this process, can guide a student through this territory.  The subtle preparatory work and its impact to the future ability to move through the sequence is opaque to the student who has yet to experience it.  This is one reason why it is so important to give over control of your practice to your teacher, and to trust the process.


Many led primary classes are taught as instructional classes in which students are guided through the sequence, one pose at a time, with instruction on modifications and how to work in each pose as the sequence progresses.  Unfortunately, in a led class such as this, practitioners are unable to simply flow through the sequence in accordance with the traditional vinyasa count, in which each breath and transition fits as a specific step in the sequence.  When practicing this way, students can enter a state of focused concentration, which acts as a vehicle towards meditation during the practice, as opposed to a workshop style class where the practice is repeatedly punctuated by discussion.


When we understand how the facets described above interlace with one another to create a holistic practice, we begin to understand why the practice is traditionally taught in a group, self-practice setting.  In this format, teachers can provide individual students with the unique guidance they require to work at their own levels, up to the point where it becomes counterproductive to continue.  The teacher can monitor the students’ progress over a long period of time and will come to know each student’s degree of readiness for what comes next.  Students in this way prepare to participate in a led class which requires no instruction save the counting of the breaths, at which point the practice truly becomes one of moving meditation. 


When students complain about Ashtanga yoga being too rigid, too monotonous, or of being held back by a teacher, it is likely due to a misunderstanding of the method of transmission of the system. Instead, when students devote themselves to immersion within the framework of the system, trusting that incremental change will occur over time, ignoring the desire to control, and understanding the illusion of progress, they find where the real yoga happens.