The Ashtanga Yoga System
In talking about Guruji last month, I feel what would be most important to him is that we continue to practice yoga and to preserve the system to which he dedicated is life, that of Ashtanga yoga. So in your practices and/or teachings please honor the method, of course all our bodies are different so the poses will fit us all differently–and we may need to modify a pose to make it safe for our body, but honor the framework of the practice, and remember it is about the internal work, the bandhas, drishti, breathing, and vinyasa.
The ashtanga method is not an easy or short practice. Funny though, we think it is a time consuming practice, the ashtanga method was made for the householder (instead of the renunciate). A renunciate can spend 10 or more hours per day practicing each limb of the eight limbs; a householder has duties to perform and therefore only can spend about 1-2 hours per day in yoga practice. Hence the ashtanga system which helps us practice the eight limbs simultaneously instead of sequentially from the yamas to samadhi; while on our mats we are practicing ahimsa by not hurting ourselves, santosha (contentment) by being content with our practice and our body, saucha (purtiy) using the practice to keep our body “clean” of disease and mind clear of limiting thoughts, tapas-the discipline to do our practice even when we don’t feel like it, svadhayaya (Self study), ishvara pranidhana or surrender to the practice, asana (the third limb), pranayama-the breathing, pratayahara- working to withdrawal our senses and turn inward while practicing, dharana or concentration-working to control the mind during practice which leads to, meditation (dhyana the 7th limb), and the final limb “samadhi” if we are lucky enough to experience a blip bliss during rest . . . all eight limbs practiced together in the ashtanga system.
The ashtanga practice is considered one of the hardest forms of yoga (by those who don’t understand it!); many teachers change the practice to try to make it acceptable to their classes; while I am all for individualizing the practice (as this is important), I think we need to do this while honoring the framework of the practice–meaning do not rearrange or skip postures. Each posture has a specific benefit; for years I skipped Janu Sirsasana C in my practice because I did not like the posture, now that I understand the posture from the inside out I understand the importance of the posture–and ironically Janu Sirsasana C is especially good for women! When we are able to perform the posture with our heel pressing into our lower abdomen we are pressing on the nadi (nerve) to the pancreas which helps control the release of insulin thus avoiding diabetes, for women this nerve is near the navel, for men it is near the perineum. If you are new to ashtanga yoga, twisting your foot to get your heel to press in below your navel may strain your knee, so you might have to work with the twisting aspect of the leg and knee for some months (or years) before you can safely enter the posture, this is okay, consistent practice over a long period of time will allow your hip, knee, and/or ankle the flexibility it needs to get in correct position. Don’t skip the posture or change it! Do it to the best of your ability intelligently (safely) and the fruits of your efforts will reward you.
In the ashtanga system:
- We start with Sun Salutes which warm up the body (heat in the body is important for the removal of toxins and to allow the tissues in the body to soften and become pliable).
- We move into Standing poses which mostly work on the external body, the hips and hamstrings etc, helping to further prepare our musculoskeletal system to be able to work deeper when we get to the seated poses.
- Seated poses are where the real work is done, seated poses are about detoxifying our organs and nervous system. Strong breathing and bandhas aid in this process and are the important inner workings of the practice.
- The closing sequence where we invert, the inversions help to purify our blood, preserve our life, and balance our endocrine system. After time in the practice the inversions also become very relaxing, resetting our bodies to a pleasant homeostasis after the work of the practice.
Pattabhi Jois says “The Surya Namaskar and asanas should be practiced in the correct sequence and follow the method of vinyasa. If they do not, or the movement of exhale and inhale is neglected, no part of the body will become strong, the nadis will not be purified, and, owing to the resulting imbalance, the body, sense organs, mind, and intellect will not develop. They may even come to be further imbalanced. From Yoga Mala page 42
So I take from that paragraph the order of asanas is for balance in the body. Changing the order or omitting poses may even unbalance the body.
I have heard David Williams describe it as a combination lock, the poses are sequenced to work through our body in a specific order; be it from chakras to nadis to organs and lymph to the endocrine system; the ashtanga yoga is a scientific method to clean the body and mind of toxins so that one may do their dharma to the best of their abilities.
Repetition and the ashtanga practice
Repetition does not entertain, it teaches. I have heard many complaints and excuses about the repetition of doing the same sequence day in and day our for years. It is this repetition that allows us to move off just the physical plane in our practice. When you do anything long enough you get good at it, so as you do the physical postures day in and day out your body begins to understand what to do, this allows you to focus more on your breathing and bandhas putting more yoga into your yoga. Needing to “mix up” your practice keeps you on a very shallow plane, you do not get to work deeply with the practice. Also when you do the same pose over many years, the pose may not change, but YOU change. And you notice it and feel the change in your body and mind over the years.
Ashtanga yoga has 5 series in all, so don’t worry about doing primary everyday for the rest of your life . . . You should spend the first 6 months to one year doing only primary series. After that time, if you are practicing daily and consistently you will want to begin to learn the second series of Ashtanga yoga. Primary series is where we detoxify and align the body, primary series is called yoga chikitsa which means yoga therapy. We do a lot of forward bending in primary (with our heel in funky places) to help to wring out stale blood and toxins from the organs. Too long in forward bending without the counterbalance of back bending will leave our backs weak and overstretched. Second series begins with a series of back bends, strengthening our back and improving our posture. Then we move into working our leg(s) behind our head which is actually just a deeper forward bend. Putting our legs behind our head improves blood flow to the heart and lungs protecting us from heart disease. Also while back bending we are stretching the front of the spine getting fresh blood and nutrients to the front spine, while putting our legs behind our head we are getting a deep stretch of the back vertebrae, thus stretching the spine both ways, this is very good for the nerves and our nervous system. Second series is called nadi shodhana which means nerve cleansing. After 5-6 years of practicing primary and second series daily and consistently our body and nervous system are getting clean and flexible, now it is time to give the body some strength. Third series is known as the advanced series (there are two advanced series, third and fourth), here is where we make our body strong. The advanced asana have a lot of arm balances and strength work along with some deeper work into the joints. Third and fourth series is known as sthira bhaga, meaning steady strength. And the final series, the Rishi Series, Rishi means ‘one who knows’. By the time you get to the Rishi series you have been practicing Ashtanga Yoga 20-30 years and will be in your 60’s. You have the knowledge of the practice and you know your body now from many years of yoga practice; you will know what asanas your body and mind need, you choose 10 (one of them is always sirsasanaheadstand) and you hold each pose for 50 breaths.
And then eventually all this will fall away, as we get into our 70s and 80s we will no longer need asana but will move energy in our body with breath and chanting 😉
So clearly you can see Ashtanga Yoga is a lifetime practice!
- Primary Series = Yoga Chikitsa or yoga therapy. Here is where we detoxify and align. We become healthy in body.
- Intermediate or Second series = Nadi Shodhana or nerve cleansing. We clear up our nervous system becoming healthy in our minds.
- Third and Fourth series = Sthira Bhaga or steady strength, we are ready to give our body “gumption”! or strength.
- Rishi Series – now we know what we need for our body and mind.
Vinyasa is the way to go
So jump on back and feel the flow
Upward dog and downward too
pick yourself up and jump on through
The Ashtanga method was one of the first methods to practice vinyasa. When you break down the word vinyasa; Nyasa which means “to place”, and the prefix Vi translates as “in a special way”. Thus vinyasa means to place in a special way. Most directly it means to place in a special way with your breath. Vinyasa is to line you up with your breath. Most people think of vinyasa as just the connecting movements between poses, the chaturanga (push up position), up dog, down dog. And yes that is vinyasa, but that is not the only vinyasa. In the Ashtanga method every single pose has a vinyasa count, for example in trikonasana the vinyasa count:
- the first vinyasa is to step open to the right,
- the 2nd vinyasa is to catch the toe and look to your thumb and breath 5 times,
- the third vinyasa is to come up and turn your feet,
- the 4th vinyasa is to hold the pose on your left side,
- the 5th vinyasa is samasthitih.
This method trains us to move with our breath and remove fidgets and extra “mind stuff”. You breathe and move with the vinyasa counts.
Still why then all the chaturangas/updogs/downdogs between the poses, this does make the practice more challenging. There is a reason though (as I’ve learned with every little aspect of the ashtanga practice!),
- first being the build up of heat in the body. It is the heat that aids in the removal of toxins from the body.
- also these vinyasas give us a continuity via the breath and from posture to posture; we are not just switching from one posture to another but ebbing and flowing linking our postures and our breath
- they build strength and endurance in our body
- the up dog and down dog give a counter pose, especially in the primary series where we do a lot of forward bending.
The method of vinyasa is an important part of the Ashtanga practice, maybe even the heart of it (vinyasa includes the breath). Pattabhi Jois likes to quote the sage Vamana who says:
‘Oh Yogi don’t do asana without vinyasa’ (in Sanskrit: “Vina vinyasa yogena asanadin na karayet”)
Why we do what we do . . .
In the Ashtanga sequence, each posture either counter balances from the previous – and/or prepares for successive – postures, in researching the benefits of the asanas the sequences just makes sense, for example in Primary Series:
- purvattanasana is a counter balance to paschimattanasana
- Janu Sirsasana A prepares for Janu B and C
- marichyasana A prepares you for marichyasana B, and marichyasana C prepares you for marichyasana D
- Also in the marichyasana series our left leg goes into half lotus first so we press on the ascending colon then our right heel presses on the descending colon. You would not want to do that one backwards . . . as you will end up talking shit all day . . .
- Bhujapidasana warms you up for the intensity of kurmasana and supta kurmasana
- In Kurmasana our right leg crosses overtop of the left, this is for two reasons; first it helps matter move through the body in the order of digestion, and two it leaves more space on the left side of the body for the heart.
- Right leg in lotus first because then the heels press into the spleen and liver, left leg first is of no use at all . . .
- upavistha konasana is a counter stretch to baddha konasana
- Utkatasana and the warrior poses are the most recent additions to the practice, they were added to accommodate all the sedentary office jobs people are now doing
- backbending at the end is the climax of the practice; not part of the closing series
In Second Series:
- the backbends done prone strengthen your back and bring heat to muscles to prepare your spine to go deeper for the backbends done on your knees
- bakasana is a counter stretch to the backbending
- The spinal twists is a buffer between the back bending and the deep forward bending required for leg behind your head postures
- eka pada prepares you for dwi pada
- yogi nidrasana prepares you for tittibhasana
- pincha mayurasana prepares you for karanadavasana
Also there are many other little beneficial nuances throughout the practice that i have learned over the years; for example there is a reason when I use the cue “head to knee” in some poses and “chin to shin” in others. When we are forward bending with our leg in a half lotus position we want to use the chin to shin position as that takes us deeper into the stretch getting our heel deeper in our abdomen meaning deeper detoxing. On the the poses where we use head to knee, it is about creating a maha mudra (great seal), mudras are positions of our body that influence the movement of energy, so when forward bending and we have our head to our knee, our hands to our feet, while lifting mula bandha and breathing deeply we are in a great position to move energy positively in our body.
Also contrary to other forms of yoga there are very few poses in the Ashtanga systems where we pop our ribs and tailbone out. This is an Iyengar practice of constantly over extending the spine and will lead to pain in the back and hips if done in the Ashtanga practice. This popping of the ribs pulls you out of your bandhas, it also tips the pelvis forward creating too much of an arch in the lower back and tipping all the abdominal organs outward, pushing them out of place and making our abdomen look bigger! The rib popping and lifting the tailbone while forward bending also puts you at a higher risk for pulling a hamstring.
In the Ashtanga practice we keep our ribs and lower abdomen pulled in connecting us with our inner energies and bandhas (and tucking all our abdominal organs into place), pelvis in neutral alignment and heart lifted. Working the opposing actions of keeping the ribs and lower abdomen pulled in while lifting the heart and breathing deeply is uniting opposing energies, in other words it is putting more yoga into your yoga.
Learning this practice Mysore style is really the best way to learn. You are given only one new posture at a time, in this way it is easier to accommodate a posture to each individual. And as your strength and stamina develop your practice gets longer, where as it the West we tend to like to get many new postures at once as in a led class; however the patience of learning one new posture at a time is part of the practice of yoga.
This practice is intended to be a daily practice; though it may take time to build up to a six day per week practice (and no practice on new moon or full moon days), when you do you will truly reap the benefits of the Ashtanga yoga system.
Many years of practicing and teaching this method have led me to trust it. I have seen it transform my life and that of many others.