The Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga

Again and again the beautiful practice of Ashtanga Yoga amazes me. Without fail the ingeniously structured sequence of postures leaves me feeling elated, balanced, strong, and clear-headed. Today I have reflected on some of the concepts and intuitions behind the way this practice is put together, and I have come up with some ideas as to how to adapt the practice when one is time-limited.

Surya Namaskara – the sun salutations

Traditionally in an early morning practice, the first set of postures of the Primary Series is dedicated to the greeting and veneration of the rising sun, honouring the provider of life and prana. In his booklet ‘Surya Namaskara’, Sri K Pattabhi Jois states that “the Surya Namaskara are of ancient origin and serve as the foundation stone upon which the science of yoga rests. They help gather the strength of the mind in one direction and aid in the attainment of mental focus….. The Surya Namaskara are believed to bestow lasting health and peace of mind upon the doer”.

On a physical level the mindful and intelligent movement of the body during an inhalation or exhalation, assists in stretching and lengthening our spine and limbs, from the very beginning of the series.

As we are facing the sun, the front of the body is regarded as the east, and the back as the west. This is reflected in the naming of pascimottanasana (pascima = west), the seated forward bend, where we stretch our back intensely, and purvottanasana (purva = east), the counter pose to follow, where we stretch the front of our body.

In this first short section of the sequence, three of the five possible directions the spine is capable of moving into are included: upside-down, forward, and backward.

The Surya Namaskara B are challenging in that several movements need to be synchronized with only one inhalation or one exhalation, thus cultivating a deep, even breath. Now you are well set up for the rest of the practice.

Suggested Practice for ~10-15 minutes

Should you be short of time one morning, just practicing the Surya Namaskara will not only give you a good stretch and wake you up, but more so will leave you with a feeling of wholeness & connectedness. Finish with some breathing in a seated position, and a couple of minutes lying down, resting. This should only take you 10 to 15 minutes.

Standing postures

Our practice consists of an extensive list of standing postures. The beauty of these asanas is that they are manageable also for the less limber and strong, or for those of us who in any way are restricted in our bodies. There are also plenty of options for each of the more challenging postures to make them easier, for everyone to benefit. We can easily get caught up in endless thought and obsession, so the standing postures will help ground us, creating a strong foundation not only physically, but also mentally.

Our balance will improve, and by strengthening our legs we learn to lessen the strain on our lower back. This also assists when moving into more complex postures, let alone the day-to-day tasks like e.g. picking up your child, or any heavy load etc.

Not immediately apparent, the standing postures effectively ’open our hips‘ as they are both stretched and strengthened.

Suggested practice for ~45 minutes

If restricted in time, practice the Surya Namaskara and the standing postures, followed by backbends and a forward bend as a counter. Then lie with the legs up the wall or practice shoulderstand, halasana – the plough, and matsyasana – the fish. Finish with breathing and a brief rest, lying down. This way you can start your day feeling refreshed and present.

Seated postures

An extensive number of seated forward bends promotes the feeling of contentment and calm. Half vinyasas in between postures ensure we don’t become drowsy, that we keep up the heat in the body, realign, and sustain a deep, full and regular breath. Therefore jumping back and forward in between postures is of great importance. As the sage Vamana says, ‘Vina vinyasa yogena asanadin na karayet (O yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa).’ Jumping back and forward in between postures – and sometimes jumping to standing – form an integral part of the notion of ‘vinyasa’.

Next up we are practising a couple of twists, which are very beneficial for the health of our spine, organs and our mindset.

The middle section of the floor sequence consists of some complex postures for the more seasoned practitioner, where internal strength, upper body strength, coordination, and strong ‘hip openings’ are required (Navasana through to Baddha Konasana). These and previous postures encourage our focus to be directed inward, fostering a more reflected mode.
Whereas the remaining postures consist of flowing movements, balancing challenges, and some ‘rolling’ over the neck, preparing for backbends and handstand. They help us to feel strong, and assist us in expressing our feelings and connecting with our environment. Backward bending of the spine as well as turning it upside down are two important spinal movements, which should be included in every practice, just as are forward bends, side stretches, and twists.

Suggested practice for ~1 hour

Practising the whole of primary series takes a good 1 1/2 hours. For a one-hour session a seasoned practitioner could practice the following:

Three Surya Namaskara A, two Surya Namaskara B, standing postures up to and inclusive Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana; then vinyasa through to floor and all postures in sequence up to and inclusive Janu Sirsasana A; followed by Marichyasana A & C, Navasana, Bujapidasana, Baddha Konasana, backbends and the finishing series. 

IMPORTANT

When practising only a selection of postures of the primary series, choose the simple variations of postures, otherwise your body won’t be fully prepared for the more involved and difficult movements. Ensure there is a beginning (Surya Namaskara), middle (standing and floor sequence), and an end (inversions, breathing and rest). Always include the more passive postures at the end!

Detoxification

The Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series is well known for its wonderfully detoxifying effects. The key lies in the use of the basic ideas of ‘vinyasa’:

*            Linking movement to breath, keeping up a consistent flow where no breath goes unaccounted for. Each exhalation of our long deep breaths expels toxins.

*            The use of the bandhas – muscle seals – together with the breath, heats our body, creating a profuse sweat. This again is detoxifying, leaving us with a feeling of purity and smooth skin.

*            The beauty of this process is that we are not only ridding ourselves of physical toxins, but also of emotional weight and mental worries and burdens.
This enables us to face almost any hurdle in our lives.

Inversions – finishing sequence and savasana

During this part of the routine we have to remain patient and fully comprehend that this section of the practice is of utmost importance. Not only is the daily turning of our body upside down, vital to our health (our internal organs will be delighted); these are the postures which round off our whole practice experience. If you would like to walk away from your yoga practice with a feeling of elation, inner peace and irresistible urge to smile, ensure you include this vital part of the time-tested, amazing practice of the Ashtanga Yoga Primary series.

Enjoy!

OM Shanti, Angelika

Ps and if you even just think of skipping or shortening savasana, think again ;)