Ashtanga Yoga Research…or how to put the R back in AYRI

A distinguishing feature of the Ashtanga system is that the postures are arranged into “set” sequences. “Set” means that the postures have been organized into a particular order, to be followed in a methodical, linear fashion. Each series could be compared to a piece of classical music.  You recognize “Moonlight Sonata,” because the notes are arranged in a particular order, played on a piano, at a particular tempo. Similarly, you would recognize Primary Series as distinct from Intermediate, and so on, because the postures are arranged in a particular order, with a particular flow.

The sequential practice of the postures aids memorization of the sequence and, on a certain level, promotes measurement of results from the practice.  And Ashtangis love to practice.  Practice is the central ingredient of Ashtanga Yoga.  You have to get on your mat every day (or at least three times a week).  You have to spend time learning the names of the postures, the synchronization of movement and breathing, and the overall flow of the sequences.  You cannot simply read a book and learn the series.  You cannot watch a video and get better.  You cannot practice once a week and expect to master any of the series.

You have to practice.  And you have to practice regularly in order to become more limber, to become calmer, and to still the mind.  This applies to not only the postures, but any sort of meditation, thought exercise, emotional discipline, or any other art.  You have to put in time.

If you want to learn to play chess, what do you do?  You play chess.  A lot.

If you want to learn how to cook Indian food, what do you do?  You cook Indian food.  A lot.

Watching a video of a chess master can give you some insights into playing.  But you won’t become a better player.

Reading a book on Indian food may give you context for the cuisine, but your stomach will remain empty and your palate undeveloped.

With yoga, you have to play. You have to develop your palate.

What makes you want to put in time?  Love, which is based on interest. When you are interested in something or someone, you focus on it easily, eagerly, without any sense of time passing.

Now, one of the appealing features of Ashtanga is that it is a set sequence.  You can memorize the sequence.  You can make the practice your own.  You can depend less on the teacher for guidance and develop a strong sense of self-acceptance and self-reliance.  You learn the choreography and then your relationship to the sequence, and to the teacher, changes.  Now you get less verbal instructions and more physical adjustments.  You  can stop having to think, “what comes next?” and observe, “what is happening in this posture?  What is my breathing like?”

In short, you can stop thinking so much, and instead you can focus on doing and being.  You can play, you can cook, you can taste the practice.  You can start to see the nuances of the Series and to see the interconnections.

So, this week, I experimented in how I practiced the sequences.  I practice Primary, Intermediate and Advanced A, so I have a wide range of postures to choose from.  (If you have only practiced Primary Series for years, then please see my post on why you should practice some Intermediate postures regularly.  I also plan on doing a post on the different sub sequences everyone should be doing at some point to taste Intermediate or Advanced A).  I’ve been practicing for about 15 years, and I’ve focused on Ashtanga (and Iyengar) with a select few teachers.  I’ve dug my heels in.  So I want to share some of my homework and some of my insights, take them for what they are worth.

I think that some postures from Intermediate and Advanced A should be taught to students when they have shown the following:

  • dedication to learning the Series for at least a year or more
  • honesty with oneself about one’s strengths and weaknesses
  • sincere interest to master the Series, in whatever form possible
  • patience with the process
  • working with one teacher for a long period of time

Because as you practice more of the postures, you begin to see the relationships between postures, whether they are in Primary, Intermediate or Advanced.  You see how one posture prepare you for a posture later on in the series. For instance, Ardha baddha padma Paschimottanasana in Primary helps to prepare you for Bharadvajasana in Intermediate (specifically the lotus bond).  Or how Bhujapidasana in Primary prepares you for Bakasana in Intermediate.  Or how Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana in the standing sequences prepares you for the first posture of Advanced A, Vasisthasana.

The interconnections are endless.

Now, to provide some context.  The traditional way of practicing Ashtanga is to practice the postures in the order as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the guru of Ashtanga Yoga.

You always start with Surya Namaskara A and B.  3 to 5 rounds of each Salutation.

Then you do the Standing Sequence.  If you are practicing Primary Series, then you practice all of the Standing postures. If you are practicing a complete Intermediate series, then you go up to Parsvakonasana, and then move to the first posture of Intermediate, Pashasana (Noose Posture).  If you are practicing Advanced A, then you also do the same standing postures as you would for Intermediate, although a little practiced variation is to omit the standing postures totally and simply go from Surya Namaskara to the Advanced A postures.  There is a certain benefit to this, in the sense that your practice is shorter, sharper and generally more energetic, because you have pruned 20 to 30 minutes off your practice.

Once you finish whichever series you are practicing, you always end with backbends, followed by paschimottanasana, and then the Finishing Series.  The Finishing Series consists of Shoulderstand and its variations, Headstand and its variations, and the final three lotus postures.  Followed by taking rest.

So that is the broad, traditional context of Ashtanga.

Now, once you know the notes (the individual postures),  you can focus on playing the music for its feeling-tone, for its artistic flow.  So the prerequisite to playing with the sequences is that you have put in some time with each sequence (or sub sequence) to not have to think about it so much.  Instead, you know which sections you will want to practice and then you combine as you like.

What you will find below are some of my practice notes on how I have combined the series in different ways.  The art of improvising in the series depends on prior practice of the individual sequences, so please take the time to learn the sequences first and then to improvize.  As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

One variation that Manju Jois taught us at the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence last year in San Diego, was to do Primary Series up to Navasana, and then to move into Intermediate, going up to Pincha Mayurasana.  I call this one the Fire Peacock (because the mid point is the always pleasant Navasana, and the end position is Peacock’s tail pose)

For those of you interested in the specific sequence, here you go (and you can use Matthew Sweeney’s book, Ashtanga Yoga As It Is, for a visual reference):

  • Paschimottanasana
  • Purvottanasana
  • Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana
  • Tirianga Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana
  • Janu Sirsasana A, B, C
  • Marichyasana A, B, C, D
  • Navasana….then going to Intermediate
  • Pashasana
  • Krounchasana
  • Salabhasana A, B
  • Dhanurasana
  • Parsva dhanurasana
  • Ustrasana
  • Laghu Vajrasana
  • Kapotasana A, B
  • Supta Vajrasana
  • Bakasana A, B
  • Bharadvajasana
  • Ardha matsyendrasana
  • Eka pada sirsasana
  • Dwi Pada Sirsasana
  • Yoga nidrasana
  • Tittibhasana A, B, C
  • Pincha Mayurasana

On Wednesday, I practiced half Intermediate and half Advanced A.  I call this one Heavenly Pigeon, based on the last postures of each subsequence (Karandavasana=himalayan goose, and Rajakapotasana, the king pigeon)

  • Pashasana
  • Krounchasana
  • Salabhasana A, B
  • Dhanurasana
  • Parsva dhanurasana
  • Ustrasana
  • Laghu Vajrasana
  • Kapotasana A, B
  • Supta Vajrasana
  • Bakasana A, B
  • Bharadvajasana
  • Ardha matsyendrasana
  • Eka pada sirsasana
  • Dwi Pada Sirsasana
  • Yoga nidrasana
  • Tittibhasana A, B, C
  • Pincha Mayurasana
  • Karandavasana (the halfway point in Intermediate)…then onto Advanced A
  • Viparita Dandasana
  • Eka pada Viparita Dandasana
  • Viparita Salabhasana
  • Hanumanasana
  • Supta trivikramasana
  • Dighasana A, B, C
  • Trivikramasana
  • Natarajasana
  • Rajakapotasana
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana

In the past, I have also experimented with the latter half of Primary and the first part of Advanced A.  I nicknamed it in my journals, “Bridging the Divine Stream,” for the last postures of each sequence (Setubandhasana (bridge), and Purna Matsyendrasana (full lord of the fishes) :

  • Navasana
  • Bhujapidasana
  • Kurmasana
  • Supta Kurmasana
  • Garbha pindasana
  • Baddha Konasana
  • Upavistha konasana
  • Supta konasana
  • Supta padangusthasana
  • Ubhaya padangusthasana
  • Urdhva mukha paschimottanasana
  • Setu bandhasana (some days)…then onto Advanced A
  • Vasisthasana
  • Vishwamitrasana
  • Kashyapasana
  • Chakorasana
  • Bhairavasana
  • Skandasana
  • Durvasasana
  • Urdhva kukkutasana A, B, C
  • Galavasana
  • Eka pada bakasana A, B
  • Koundiyasana A, B
  • Ashtavakrasana A, B
  • Purva matsyendrasana

So…you might look at all of these sequences and say, “Who cares? I only practice Primary Series, a little of Intermediate.  I’ll never be able to practice any of these other postures.”

Well, I’ve experimented with ways to insert Intermediate or Advanced postures into the Primary Series and Intermediate series without deviating from the standard path too much.  These are all derived from what older Ashtanga teachers have told me about the very first few years when they were learning Ashtanga under Pattabhi’s guidance.

I’ve imagined myself like the jazz man who takes a familiar tune and puts a different twist on it.  You can still see it is the same tune, just a little bit off, a little bit unbalanced, a little bit embellished or elaborated.

So here are some suggestions to you, if you are yearning to learn which postures or subsequences you can insert into the Primary Series.

  1. Insert Eka Pada Sirsasana before Kurmasana.  It will do wonders for being able to place your feet behind your head in Supta K.
  2. Insert Vasisthasana, Vishvamitrasana, and Kashyapasana before Supta Kurmasana.  Same as above, plus  you build strength through the side balances! (credit goes to Tim Miller)
  3. Hold Bakasana after Bhujapidasana for 5 breaths.  Or put Bakasana after Utkatasana in the Standing Poses (heresy, I know).
  4. Do Samakonasana and Hanumanasana after Prasarita Padottanasana D.  (Standard in Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Jazz classes)
  5. Do handstand after Prasarita Padottanasana D. (Credit to Matthew Sweeney)
  6. Lift up into handstand in between each navasana (credit to Richard Freeman and Brad Ramsey for this info.  I affectionately call it ‘the Gates of Fire.”)
  7. Do Ashtavakrasana after Marichyasana A.
  8. Do Nakrasana (crocodile posture) after every chakrasana you do.  (Credit to David Swenson)

I will be compiling a list of subsequences to start playing with the postures from Intermediate and Advanced A.  I will publish those in the next few weeks.  Until then, I hope that you have found something interesting in these notes on practice, and more importantly, I hope that you are inspired to dig into Ashtanga more deeply with me at Yoga District.