As humans we often like to simplify things by distilling them into a list of rules. Unfortunately, by doing that, we often lose the context that these simplifications come from. That can result in also losing the nuance of understanding that allows us to make these rules relevant to us or our students. And sometimes when we take things out of context we end up playing a version of the telephone game. We not only oversimplify things, we pass on a garbled version of that oversimplification to others.
The “rules” that exist within the Ashtanga practice, especially as it relates to the primary series, are some of those things that can get oversimplified and passed on without context. But, if you’ve read my articles or attended one of my live workshops, then you already know I’m all about understanding things within context. So, in this series of articles, I’ll take apart some of the common “rules” of the Ashtanga practice with an anatomical and contextual lens. Then I’ll see if we can put them back together with a deeper understanding of when, why, and how they might apply, and when they don’t.
What is the primary series about, anatomically?
In this article, we’ll start with a common myth about the primary series: that it’s all about forward bending. How we arrive at this idea is pretty easy to understand. We do a LOT of forward bending postures in the primary series. This can lead to the idea that it’s all about lengthening the hamstrings. That idea could feel especially true to you if you have very tight hamstrings. Your hamstrings get more of your attention in the primary series because they are often sore from so many forward bending postures.
Of course it’s true that the hamstrings and forward bending are closely linked together. It is true that the primary series, with all of its forward bending, leads us to focus on the hamstrings. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only part to focus on.
Opening tissues around the abdomen and pelvis
What’s important though, before we start trying to understand what the primary series is “about”, is to take a few steps back. Yoga Mala (by Pattabhi Jois) and Ashtanga Yoga (compiled by Lino Miele) attribute a number of physiological benefits to the primary series. In Sanskrit the primary series is called “Yoga Chikitsa”. That translates loosely to “yoga therapy”. So what is this sequence therapeutic for? Benefits attributed to the primary series include positive effects on the liver, spleen, stomach, uterus, and other organs. Notice that those benefits revolve around organs located in and around the pelvis and abdomen.
An Ayurvedic perspective
If you widen the context a little more from my own simplified Ayurvedic perspective, disease essentially emanates from eating the wrong foods (creating imbalance in the doshas) for our body type. This can lead to an inability to digest and assimilate nutrients in food, and/or an inability to properly evacuate waste products. This means that the digestive system, from an Ayurvedic perspective, could create Ama. (Ama is defined by this site as “toxic products that clog the channels of the body and sow the seeds of disease”.) Therefore, manipulation and cleansing of the lower abdomen is a really important concept for overall health. This may be one reason why there is such a focus on compressing and manipulating the abdominal area. This is not to say that the food we ingest should be discounted.
So, I’d suggest that one aspect of the primary series is about opening and balancing tissues around the pelvis, not just forward bending. Another purpose of the primary series is to affect change in and around the abdomen. Anatomically changing the tension around the pelvis puts a structure in place to support a healthy spine. The compression and twisting of the pelvis helps internal systems and functions like digestion, elimination, respiration, immune system, etc.
Supporting the spine
In addition to the reasons I outlined above, another reason for increasing the mobility of the pelvis in primary series, is that your pelvis affects your spine. Try sitting in lotus with tight hips and you can see the spine collapse and round. We can try to straighten our spine at that point, but it’s not really possible without either the hips being open and flexible, or propping ourselves up on pillows.
The spine also contains our spinal cord. As you know, the spinal cord is a critical piece of our nervous system. When we move past just the physical strength and flexibility benefits of practice, what we’re ultimately impacting is our nervous system. Remember, the Ashtanga primary series is not just physical. Even in forward bending, the physical is really the vehicle that we use to get into the other aspects of yoga. And the more mobility we have in our pelvis, the more control we have over how we place our spine for practices like pranayama and meditation.
When our work is opening the hips in primary series
In order to free the pelvis to move smoothly in all directions, we need to balance the tension between muscles around the pelvis and hip joints, in all directions. And that looks like what we often refer to in yoga as “opening the hips”. The primary series gives us many opportunities to open the muscles around the hips from different angles. We need to get out of the idea that it is just about the forward bending aspect of the poses. If you look closer, you’ll see many examples of a more general idea of opening the muscles all around the hip joints. From standing positions like triangle, to the various positions of the bent leg in janu sirsasana, to half lotus variations, we’re opening the hips.
But what’s also true is that the hamstrings attach to and can put some tension on the pelvis. So it’s not that lengthening the hamstrings isn’t important. It’s just that the hamstrings are only one set of muscles that affect the mobility of our pelvis. While lengthening the hamstrings may be part of your work in the primary series, it isn’t all of your work.
Why is there so much sensation in my hamstrings?
As Westerners, we often show up to begin yoga with both tight hamstrings and tight hip muscles, from sitting, as well as other popular exercises that we do. In that case, what practitioners often experience is that the hamstrings have to lengthen first, before they start to feel the stretch sensation around the hip joints. So if this is you, it’s not that the primary series is all about forward bending or the hamstrings, it’s just that you’re in that phase of development of your individual practice. If you stay with it, it’s likely that what you experience will change over time.
Consider the two-sided seated postures for a moment. Why change the leg position on one side? Is it to avoid, ignore, or dismiss it and simply try to deepen the sensation of forward bending on the other side? I don’t think so. If that were the case, we would simply do paschimottanasana over and over again. If we’re changing the shape of one of the sides, then that should be our focus! Try taking that intention into your practice. When you stop over-emphasizing the forward bending part, you will start to affect the leg that has changed shape. More often than not, that other leg shape is about putting movement into the hip joint in various ways.
When the primary series isn’t about anatomy at all
Of course, Ashtanga yoga is much more than physical anatomy too! Within the primary series are opportunities to develop a foundation in the subtler aspects of yoga practice, aside from the more grossly physical aspects. We have opportunities to develop concentration and mindfulness through focus on breathing, drishti, bandha, and the vinyasa count. We are also encouraged to learn to modulate our breathing, and through that practice, modulate our nervous system.