Practitioners and teachers of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga basically all agree that the Ashtanga practice has a structure. But, we vary in our opinions about how closely we should adhere to the structure versus how much adaptation is a good idea. So in this article, I continue my myths of Ashtanga series. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at whether students should complete the full expression of previous poses before adding the next one.
Why work with a structure?
First, let’s talk about why we have a structure at all. Although many westerners asked Pattabhi Jois why the practice was arranged in certain ways, he didn’t really answer anyone. So it’s been left to practitioners to dissect the practice and try to answer that question.
From a philosophical perspective, when we work with a structure, we inevitably bump up against challenges. Everything won’t be easy for us. Some things will take time to unfold. It’s in that process that we have so many opportunities for learning, not just about how to do a posture, but more deeply about ourselves and how we respond to challenges and difficulties. And, anatomically, it makes sense to me that a structure would send us in a direction. In earlier, simpler postures, we have an opportunity to develop anatomical patterns which will show up again in later, more complex postures.
Why adapt the structure?
However, my big-picture perspective is that yoga practice is most effective when it is adapted to the individual practitioner and their situation. If you’ve been following my articles and videos over the years, then you already know that my intention is to teach to the person. Since each person’s body and context are different, it also makes sense to me to adapt the structure to the person. There is not one answer to the question: should you do the full expression of poses before adding a new one?
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Finding a balance
If we’re sharing the Ashtanga practice in a healthy way then we are always looking to strike a balance between maintaining the framework of the practice and adapting the practice to each student in the moment. If we throw out too much of the structure of Ashtanga, then it’s no longer Ashtanga. And, without those guidelines steering our practice, we often avoid the challenges of yoga. Instead, we end up just doing what comes easily.
And of course, we can err on the side of adhering too closely to the “rules” as well. If we completely discount the particularities of each student and their situation (age, amount of time they have to practice each day, past injuries, etc.) then those students aren’t really getting the full benefit of all that the Ashtanga practice has to offer, either.
So, how do we hold that line which balances the benefits of the structure with the specific situation of each student? When and why might you continue working with current poses longer before adding on? Why might you add poses even when you or a student are not doing full expression of some previous poses?
The Ashtanga learning process
Students go through a process when they begin an Ashtanga yoga practice. There is the larger arc of building a practice generally and the smaller arcs within that of their process with each individual posture. As they go through that process they develop flexibility to make particular anatomical shapes, strength to hold specific anatomical shapes, physical endurance generally, mental attention, and a relationship with breathing. Each of those components of someone’s practice may develop at a different rate.
So, when we make decisions as teachers about when to add more postures, we need to evaluate where a student is with their development of each of these factors. We also have to remember to teach to the student and not get caught up in our own bias about how fast or slow we learned poses from our teacher. Our students are not us and the pace that we learned poses at may not be appropriate for them.
Reasons to add poses, or not to add poses, depend on where a student is in their process of building:
- Flexibility for particular anatomical shapes
- Strength in the “right” places to hold particular shapes
- Physical endurance generally
- Mental attention endurance
- Relationship with the breathing
- Consistency of doing the Ashtanga practice
Learning anatomical patterns
Where a student is in their development of a particular anatomical pattern definitely influences when I add new postures. Generally, I’d like the student to take the time to explore an anatomical pattern in a simpler posture before I add a posture that uses that same anatomical pattern in a more complex way. A good example of that is half lotus. It makes sense to me that in the primary series, students spend some time working with more accessible poses to open their hips like the janu sirsasanas and seated half lotus forward bend before attempting poses like Marichyasana B and D, where the knee is in a more precarious position. This gives their body time to explore the shape and helps reduce injuries.
But of course, this rationale breaks down, because we actually meet our first half lotus in the standing sequence before we’ve really spent much time opening the hips. So I also have to acknowledge that, anatomically, the Ashtanga sequences are not perfect in the progression of how each anatomical pattern develops throughout the series. Should we hold students at standing half-bound lotus until they can do a half lotus and bind their toe?
Since that pose comes so early in the series, I generally don’t hold students there just because they can’t do half lotus. If I did they would lose all the benefit of the many hip opening poses that are coming when we get to the seated poses and it might take even longer for them to open their hips for half lotus because they wouldn’t get the opportunity to do those poses. That’s an example of how I try to balance staying within the structure and adapting for the student.
How long do I stay with a pose before adding?
But, how long is long enough, if I’m not necessarily waiting for a student to achieve full expression in poses? I’ve answered this question tangentially in previous posts: How do you know when to add poses in the Ashtanga primary series?, How much Ashtanga yoga primary series is too much?, and How do you know when to add poses in the Ashtanga intermediate series? I want each student to receive as much of the benefit from waiting as is reasonable for a particular student. I’m really asking myself the question: What are the benefits of waiting versus what are the benefits of moving on to the next posture? When the benefits of moving on are greater than holding someone back, then it’s time to add a pose.
Of course, students are not just cultivating flexibility and strength when they begin an Ashtanga yoga practice. They are also cultivating physical endurance, mental focus, and particularly importantly, they are creating a relationship with their breath. If I notice that a student’s energy is flagging by the end of each practice, then I probably won’t add more postures even if they can do the full expression of the poses they’re working on. Similarly, if their mental attention is scattered and/or their breathing is ragged and labored, I probably won’t add more poses yet. All of those things suggest the student would benefit from more time where they’re at.