Ashtanga – The methodology behind the postures: Part 1
We can probably all agree that the Ashtanga practice is not “just about the postures”, but the postures are still a part of what makes up the methodology. The method of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga includes a set sequence (or sequences). The method, as I understand it, also includes an emphasis on building the practice and patterns of movement in a way that is appropriate for each individual. It’s a bit of a paradox. You may also want to revisit my article on what the tristhāna in Ashtanga yoga is.
It’s important to develop patterns of movement or openness that are both appropriate and useful for the long-term development of the sequence.
The truth may be that there are things to learn from both holding back and waiting for things to open up as well as moving on and using postures to help backfill openings and/or strengths that are missing. Waiting until things open keeps you focused on what needs attention at that moment. Going on may open up areas that help you with those postures you’re working on. We could make an argument for either of those two perspectives. The better question is, when and why?
That paradox is such a big topic that I’m going to break it down into a series of three posts. In this first post in the series, I’ll focus on primary series and what I look for when adding new poses.
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When is the right time to add poses in the Ashtanga yoga primary series?
It’s important to remember that the sequence itself, and the postures themselves are an ideal. There is a difference in intent between working with the ideal as a direction and believing that the postures or the sequence has to be done exactly as images may show (the ideal). When you are working with the ideal of the postures or sequence as a direction, rather than a fixed endpoint, you can accept the process that your body is going through and the process that each posture goes through as you continue to practice it.
There are two quotes from Yoga Mala written by Pattabhi Jois that speak to the idea that the process is different for every practitioner.
P 27 – “For people over fifty, it is enough to practice some of the easier and more useful asanas, as well as some of the pranayamas.”
P 28 – “As the bodily constitution of each human being is different, it is important to practice the asanas accordingly. The benefit to be had from one asana or pranayama can be derived just as well from another that better suits the structure of a person’s body. Some asanas are not suitable for particular people and may be painful.”
Both of these quotes seem to imply that there is wiggle room in how the sequence is taught and that the teaching should be appropriate to the student. This could also be seen as a slippery slope of rationalization to avoid trying or working toward the ideal (regardless of whether or not you ever reach it).
I have seen many, first-hand examples of both Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and R. Sharath in Mysore adapting individual primary series practices to circumstances, back injuries, neck injuries, knee injuries, etc. So, if the sequence can and does get modified, why have a set series at all? When should you stop? How do you know when you should modify? When should you go on and add poses in primary series?
Aspects of our decision-making
If you have a regular teacher who is further along in the yoga practice than you, then they are likely working with you to assess your practice in its context and help you answer these questions from a more objective point of view. But what if you don’t live near a Mysore teacher and life circumstances are such that you are primarily a home practitioner? How do you know when to add poses in primary series?
There is, of course, no single answer to this question. Probably you could say there are as many answers to this question as there are teachers and students. The heart of the question has to do with what we understand as our intention or intentions for practice. Why are we practicing?
The yoga answer and the anatomy answer
I think there are two aspects to the answer to this question: an anatomical answer and a “yoga” answer. I’ll include both the anatomy aspect and the broader “yoga” aspect in my answer. We can first acknowledge that it’s likely that some part of our reason for doing practice is the physical benefit. We might appreciate that doing practice has made us stronger and/or more flexible or we might have a more general intention of just wanting more ease in our body and appreciate that practice can assist us in feeling better in our body. This is one intention for practice. In response to this intention, I’ll discuss the anatomy from the perspective of anatomical patterns that could help you decide when to move on with additional postures in primary series.
The anatomy part
When wondering whether it’s time to add poses in the Ashtanga primary series, we need to look at the postures that come before and after the current pose you’re working on. The postures don’t live in a vacuum and shouldn’t be treated as such. They happen in relationship to one another. The primary series asks for the hips to open.
Postures are in relationship to each other
Although most people emphasize the forward bending aspect of the postures, it’s not the only way and direction the hips are trying to open. Think about it this way, if it was all about opening the hamstrings, then we would just do paschimottanasana over and over again. But the moment we start doing right-sided and left-sided postures, the primary focus should be on the leg that has changed shape and the way in which the hip is being asked to open on that side followed by the forward bending part of the posture.
A good example is Janu Sirsasana A, where in my mind, the focus is really on externally rotating the hip joint of the leg that is bent. If you miss that part and don’t work on the external rotation of the hip, half-lotus and lotus postures suffer in the long term.
Having said that, if you’re struggling with the simplest seated forward bend, then trying to work on more complicated postures that combine a forward bend and a twist for example, can actually get in the way of working the forward bending aspect of the pose. Trying to access postures that are composed of multiple aspects that you are struggling with can also increase your chances of injury. The fastest way forward in the long term can actually be the slower way in the short term. The time to add poses in the Ashtanga primary series, then, is when there is ease and stability in the postures that come before. But what does that look like?
Postures have multiple intentions
While many postures might be considered to have a primary intention, most postures have many aspects. So, if we know the postures in primary series and how they are all related to one another, we might want to wait to add the next posture until there is ease and stability in the primary aspect and possibly a secondary aspect of a posture we’re already working on. Let’s take the example of marichyasana A, B, C, and D.
A Marichyasana example
In marichyasana A we have a:
- Binding aspect
- Forward bending aspect
But, in marichyasana B we have a:
- Half-lotus aspect
- Binding aspect
- Forward bending aspect
In marichyasana C we have a:
- Upright intention (connected to hamstring length)
- Binding aspect
- Twisting aspect
But, in marichyasana D we have a:
- Half-lotus aspect
- Binding aspect
- Upright intention (connected to hip flexibility)
- Twisting aspect
Each of these aspects of the poses asks something specific from the body anatomically, whether it’s length in the hamstrings or a certain amount of openness in the shoulders for binding. One or more of these aspects may come easier or more slowly to you. It’s possible that there are multiple postures that build into these aspects. Stacking too many of them up without being able to fully do any of them is one indication that you may not be ready to add on yet another posture with a similar aspect.
What to emphasize first?
But all other things being equal, which aspects of the postures to emphasize first? Generally speaking, start with the ground and work up. Hatha yoga is all about opposing energies or qualities. Grounding and lifting come to mind. I emphasize what I consider to be the grounding aspects first. Then I build the lifting aspects on that foundation. Let’s continue with our example of marichyasana A, B, C, and D. I consider being able to access the pelvis by fully sitting upright, and, the binding as two grounding aspects in these postures. If you can’t sit up, then you’re falling back (not grounded/stable). The binding adds to the stability in these postures and can give you something to work against or from.
What do the marichyasanas do?
By spending some time really working marichyasana A, we allow time for the shoulders to open enough to bind. And we allow for the hamstrings to lengthen enough that we can sit up and even fold forward to some degree. Adding the half lotus to marichyasana often challenges the binding aspect. So, I would add marichyasana B after there is consistency in binding marichyasana A and after there is some ease in half lotus where it occurs in earlier postures in the primary series. (Janu sirsasana A, ardha baddha paschimottanasana, etc…)
Marichyasana C adds a twist on top of the marichyasana A foundation. So, I would add Marichyasana C after there is stability and ease in sitting upright in marichyasana A. Marichyasana D combines the aspects of marichyasana B and C. So, I wouldn’t add that pose until there is steadiness in marichyasana B and C. You could take this idea of breaking down the postures and understanding their relationships to one another to any combination of postures in primary series.
The “Yoga” part
Anatomy aside, there are other reasons to add poses in the Ashtanga primary series sooner or to wait a bit before adding poses. Those other reasons are related to our other intentions for practice. Most likely, we don’t just do the Ashtanga practice for its physical benefits.
Why do we practice?
So, what do we do the practice for?
- exploring one thing deeply
- working with goal setting and attachment to results and outcomes
- working with our response to difficulties/challenges/struggles
- exploring our response to boredom and novelty-seeking
- working on subtle aspects of breathing
- developing refined concentration and mental steadiness
…and many other reasons
How then can we use the structure of practice to support growth as practitioners? It can often be easier to see these aspects of the work in practice with some distance. It can be very helpful to have a teacher to work with you to guide this process. This is because they have more space from your history, stories, and biases. However, the framework of the practice itself allows for endless opportunities to observe yourself under different situational contexts. One reason to stop yourself at a pose is if there is a lot of emotional grab or feelings that come up when working that posture. That is often a good time to stop and explore what’s there.
If the anatomical aspects of the posture seem to be coming together, what other signposts might you use to know when to add poses in the Ashtanga primary series?
- ease and steadiness of breath in preceding poses
- lack of fuss in preceding poses
- preceding poses don’t have overwhelming mental/emotional “grab”
- you’ve given some time to previous poses and really allowed for time to assimilate them
- you have mental, emotional, and physical energy left over at the end of practice
- *especially beginners -you can remember the order of poses you’re already doing