What is this Primary Series Yogis Talk About?

From the Primary Series to the Sixth Series, all yogis who study the Ashtanga Vinyasa style fit somewhere on this spectrum. Why different series? Why are the asanas in the order they’re in? I’ve been wondering the exact same thing…

The Ashtanga Sandwich

Image Credit: ideowl on Flickr.
Image Credit: ideowl on Flickr.

Ashtanga Vinyasa as a style of yoga has its roots in the early 20th Century amid the teachings of Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India. One of his students, Pattabhi Jois, went on to develop his version of Krishnamarycharya’s teachings and called it Ashtanga Vinyasa. Around this time, yoga was bought to the West and has been gaining popularity since.

Widely considered to be a modern version of classical Indian yoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa practice opens with some repetitions of Surya Namaskar or sun salutes; followed by standing, seated and finishing sequences in a predetermined order. An Ashtangi performs the same sequences regardless of their skill and ability until they reach the seated sequence. Here, beginner and novice practitioners will perform the primary series with more proficient yogis progressing through the second, third or fourth series as their practice develops. Yogis of all levels will then perform the same finishing sequence that they were taught as a beginner.

David Swenson describes this as the Ashtanga sandwich: the sun salutes and standing sequence are one layer of bread and the finishing sequence the other. Between these is the seated sequence which can vary to ‘make different meals’ as required. Read on to find out more…

Yoga Therapy

In sanskrit the primary series is known as Yoga Chikitsa meaning yoga therapy. Traditional wisdom holds that the sequence is cleansing and toning for the body, mind and senses. aIt is considered that regular practice of this sequence promotes the free flow of prana within the body.

The asanas are arranged in a time-honoured sequence designed to specifically align the body and strengthen the nervous system
~David Swenson, Ashtanga Yoga — The Practice Manual

Foundations and Forward Folds

Image Credit: milopeng on Flickr.
Image Credit: milopeng on Flickr.

The primary series is designed to build the foundations needed for the intermediate series. It focusses on lengthening the back of the body with a variety of forward folds, opening the back of the hips; lengthening the hamstrings and the fascial connections of the back of the body from the crown of the head down the whole of the body to the soles of the feet.

Poses are performed on the right side first and are peppered with a flowing set of dynamic poses similar to Surya Namaskar A called vinyasa: these are the transitions from one pose to the next. The combination of folds and vinyasa builds strength in preparation for the more advanced poses to come.

Building Blocks and Basics

The primary series opens with Dandasana, or Staff Pose, and finishes with Setu Bandhasana, or Bridge Posture, with some texts offering a range of modifications of the poses in recognition of the target audience (i.e. beginners and novices). Having said that, the primary series is no walk in the park with challenging poses like Marichyasana D and Supta Kurmasana to be mastered. The opening arm balances, Bhujapidasana and Kukkutasana are also not for the inflexible or faint of heart.

See Also: 6 Tips to Teaching Arm Balances in Class

The Primary Series on the Mat…

I can imagine that as a beginner, the Primary Series has real potential to be daunting with some poses looking totally unachievable. Heck, I’m a yoga teacher and I’m not convinced I will ever be able to tackle the whole series — let alone consider the intermediate, third and fourth series! That doesn’t mean my students and I can’t try some of the poses or modified versions of all of the poses. Improvements will come. As Pattabhi Jois himself said, “Practice and all is coming!”

Image Credit: Amy on Flickr.
Image Credit: Amy on Flickr.

You don’t have to be an Ashtangi practicing the whole sequence six days a week to try the primary series either. In our own practice and teaching we can draw from Ashtanga Vinyasa to lengthen the back body and develop strength at a level suitable for our students. Here are a few ideas:

  • Vinyasa — Deconditioned students and beginners will struggle with the full quota of vinayasas so try substituting Child’s Pose between asanas.
  • Pinnacle Pose — Choosing one of the challenging poses and working towards it over a few weeks works well to motivate some students.
  • Mix and Match — Sections of the series can slot into your normal class structure. Or the whole series could be taught as a stand-alone class after your normal warm-up and followed by your normal finishing sequence.

The world is your oyster. Use as much or as little of the series into your practice and classes as you fancy. There are some real gems in there and it would be shame to miss out on their benefits. I really hope I am not upsetting any Ashtangis by saying this, but I see the primary series as an opportunity for all yogis. Not just those who practice pure Ashtanga Vinyasa. Interested? Go on – have a go and I’d love to know how you get on.

See Also: Remembering Larry Schultz: The Bad Man of Ashtanga Vinyasa

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