Astanga Yoga As It Is Excerpt
Astanga vinyasa yoga is a system of postures connected by the breath. It combines sequential, flowing movements with focused internal awareness. Through self practice and self observation a non-judgmental attitude is cultivated. This peaceful quality is manifested by focusing on the flowing nature of the breath. The breath is the vehicle by which the body and mind are observed, purified and transcended.
Astanga Yoga As It Is provides an exploration of both the physical and mental aspects of the Astanga yoga practice. The following introduction attempts to shed light on some core yoga concepts and relevant self development principles. The photographic section depicts both the asana of the traditional sequences and all of the relevant vinyasa. However, this book is not a “how to do it” manual. It does cover the main points of the tradition including many of the unwritten rules that dominate the Mysore-method. I have attempted to expand on why these rules are important, including the benefits of the traditional practice and also some of the possible drawbacks. In order for an individual to integrate the tradition a complete therapeutic and holistic approach is also necessary. Some criticisms can be made in order to understand the practice in terms of yoga rather than merely asana. As It Is aims to promote a questioning attitude to the practice, to help examine and integrate many of its qualities. As the physical practice evolves there should be a natural and healthy interest in the mental and emotional processes that go with it.
The text uses a number of phrases in Sanskrit. It is helpful to understand a little of this language as it adds depth to the practice and a personal connection to the living history of yoga. Where possible the most accurate use of Sanskrit to English transliteration has been used. None of the material in this book is new, I merely present it in my own fashion.
Any introduction to the practice of Astanga yoga should mention Sri Krisna Pattabhi lois and his cultivation of the vinyasa method. He is affectionately called Guruji by his students. The meaning for guru is heavy one, someone replete with the weight of yoga. Born in 1915, K.P. Jois’ introduction to yoga began at the age of twelve with Sri T. Krisnamacharya, with whom he studied from 1927 to 1945. He studied Sanskrit sahitya veda and advaita vedanta in the Mysore Maharaja Sanskrit College from 1930 to 1956. In 1937 he was elected Professor and Head of Department and was honoured by the title Yogasana Visarada by Sri Jagadguru Sankaracharya of Puri in 1945. In 1948 he established the Astanga Yoga Nilayam in Mysore, India, to practice, refine and teach this method. Many students have since come to Mysore, bringing Astanga yoga to most parts of the world.
For many years Guruji taught from a small room in the downstairs area of his house, the Nilayam in Lakshmipuram, Mysore. This room could hold a maximum of twelve students with a bare hand-span between their mats: five students in front, five in the back, and two sideways, facing each other in the middle. If one had a loose practice it became more controlled in such minimal space. It is from the method taught in this room that the phrase “Mysore-style” was coined. Starting at about Sam the first set of twelve students would begin their practice. They would repeat the prayer after Guruji and then start Suryanamsakara A. Once finished back bending and receiving a squash in Paschimottdnasana from the guru the student would be sent upstairs to do the finishing sequence on his or her own. Depending on the length of the practice the student could be anywhere from half an hour to two hours in the downstairs sala. Other students would then be waiting on the stairs until their spot became available and Guruji called them down, “Yes, yes! You come!”
Any adjustment received from Guruji could be a life-changing and cathartic experience. Upon Guruji’s approach, this usually quiet and unassuming man of below average height suddenly becomes a giant, the weight of over seventy years of yoga behind him. Despite the seeming grumpiness, his comments of “bad lady!” or “bad man!” came with a smile. As one female student confronted him: “I have discovered your secret Guruji. ‘Bad lady’really means ‘good lady’.” “Oh, haha,” he laughed, “Smartlady.”
The Mysore self-practice is unique compared to other asana classes. You practice at your own pace, by and large without interruption. There could be occasional comments from Guruji, such as, “Put it your head down!” or “No, No! Grab it your foot fingers!” or more rarely “Uh… correct.” There is little noise except for deep breathing and the occasional grunt. Mysore-style practice has both an intense quality and a quality of inward looking, of meditation. You simply do your practice, receive certain adjustments and wait for the next posture. Sometimes it is a long wait.
Some students would come to Mysore, saying they were doing Intermediate and some Advanced, only to find that with Guruji half of the Primary sequence was where they were stopped. Guruji would not allow a student to progress without being able to successfully complete every posture. Frustrating for some, educational for others. It all depended on your mind-set. (See page 8 for further details of this aspect of the tradition.) Another potentially frustrating element was the hierarchy of the stairs. Guruji would often reserve a spot for a long term student, or a student would jump the queue and simply grab the spot they wanted. There were many disgruntled stair-waiters. In the end it never really mattered, for once in that tiny space, the practice humbled everyone.
Sri T. Krisnamacharya
Professor Sri Trimulai Krisnamacharya is considered by many to be the grandfather of modern yoga. By and large it is through his teachings that the systems of Astanga yoga (K.P. Jois), lyengar yoga (B.K.S. lyengar) and Vini yoga (T.K.V. Desikachar) were each developed. In the early years of his teaching Krisnamacharya used the vinyasa krama method, that of linking postures together in sequence by numbers. (Now called Astanga vinyasa yoga by K.P. Jois.)/p
Later Krisnamacharya reportedly discovered a copy of the “Yoga Korunta” in Calcutta University, an ancient text written by Risi Vamana. It was a confirmation of the vinyasa method. Apparently Krisnamacharya used the book to solidify his understanding of vinyasa. However, as there is no modern form of this book it is not possible to verify its legitimacy. It seems to have passed with Krisnamacharya. Written evidence or not, the proof of the benefits are in the practice.
As time passed Sri T. Krisnamacharya developed and refined his teaching with different methods for different individuals. As well as the vinyasa krama, he used specific props for therapeutic purposes and he advocated individual yoga programs, one-on-one tuition with gentle pranayama being introduced from the start. Family life was important to Krisnamacharya, so much so that he refused the honour of becoming Head Swami of the Parakala Math, a respected lineage. His reply to each of the three times that he was asked was that he wished to spend time with his family. As brahmacharya or monk-like celibacy is considered ideal for yoga practice, this view of Krisnamacharya’s was remarkable.
At one time Krisnamacharya demonstrated his siddhis, or abilities, for the Maharaja of Mysore, who was also one of his students. He had wires attached to his head and the electric light switch and turned the palace lights on and off. At another time in the 1930s, with a foreign medical team in attendance, he stopped his heart for a full two minutes. Although these abilities may seem an attractive incentive for doing yoga, for this yogacharya they were merely the bi-product of many years of practice, not the goal. It was only after practicing for over twenty-five years that Krisnamacharya began to teach yoga. T.K.V. Desikachar describes his father’s practice when Krisnamacharya was over ninety:
Whether you believe it or not, this old man gets up at one o’clock in themorning… He practices his yogasana and pranayama every day… And at five o’clock the bell rings and we know he has started his puja… He makes his own breakfast. Then I go to see him at seven o’ clock in the morning and we chant for one hour.
The Yoga ofT. Krisnamacharya
Krisnamacharya’s teacher was Ramamohana Brahmacharl. He lived with his teacher for over seven years learning asana and vinyasa practice, yoga therapy and yoga philosophy. Krisnamacharya passed away in 1989 at the age of one-hundred. Beyond these scant details it is impossible to further track the history of the living vinyasa method. Most of the older tradition (some say stemming back to Patanj all) is unverifiable and largely based on hearsay and conjecture.
The Practice: Ujjdyi Prandyama
The starting point for any asana practice is the breath and for Astanga yoga the starting point of the breath is ujjayi pranayama. Ujjayi is defined as extended victory. Prana is variously defined as “breath, respiration, wind, life force, life, energy, strength, the hidden energy in the atmospheric air.” Pranayama is most clearly defined as the development (ayama) of life-energy (prana) rather than the restraint (yama) of breath (prana). The breath is the first component of the tristhanam, or three places of attention. It is through the breath that the other two components, the body and mind are transformed.
Respiration being disturbed, the mind becomes disturbed. By restraining respiration, the yogi gets steadiness of mind. So long as the (breathing) air stays in the body, it is called life. Death consists in the passing out of the (breathing) air… Ujjayi: having closed the opening of the larynx, the air should be drawn in such a way that it goes touching from the throat to the chest and making a noise while passing.
The Hatha Yoga PradipTka, 2: 2, 3, 51.
By gently contracting the glottis area at the back of the throat, one can breathe in a controlled manner. This contraction creates a deep, sonorous sound, which increases the movement of the diaphragm and lengthens the spine. Initially, the sound of the breath may be a little exaggerated and raspy by over squeezing the glottis, eventually becoming both soft and steady. A soft, consistent sound aids the consistent flow of breath and helps to build heat in the body, ideal for any asana practice. The heat produced is not only conducive for stretching, but cleans and purifies the body through the sweat. It should be noted that the breath should be as gentle as possible to keep it natural and organic. Avoid being forceful, otherwise this imposition will develop constraints rather than freedoms.
In yogic physiology the sun represents the fire element in the body, the inhalation (puraka), the heart and the life force. The moon represents the cooling element, the exhalation (rechaka), the lungs and the death force. By controlling the breathing, one inhibits the death force. The fire, agni, increases and the life force increases. Ujjayi pranayama is the victory of life.
There are three main areas where the sound of the breath resonates: the nostrils, the palate, and the throat (Figure 1). Only when the sound is at the back of the throat can il begin to resonate in the chest cavity, giving the diaphragm full range of movement.
Experiment with the following exercises:
- First breathe through the nose and accentuate the breath there. Flare the nostrils. The breath sounds quite airy. There is a common tendency to either gasp the air ir with the nose, or through inattention not realise that this sound is in the nose and is noi traveling to the throat and chest. This indicates a state of unconsciousness or lack ol awareness and is more common on the inhalation.
- Clench the teeth and try to use the ujjayi breath. With the jaw locked, the sound hisses inside the mouth and bounces off the upper palate. When particularly tense in an asana there is often an unnecessary reflection of this tension in the jaw and face This indicates a state of hyper-tension, or awareness that is pushy and fixed and is more common on the exhalation.
- Drop the lower jaw, creating a sizeable gap between the upper and lower teeth and again create the ujjayi sound. With the face relaxed in this way the sound becomes smoother, softer, more resonant and less harsh. Focus both the exhalation and the inhalation with the jaw dropped and the face relaxed. The feeling is a little like breathing through the ears: the inner ear presses, and the cavern of the skull echoes with the sound. The mind becomes empty.
There is a direct relationship between dropping the lower jaw (softly increasing the ujjayi sound), lengthening the spine and the freedom of movement of the diaphragm. That is, the correct application of the ujjayi restriction at the base of the throat subtly activates the jalandhara bandha, increasing the uddiyana bandha diaphragmatic movement. The uddiyana likewise increases the rising mula bandha. The flowing process of ujjayi pranayama promotes all three bandha equally. See the bandha section (page 14) for more details.
It is common for the sound of the breath to be louder and longer on the exhalation, and quieter and shorter on the inhalation. Try to balance the breathing between lack of awareness (exercise one) and fixed awareness (exercise two). Generally the sound of the inhalation should be increased, or more sound through the base of the throat, and the sound of the exhalation should be more relaxed, or softer sound through the base of the throat. With the ujjayi sound consistent, the breathing lengthens evenly throughout the practice. Awareness of your body’ s needs of the moment will increase and injury will be unlikely. A combination of inattention and facial contortion causes most injuries. If the breathing is both soft and secure it is almost impossible to push too hard. Do not push if the breathing becomes secondary to achieving a posture. If the face stays relaxed, the breathing naturally becomes softer. It is not necessary for the whole room to shake when you maintain ujjayi! Experienced practitioners generally have much quieter breathing.
For beginners it is normal and useful to emphasise the exhalation and the ujjayi sound on exhalation: to let go, extend and breathe out for longer. For more experienced students, it is also helpful to emphasise the out-breath when learning a new, unfamiliar asana. There is a natural tendency for the inhalation to be shorter than the exhalation, particularly with upward dog, other back arching movements and twists. When the diaphragm is restricted by a posture, try to keep the start of the inhalation soft and subtle, rather than abrupt. When out of breath the inhalation is often drawn in too quickly out of panic, further aggravating the tension. Relax what is possible to relax and the breath and body will then be harmonious.
=>One way to facilitate the extension of the inhalation in all asana is to count the breath. For example, inhale for a count of five and exhale for a count of five. At a certain point, however, this type of practice becomes laborious, particularly if maintained for the whole sequence. It can also take you away from the natural tendency of the breath, become too much of a physical strain and be potentially injurious. Lengthening the inhalation increases the fiery nature of the practice, produces greater sweat, with the exhalation removing toxins. The inhalation brings energy (tension) in, the exhalation releases it.
=>It should be noted that the air one draws in is not strictly speaking prana. The inhalation brings in both air and prana. Prana is the vital, life-giving aspect of the incoming air, not the whole thing. The air portion often has a degree of toxicity, various forms of physical or energetic pollution. The exhalation removes this toxicity, but also pushes out prana and energy is depleted. As the breathing becomes more refined, improving the individual’s boundaries, the system only takes in that which is nourishing and rejects only that which is toxic. Also, it may be said that the practice of pranayama does not actually increase energy. It is awareness of prana that is already there that increases. It is accessing your full potential that is difficult.
If the inhalation brings excessive tension with it, then a more relaxed breath will be necessary. The breath should always be flowing. By avoiding holding the breath and bearing down or locking at the end of either inhalation or exhalation, injury can be avoided. This is not the same process as locking the bandha, but the symptom of “fight or flight”, of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is with the inhalation that the spine lengthens, particularly accentuating the tension around the three granthi, the three knots. The three granthi are linked to various illnesses. See the section on the granthi (page 27).
As a general rule strength (the inhalation) takes longer to develop than flexibility (the exhalation). As the two are inextricably linked, however, one cannot fully develop one without the other. Men tend to be more strong than flexible and women more flexible than strong. If these tendencies are exaggerated then imbalance occurs. The practice should balance these polarities. However, if there is a tendency to be more one way than the other, then the tendency should be accepted. It is useful to let the breathing be softer throughout the practice from time to time. Allow the breathing to dictate the practice rather than the other way around, doing all postures with less effort, working back from the ideal asana rather than towards it. This allows greater ease in the practice, less heat is involved and it is less draining. Every breath, every posture, every sequence has its own particular ebb and flow. To resist this flow and try to control all of it is detrimental.
=>The state of health, general energy, mood, which sequence is being practiced, the cycle of the moon etc, are all influencing factors. Totally controlling the breath is basically impossible. One surrenders control to the breath, not the other way around. To let the breathing be completely passive and unconscious is also undesirable. Some practices will simply be more one way than the other. Eventually the two extremes of control/tension (inhalation) and relaxed/sloppy (exhalation) will become balanced.
Astanga pranayama is generally not taught until a student has at least completed Advanced A postures. That is, until the body has reached a point of stability with the asana, pranayama is inadvisable. The pranayama practice taught in traditional Astanga differs from the more gentle practices usually taught. The long inhalation, exhalation and retention requires complete steadiness of body and mind: sthira bhaga or steady strength.
When the whole system of nadis which is full of impurities is cleaned, then the yogi becomes able to control the prana…
Just as lions, elephants and tigers are controlled by and by, so the breath is controlled by slow degrees, otherwise (i.e., by being hasty or using too much force) it kills the practitioner himself.
HYP,2: 5, 15
It is detrimental to learn pranayama from a book. If it is advisable to have a teacher to guide with asana practice, with pranayama it is doubly so. Not only is the science of pranayama physically demanding, so too are its subtle effects. The ratios of breath retention to inhalation to exhalation and the numerological progression of this practice should be intimately understood. One does not cross the threshold of life and death lightly and one who rushes untimely toward this end does so at his or her own peril. What is achieved in life, the abilities that are accumulated, are never as important as realisation of what is. Focus on the process rather than the goal.
Once, when using the term Savasana in Guruji’s presence I was told off. “Not Savasana! No. Corpse pose advanced practice. You take rest.” The practice of “being dead” is a highly esoteric and dangerous process. It has been described earlier by Krisnamacharya’s ability to stop the heart beating. This may be a result of pranayama practice, but it is not the goal. In this light h pranayama viewed. Not until one is ready, which may be never in this life. Therefore, for the purpose of this book the finer details of pranayama practice have been omitted.
The asana are the second component of the tristhanam, or the body aspect. However, the traditional method of learning Astanga yogasana begins with the mind as much as the body. When a complete beginner learns Suryanamaskara, he or she repeats it until it is committed to memory, that is, body memory rather than just intellectual memory. Self-practice begins with the first class. It does not really matter how well (physically) the individual does it: there should be no judgement on how it looks. Memorising the practice is vital. This is often more confronting for a beginner than physically doing it.
After Suryanamaskara and possibly one or two of the first standing postures the beginning student sits down, attempts some version of Padmasana (sitting and breathing) and then lifts up in Utpluthihih. Practice is finished in less than half an hour. Day by day, adding a maximum of one posture per day, a student learns the sequence. This is the traditional Mysore method. Utpluthihih should always be done at the end of a practice, no matter how long or short the practice is. In particular the student should remember the essentials of what he or she has been taught before learning new postures.
This is not to say that this is the only way to teach Astanga yoga. It is common for many students to do led classes for the first few years as a way to become physically acclimatised. However, self practice is the most effective way for a student to remember. If beginning students are shown thirty postures in the sequence, they will only remember the first and the last posture (maybe). If they do just two postures at their own pace, they will remember them both. The slower it goes in, the deeper it penetrates.
Repetition is a key aspect of learning. As the postures are committed to memory there is a corresponding level of trust in the body: you know what you are doing, you know what comes next. There is no anxiety anticipating what the next thing will be. The physical aspect begins to develop with a gradual increase of flexibility and strength as the body and mind synchronise. It is most important to focus on the process rather than the outcome.
After a certain time practicing the Primary sequence, and if the ability is there, a student might begin learning the Intermediate postures. One by one these asana are added to the Primary asana, the total practice getting longer and longer. Eventually the student would practice only Intermediate. This is referred to as splitting the practice, that is, when a sequence is then practiced separately without adding those postures on to the previous sequence.
From one day to the next a student goes from regularly practicing all of Primary and at least half of Intermediate per session (usually over two hours) to just doing Intermediate (maybe one hour). The Primary sequence is then practiced once a week. Depending on the student, this can be a relief or a shock. The same process occurs when learning Advanced asana. See the vinyasa section (page 12) for more details.
The traditional method is relatively linear and methodical. Keep adding asana, remembering the vinyasa as you go, until you come to something you cannot do. You keep practicing up to the asana that is difficult or impossible but you do not add new postures until you can do it effectively. This can be a little limiting but it does establish the body’s capacity in the asana. You become settled in the “seat”. An unfortunate side-effect of this format is the tendency in Astanga to ask the question “What posture are you up to?” as if this indicates some kind of personal development. It is normal to want to move ahead, particularly as far as positive motivation and liveliness is concerned. The practice should never be lifeless, something new can be experienced every day, even if it is just a changed attitude. This forward looking attitude, however, should always be tempered with present tense awareness: stay in contact with what is rather than what should be.
Traditionally the very first action of practice is to stand in Samasthitihih, chant the mantra and then continue with Suryanamskara A. The body may not be warm and might feel particularly stiff. To launch into the first Suryanamaskara without prior warm-ups may be daunting, particularly psychologically. This is often because of a desire to get it right first time, to look perfect. It is better to make it simpler, bend the knees, step back lightly etc, rather than injure oneself by doing flying jumps and full bends. This does not discount the validity of warming up, but credits the validity of not doing so. To begin without warming up is a matter of applying a relaxed state of awareness rather than a perfect state of body.
On the other hand, stretching before practice allows the body to wake up a little and renews awareness of any blind or weak spots. Of all the so called warm-ups that one may attempt, uddiyana bandha and nauli kriya are considered the most traditional and practical (see page 16). If it helps to warm up, use whichever routine suits of the endless variations and feel free to experiment.
Alignment is the ability to balance the various levels of the body and the mind into a working whole. Increasing your capacity to be straight in a posture should be encouraged, but there are limits to where the body can go. Alignment should never place undue pressure on the breath. If it does, this is the body’s clear signal that there is too much pushing going on. If the breathing becomes truly unrestricted in a posture, then for that moment this is the best and most natural alignment possible, no matter how it looks.
=>It may take a great deal of learning, or unlearning, to stop pushing and encourage open behaviour. If there is a doubt or question as to what the correct alignment is, generally defer to the signals from your own body and breath even if it conflicts with external advice. It can be common, however, for a student’s view of what is occurring to be different from what is actually occurring. A teacher is often necessary to point out this difference. To aid the development of awareness do not allow your breath to slide into complete apathy: attempt to be both active (inhalation) and relaxed (exhalation).
To force alignment on the body is a mistake. Your body’s limit with an asana is what it is, attempt to maximise your alignment from there. Accept how it is and be in your centre. The blind areas of mis-alignment, disease, discomfort and so on, will inevitably come to the surface and the body will heal what is possible to heal. Without continuous practice however, or consistency of awareness, the capacity to change is limited.
The belief that there is an anatomical or universal correct alignment is a judgement of right versus wrong. There are only tendencies. Every individual has a unique structure, the differing possibilities may be worlds apart. However, every individual needs some sense of alignment, or centredness in each posture to effectively develop awareness.
Balance the breath between aliveness and alignment in a posture and the tranquility of accepting it as it is. Be aware that the body usually has a very good reason for creating the so called mis-alignment or dis-ease in the first place. To try to force it back in to place is potentially more damaging than the original problem. Through acceptance change occurs, but only so far as is appropriate. Trust will develop as the body and mind begin to communicate more effectively and change will occur to the level that is needed. Do not seek to change: allow it to occur.
There are only three distinct asana sequences in Astanga yoga. They are Primary, Intermediate and Advanced. However, as there are many more Advanced asana than the others, the Advanced series has been organised into four sections, A, B, C and D. That is, six sequences in total. Each sequence starts with Suryanamaskara and standing postures, though some of the final standing asana are left aside when practicing the later sequences. Each has the same end: back bends and finishing postures. Each sequence has around thirty sitting postures.
The Primary sequence is called yoga chikitsa, meaning body therapy. There are two main areas which distinguish it from the other sequences: the emphasis on the hamstrings (forward bends) and the number of jumps. The repetitious nature of the sequence may become problematic. However, as the hamstring is a muscle, it tends to adapt and change more readily. If the hamstrings lengthen and the legs become stronger the lower back generally becomes more secure and supple. Conversely if the hamstring is over emphasised this will commonly destabilise the spine. Due patience should be observed in order not to push: focus on the process rather than the goal.
All forward bends contract the front of the body in some manner, purifying the internal organs. That is, body therapy. If the Primary sequence began with back bends, the overstimulation of the spine and nervous system would be premature: there would be many more complaints. The number of jumps in the Primary sequence can be problematic and initially exhausting. Some students tend to avoid the strength and jumping aspect of the Primary sequence by practising Intermediate prematurely. Overall strength and endurance is best developed in the Primary sequence.
In the Primary series there are a few core postures which are common stumbling blocks. They are Marichyasana D, Kurmasana, Garbha Pindasana and Baddha Konasana. All of these postures can be quite confronting and some time and patience is usually necessary for the body to adapt. It is quite common for a student to practice (or be taught) the whole sequence prior to exploring these core asana thoroughly. The final section of Primary is often more than a little messy as a result. Generally it is better to focus on these core postures first, rather than skimming over them to get to the finish line.
There are some basic requirements in these postures. For example, binding the hands in Marichyasana D. In this posture the front knee and both sit-bones may not go flat to the floor for some time, if at all. Binding the hands is the first crucial step. Being able to get the feet approximately behind the head in Kurmasana is important. This posture may require an adjustment from the teacher most of the time. Many students, particularly those with shorter limbs, may not be able to bind the hands and keep the legs behind the head at the same time. Also of note is the previous posture to Kurmasana: Bhuja Pidasana. This posture requires a degree of strength which counterbalances the flexibility needed to get into Kurmasana. There may be a tendency to be better at one than the other. That is, flexibility rather than strength or vice versa. Try to balance these asana equally. Being able to get the knees flat in Baddha Konasana is highly beneficial. If this posture improves then many of the previous postures such as Garbha Pindasana and Manchyasana D will become easier.
These four core asana, also called binds, have a similar difficulty for many students. That is, immobility in the knees, hips and lower spine. Firstly, a consistent and gentle approach to practice will gradually help improve these areas. However, the following simple practice may also help:
Every evening do Baddha Konasana with the spine upright against a wall. Do it while eating or reading and stay there for ten to twenty minutes. No other props are necessary. Also practice sitting in upright Virasana (kneeling posture with the feet beside the hips and knees parallel). Do this posture with a blanket or pillow under the buttocks. Hold this for only five or ten minutes. Remember not to overdo it. Like any asana, if practiced without care or without listening to the body it may cause some instability. Slowly the disposition of the knees and hips will improve.
The Intermediate sequence is called nadi sodhana meaning nervous system purification. This sequence begins with back bends, followed by their counterpart, legs-behind-the-head. The opposing nature of these postures creates a resonance in the nervous system. The second half of the sequence deals with both strength and more calming asana. Intermediate can be over-stimulating at first. It is essential to get rest and decent sleep after practicing it. Strange dreams, heart palpitations and insomnia are common, often on top of bodily aches and pains.
The first requirement in the Intermediate core postures is being able to bind the hands in Pasasana. Getting the heels flat in this posture is also important though may not occur for some time. Binding the hands and balancing is the foundation. Binding the heels in Kapotasana is considered a basic minimum, though merely touching the feet is a common starting point. Also of note is the previous posture to Kapotasana: Laghu Vajrasana. This asana requires strength, counterbalancing the flexibility necessary to get into Kapotasana. Similar to the pairing of Bhuja Pidasana and Kurmasana, each aspect of these asana (strength and flexibility needs to be balanced equally.
The difficulty in Dwi Pada Sirsasana can usually only besur mounted by regularly practicing the asana itself. Or making a near attempt. For many students staying on this posture for some time (weeks or months or longer) is usually necessary. Getting down into Karandavasana without assistance is a minimum standard. Coming up from this posture is not as likely or essential and may require more strength than is readily available. That is, coming up from this posture is not considered vital before moving on to the next posture.
The Advanced sequences (A, B, C and D) are called sthira bhaga meaning steady strength. They each require steadiness of body and mind. In particular, the practice of the arm balances in Advanced A requires a great deal of discipline to master. It is not the asana that are necessarily difficult, it is the intensity of practicing them one after the other, the vinyasa, that is often more challenging. A fellow teacher adequately summed up the effects of practicing Advanced with the following words: “It knocks the stuffing out of you!” Nevertheless, strength is developed. Core postures for the Advanced sequences are not specified as they are too individual: every posture is core!
A minimum ability with the core asana is assumed before the student is usually allowed to move on to the next posture. Ideally one should be able to complete every asana without any assistance. It is common for a student to be held at the core asana a lot longer than the others in the sequence. However, it is not essential to do these asana perfectly before moving on: just do not avoid them, find out what the body’s limits are first! The postures become progressively more difficult with each sequence. In the Primary sequence the ability to do the asana well is important but some allowance for individual capacity and expression is encouraged. In Intermediate there is less leeway and the postures need to be done with a minimum amount of fluidity, particularly for safety’s sake. In Advanced there is almost no leeway.
With all core postures (or any posture that is difficult) it can be useful to repeat the posture two or three times in the same practice. Avoid over-straining and stop if the breathing becomes too restricted. Each time it is done there will be a change in awareness, a slightly different way of doing it. The body adapts and the posture improves. Repetition does not entertain, it teaches. Keep in mind, however, that repeating a posture in the same practice is disruptive and may detract from other vital qualities. Ideally the practice is a consistent flow, the body moves with the breath and the mind follows.
The concept of core asana is not a traditional understanding of the practice. As there are always exceptions to the rule as far as ability is concerned, the idea that any one posture is more difficult than any other is completely relative to the individual. As a generalisation, however, it holds true: the asana mentioned here are commonly the most difficult. It is important not to practice the sequence and leave them out, in the too hard basket.
Jump Throughs and Jump Backs
When learning jump throughs and jump backs, try to optimise both the feeling of lightness (no strain) and strength, particularly in the mid-section. One without the other is an imbalance. It is not necessary or desirable to push to achieve the complete floating action: for some this may never happen. It is applying the right attitude with the right technique which achieves optimum strength and lightness.
Jumping into and out of the postures should be standardised. Jump through with the legs crossed rather than straight legged. Lead with the knees, not with the feet and the centre of your body will tend to engage. The straight legged jump through should only be practiced if you can jump through cross legged: to float back and float through with control and without touching the feet to the floor (Figure 5). The straight legged jump through is easier for some students and does not develop strength as effectively.
When learning, keep the feet back and allow them to land on the floor first before coming through. This may be the first few years of practice! Also do the same when jumping back: place the hands in front of the feet rather than behind them (Figure 4). Try to slow down the jump through at this half-way point (just between the arms) rather than trying to hurry the feet through with little or no control. When jumping through, keep the feet back and the toes pointed when you land. Avoid flexing them at all unless you can hold the lift in mid-air. Try to keep the hips up and use the breath (inhalation) to help.
Do not attempt to jump directly into a sitting posture without making the transition through lolasana. (Figure 4 or figure 5.) To develop strength effectively always jump through and jump back with legs crossed. Some postures such as Bhuja Pidasana and Kurmasana are obvious exceptions. When jumping back from both sides of a posture it is useful to alternate crossing the legs on each side. Jump through and jump back on the right side of the posture with the right leg underneath and jump through and jump back on the left side of the posture with the left leg underneath.
A common perception of many practitioners, particularly women, is a lack of core strength. That is, little or no progress with float backs. As the practice does require strength to maintain, there is some validity to this view. However, do not focus too much on core/mala bandha strength at the expense of other areas of the practice (such as overall strength) or they may suffer. Usually if there is no core strength also there is no overall strength. In general the abdominal and lower back region should be strengthened and supported throughout the practice. Do the practice with consistent awareness of any weaknesses and the body will usually assert its own organic sense of balance.
Core strength is ideal for everyone, but particularly useful for lower back difficulty, or when there is over development in the upper body. Because of the emphasis on the jumps in the sequence upper body strength is also emphasised, at least initially. Arm strength is important and to ignore this in favour of core strength may be detrimental. Both are useful. By using the arms effectively you can begin to access the lateral muscles of the torso and then the “core” of the abdominal region. That is, throughout the practice keep the shoulder blades sliding down the back rather than rising up to the ears. This decreases tension in the upper shoulder and trapezius muscles and is particularly useful when doing the jumps and the chaturanga/up dog/down dog vinyasa. With the shoulders down and elbows generally tucked in, both the latisimus dorsi and intercostal muscles will begin to engage. In time, any aggravation in the neck and shoulders will disperse as the overall practice improves.
Unlike most other yoga methods Astanga yoga develops strength as much as flexibility. This is largely due to consistency and repetition of practice. If strength is over developed in areas where it already exists or remains underdeveloped in blind areas, seek to re-balance this. Ideally you should be able hold the weight of the whole body from any other part of the body: balance on one foot, on the back, belly, head, hands etc. In this way each part of the body is strong relative to the next. The interconnectedness of the body should become apparent. From this point of view it does not matter if you can “float back” (and hold mula bandha) or not. Your body will become more balanced, relative for you.
The concept of core strength is intertwined with that of core stability. One without the other is impossible. To push too much to achieve the desired core strength will ultimately destabilise the body. The spine is another aspect of the core, particularly the relationship between the movements of the spine and the various abdominal muscles. This can be a complex area to examine. As the breath becomes longer and softer, the spine can reach its maximum potential with all range of movements. As with trying to control the breath, trying to control the spine and abdomen at all times is undesirable. The spine is always moving. To hold it rigidly decreases the spine’s ability to articulate. As the ability and awareness in a posture increases, the sense of the subtle movements of the spine and abdomen should also increase. Pay particular attention to the movement of breath as it affects the different regions of the spine and the core will begin to stabilise.
There are many techniques to aid the development of core strength or strength in any part of the body for that matter. Often it does take an external point of view to bring attention to the blind or dead areas of the practice. If a particular technique increases awareness in a blind area, then use it. Just remember that it is awareness alone that is the key.
Back Bends and Handstand
The first back bending posture in the sequence is Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, or upward dog. In upward dog there is a tendency to move the head too quickly and the neck and diaphragm often lock up as a result. This can have an adverse effect on the lower back. Try to move the head back at the very last when arching in this posture. Also give most importance to the breath (the inhalation) rather than over arching, or forcing correct alignment, i.e. inhale completely without any locking or bearing down of the ribs and diaphragm. The breath may pause at the end, but it is not tight or held. It can be useful to hold this posture for longer than a single inhalation (for two or three breaths instead) particularly after Navdsana and Kurmasana when it may be more difficult to arch. This posture counterbalances all of the forward bends and the contracted nature of the jumps.
The traditional Mysore method of back bending is to restrict all students to Primary asana until they can drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana (and come up) on their own. That is, no Intermediate asana until you can do drop backs, even if the initial Intermediate back bends are easier. Some leeway can be given with this rule, but practicing the drop back should not be ignored. It takes energy and perseverance. If it is difficult to complete the full drop back to the floor, half-bending (figure 6) can be practiced regularly. Arch the back from an upright standing position with the arms crossed over the chest. Bend back on the exhalation and move down towards the floor a little way and then back up again on the inhalation: one breath with one movement repeated a few times. Gradually develop the strength and control in the legs and spine, and only add the arm movement (to the floor) if there is little or no pain.
The photographic section of this book shows the most common order of transition from (1) drop backs, to (2) handstand drop-overs, to (3) full Vipanta Chakrdsana, rather than the traditional variation of doing (3) Viparita Chakrasana before (2) handstand drop-overs. (See page 48). An important aspect of the back bend/handstand sequence, particularly the order of it, is that handstands are not a part of the Primary sequence. Until the Primary asana are developed sufficiently and Intermediate is begun, handstands should be left aside. Develop the jump backs, drop backs and headstand well before attempting this advanced asana. Increase the strength of the arms and abdomen (jump backs) the flexibility of the spine (drop backs) and the ability to balance (headstand) to gain the proper ability with the handstand.
The correct order of learning the inverted postures is: first shoulder-stand, then headstand, then the fore-arm balance (Pincha Mayurasana) and then handstand. This means that a student would not normally begin handstand until he or she has completed Pincha Mayurasana in the Intermediate sequence. However, as handstand is a part of the back bending sequence, it is useful to commence its regular practice at the same time the student commences Intermediate. The student’s ability with headstand (balance) and with flexibility and strength (drop backs and jump backs) will determine the degree to which handstand will improve. There are some asana that most people want to be able to practice straight away: the lotus posture, drop backs, splits and handstands. Each of these should be learnt in its own time. All of the foundation work done in the Primary and Intermediate sequences will lead to these asana.
Variations in the Sequence
The variation of doing Trivikramasana and Supta Trivikramasana (standing and lying splits) after Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Supta Padangusthasana respectively has been left out of the main section of this book since they are not Primarybasana. However, they are an accepted part of the practice. In general one should have completed all of Primary before commencing to practice these Advanced asana. If one of these is practiced (e.g. Trivikramasana) you should do both (Supta Trivikramasana). Also it is best to do these asana after completing both sides of Padangusthasana (whether standing or lying) rather than doing it in the middle between sides. (Figure 7). This keeps each asana separate and clear and allows a short rest between them.
In times past Hanumanasana and Sama Konasana (front and side splits) were sometimes practiced after Prasarita Padottdndsana D (sometimes including handstands). This practice isnno longer a part of the accepted form. One problem is not being sufficientlybwarm and open to practice these at the start. Most importantly, however, Primary and Intermediate asana should be attended to before rushing into Advanced asana. Also, both splits postures are sitting asana and to go to the floor in the middle of a standing sequence unnecessarily interrupts the flow and energy of the upright postures. The splits postures are practiced near the end of their respective sequences when the body is more open.
It is standard for most vinyasa to do the right side first: step to the right, move the bright leg, fold it in position etc. Pasasana is one exception to this rule.b It is traditional to sit in Padmasana with the right foot folded first. The right heel (lower) accentuates the descending colon and spleen. The left heel (higher) accentuates the ascending colon and liver. This is considered the correct crossing energetically; male (right) and female (left), particularly for meditation. However, after the first year or so of practice, it is useful to begin crossing the legs in Padmasana on the alternate side in order to balance the knees and hips. This is also true for Kurmasana, Dwi Pada Sirsasana and Yoga Nidrasana.
Another variation is the inclusion of the twisted Parsvakonasana in the sequence. As this posture is considered to be an Intermediateasana, traditionally it is not taught to beginners. Lastly, the practice of jnana mudra (thumb and fore-finger together) should only be maintained while sitting in the final Padmasana and in Mula Bandhasana and Yoga Dandasana. The thumb represents universal consciousness (Brahman) and the fore-finger represents individual consciousness (aman) yoked together as one. In all other postures the mudra should be left aside as it is energetically stimulating and a distraction from doing the posture in its simplicity.