Ashtanga 101: Breaking Down the Primary and Secondary Series

Ashtanga is one of the oldest yoga lineages in existence. Here’s what you need to know about the basic series that started it all.

Bibi is an advanced Ashtanga Yoga practitioner and studio owner teaching at Wanderlust Whistler this year. Pay homage to the foundations of your practice and explore Ashtanga with her IRL. In the meantime, let's break down just what the traditional Ashtanga series are all about. 

Ashtanga: The Basics

Ashtanga Yoga is the yoga of the Ashta (eight) Anga (limbs). It is the practice of: Yama, niyasa, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. It is taught through asana; Asana is the tool (or trampoline!) for the practitioner to dive into the deeper realms of its subsequent seven limbs. Asana in itself, the way it’s sequenced in the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois, Sharath Jois, Saraswati Jois, Manju Jois, and all their authorized teachers, is not Ashtanga Yoga. Alone, asana is just one of the limbs, not to be mistaken as an end in itself. My experience through the years with this practice has come to teach me that practice—whichever practice you choose—is not and should never be about the teacher. The teacher is there to serve as a mirror or a guide for the practitioner to walk their own path, make their own choices and mistakes. I never was one to put any human on a pedestal, and I didn’t come to this practice because of any guru. I today call Sharath Jois my Guru but only because over the past seven years he has never failed to show me that this is not about any teacher but about my own journey. This is how I choose to teach today: to offer a space for people to come meet themselves through the practice. I’m there to assist and guide when needed. Unfortunately Ashtanga Yoga has gained a bad reputation of injuring people. It bears mentioning that Pattabhi Jois has faced accusations of sexual misconduct, and the practice itself has been called a cult. I choose to stay out of all these things. I don’t practice Pattabhi Jois yoga, I practice the yoga of the eight limbs and I believe it should be carried through the years because it heals not only the body but also the mind. Again, we should never put anyone on a pedestal. It is the responsibility of each individual yogi to remember why we are practicing, and that we have the right to speak up and walk away.

My Story

I offer this practice because it’s helped me heal. I came to this practice eight years ago a broken woman. I was struggling with anorexia, and had a terrible relationship with myself. The rigid structure of this style—showing up daily—helped me become less rigid and structured with myself off the mat. I was always very lucky with the teachers I’ve had over the years, they never interfered with my journey and were always excellent intuitive  listeners. I believe that this practice leaves room for a lot of modifications, so it can be adapted to the person coming to it. Assisting Sharath over the past four years, I see how he himself is able to see the student as they are and help them past their limitations by either pushing or holding them back. Everyone has a different experience of Mysore, and that’s because we all innately tend to project our own stuff onto situations. Reality gets filtered. In this article I’m going to tell the story of what practice is. I’m not a doctor, I’m just a yogi retelling stories that have been handed down to me and that I have personally experienced to be true through my own practice. This is not absolute truth. It is a mere invitation to see the practice from my perspective, learn from it or let it go.

Primary Series: The Basics

Primary series, or yoga chikitsa, is a healing practice. It is a practice meant to work on resetting the physical body so that the practitioner can begin to work at a deeper level by sitting in meditation, sitting for pranayama, or working with the body at deeper levels through the series that follow it. Primary series targets the main organs of the body, such as the digestive system, liver, gall bladder and kidneys. It also  balances our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The practice is based on and around the tristhana method: pranayama, asana, and dristhi, or gaze. The breathing technique we use is Ujjayi breathing, victorious breath, or ‘deep breathing with sound.' This specific type of breathing creates tapas, or heat, in the body. My understanding of this is that the heat generated through the linking of Ujayi breath and movement makes it easier for the blood to circulate through the different tissues and organs in the body. A lack of flexibility belies a lack of blood circulation in the tissues around the area of stiffness. Enter: Asana. Each asana is geared to create space in specific regions of the body with the means of facilitating the flow of blood. When the blood is able to circulate to areas of stiffness the muscles, tissues and fascia begin to soften and become more flexible, allowing for opening to happen. Doing the same asanas repeatedly six days a week allows for the body to bring circulation to these areas consistently. It’s like etching away at a block of rock or wood—eventually it gives. Circulation also happens within the organs; each asana targets a specific organ, blocking the flow of blood for 5 breaths at a time; when the asana is released the blood is flushed back into the area forcing stagnant things and toxins to move along towards the peripheries of the body. When we rest in Savasana everything that has been moved, circulates closer to the surface of the skin and is released. This is why primary series is such an important practice which we continue to revisit weekly even as advanced practitioners. All the elements and movements of practice are within the primary series. The rest of the series are just advanced versions and variations of the primary series asanas.

Secondary Series: Building on the Basics

Second series, or nadi shodhana, is a sequence of poses designed to clear the nervous system and the energy channels of the subtle body known as the nadhis. There are over 70,000 nadhis in the body. The focus of this series is on backbends, deep hip openers, and some inversions. It fires up the sympathetic nervous system with the goal of creating stress on the nerves in a safe space to learn to cope with it in a non-stressful space. The deep backbends and the hip openers activate the sympathetic nervous system, and once the practitioners arrives in the finishing poses the focus shifts onto the parasympathetic system, enabling the practitioner to experience a deep state of relaxation at the end of the practice.

Off the Mat

This series can be experienced as emotionally intense. I remember when I was learning the practice I experienced a lot of emotional cleansing and growth: changes in my sleeping cycle, moving through strong emotions, anger that kept erupting out of my heart during the practice until one day it was gone. I also felt vulnerable and experienced heightened awareness of the spiritual side of things, like the need to sit and meditate or simply be in silence. Practicing the second series of Ashtanga yoga means you are established and devoted to the daily practice. It also naturally leads the practitioner to enquire about the deeper aspects of yoga: yamas and niyamas. I have been vegetarian for over 10 years now, and mostly vegan for the past three. This was never a conscious decision, it came as a natural byproduct of practice. Following a vegan/vegetarian diet will come naturally in most practitioners as the body and mind become pure, as the system is highly purified and sensitive to all that is assimilated. I’ve had moments however through the different seasons of practice where, due to health conditions I’ve had to eat some animal products, and I therefore don’t preach that it should be any means be a lifestyle. I let practice guide me towards health, and I invite you to do the same, with the intention of not harming yourself, and others (environment included) as much as possible.

Meditation

Curiosity towards the philosophy of yoga and God begins to develop naturally in the mind. The mind is more prone to sit comfortably in stillness. As the nervous system—and therefore the senses—are being purified, it becomes easier to observe the quality of the chitta, or "mind stuff." The practitioner is therefore naturally called to meditate. Nadhi Shodana is also a pranayama breathing technique that calms the mind, body and emotions. The term comes from the Sanskrit nadi, meaning "channel," and shodhana, meaning "cleaning" or "purifying." It is also known as the alternate nostril breathing. It helps to harmonize the hemispheres of the brain, balancing the logical and emotional sides of the practitioner's personality. Nadi shodhana (the practice), just as the pranayama technique, helps circulate breath through the nadis, the chakras and the brain, thus, returning the body to a state of balance.

We practice these series in a specific order because as you have read above, the body has to be ready. The practice is slowly preparing the vessel of the body for sitting in silence. It is a process of purification that begins with the physical to penetrate into the subtle. It uses asana as the means to create space for prana to flow. Through the ‘vinyasa’ or the linking of the breath with the movement it generates heat, which in turns stimulates circulation which unlocks granthis, or blockages / knots, in the physical and energy body. Through this very detailed and tightly structured method we are able to begin to see ourselves for who we are as Purusha. We are able to discriminate what is real from what is unreal and in this find a deep sense of coming home within ourselves.

Ashtanga as Basis for Popular Yoga

Vinyasa yoga stems out of Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga is Vinyasa yoga. Vinyasa means linking of breath and movement, like Ashtanga Yoga it is not a brand of yoga. In a ‘vinyasa yoga’ class, sequences are personal interpretations of the understanding of aspects of practice of each individual teacher. Intelligently-threaded vinyasa sequences will usually be aimed at helping the student understand and come into a specific asana. They are more physically oriented then the Ashtanga practice. While you may feel a sense of peace and union within yourself after a vinyasa class, there is no space for internal lasting transformation, but more of a temporary sense of relief. When taught by good teachers it can greatly help the student in overcoming physical ailments, and it still gives way for prana and circulation to come into areas of blockage. In my own experience the practice of vinyasa as we know it today, had its place for a few years, but it felt limited as it relied on a teacher, and I was not able to see the internal transformation as the years passed. That is why I also stopped teaching it, I felt I was not serving others. I longed for something more. Ashtanga yoga gives body and mind an opportunity to open and transform progressively and on a regular basis. The practice is done in silence, there is no one telling you what to do, no music drawing out the sound of your—chitta (mind stuff)—so the practitioner is left observing the different formations and creations of the mind. In that observing comes knowing and with knowing comes the opportunity for growth. When you become aware of something you have the power to change it. As the practice is learned slowly over a long period of times, it allows for the changes to happen gradually, as the practitioner becomes ready for them. Mysore style practice is a one on one practice which means you create a strong relationship to the teacher, who gets to know you as a whole over time and can therefore guide you properly throughout the different phases of life. Vinyasa requires a different kind of commitment to oneself, and is therefore limited in its ability to serve as a healing transformative practice. Ashtanga yoga requires daily commitment, dedication and discipline. It is a practice that we take on to serve us for a lifetime, it changes and we grows with us. — bibi author bio photoBibi Lorenzetti is a Level 2 Authorized Ashtanga Yoga Teacher & Holistic Health Coach. She received her blessing to teach Ashtanga Yoga in 2014, from the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India, where she has had the honor of assisting R. Sharath Jois multiple times over the years. She taught at the Shala Yoga House in New York City for over 6 years and is now the owner of her own Shala in Newburgh, New York: Ashtanga Yoga Newburgh (AYNBNY).