I remember reading an article a few days back where the author was defending the idea that Ashtanga’s Primary Series is not just about forward folds and indeed has enough back-bending opportunities integrated into the sequence.
It explained how every Vinyasa, which has an Upward Facing Dog, is the students’ time in the practice to open up the back—which is true.!
Ashtanga, by the way, is one of the most traditional Yogic Sciences (I say science and not style, and you’ll know why soon enough) that are alive today. The Series is divided into six progressively intense sequences intended to cleanse the body and make it capable of withstanding the final surge of energies in meditation. It demands a life-long ( or many lifetimes) commitment. Just the Primary (the first series) can take anywhere between two to five years to master, still with room for improvement.
The practice is almost engineered for individual student depending on their capacities. So for an absolute beginner it would be just surayanamaskas (sun salutations) along with closing sequence, which is a complete practice in itself, still offering all the benefits of Yoga. As a student’s ease and comfort with it increases, new asanas are added slowly, guiding them into the ritual of practice.
However, this article made me wonder if the issue really was about the Primary Series not having a lot of back-bending asanas specifically. Technically this is true, as the series only has backbends in the end of the Primary sequence—and that just one asana (Urdhava Dhanurasana, wheel) along with its variations of drop backs and lifts.
I have to be honest here. I have struggled with my ego on this front in the past. A lot of my yogi friends who practice other styles can easily melt into Kapotasana and other more intense back bends that I have willingly given up as they are not the part of my sequence.
I am not in a hurry anymore to claim the Intermediate Series, because I am learning to “own” my practice, no matter how many or what asanas it includes, as I still get the physical and psychological benefits just by being consistent.
This, however, was not me originally.
Before I started this practice, I was the person who would pounce at a challenge. Claim the asana and seek tips and tricks to accelerate the process of achieving it.
I changed. And the change was so gentle and organic I didn’t even know how or when it happened. It made me wonder and gave me a chance to study my self and look at the reason behind this change. And here’s what I think is the reason: the Ashtanga Primary Series and its forward folds.
Ashtanga is such a dedicated and long path. Very often I see students brimming with enthusiasm (not necessarily in a bad way) in the beginning, willing to learn a new asana every day so that they can quickly “finish” the Series. They are stunned to learn how long it can take if you are starting from the scratch. The Primary Series has been designed so that you can stay on it for “Deerghakaal” (a very long time), slowly giving up all attachments and surrendering yourself to the practice and the teacher.
Have you noticed how Ashtangis display fierce loyalty toward their teachers? Earlier I used to wonder what sparked that. After a few years of practicing, I developed deep regards for my teacher (Saraswati Maaji) too, and I wondered if it was the sequence itself triggering it.
We are all told how the forward folds are associated with “Vairagya” Bhava, or complete surrender. I obviously can’t be sure, as I am hardly an authority on claiming it, but by personal experience I have begun to conclude that maybe the Series has a science behind it, which over years of consistent and (seemingly) gruesome routine somewhere sows the seed of surrender in practitioners. Perhaps the forward folds of the Primary Series; make sure that we do not give up on the path and attempt it every single day of our life with devotion and dedication. And when we are ready—with our mind cleared and humbled of all perceptions about what the practice is about—we are finally introduced to the Intermediate Series with its ample backbends. By then, we are ready to embrace the other aspects connected with it.
Some of the famous quotes by Shri. K Pattabhi Jois subtly point towards that direction too:
Do your practice and all is coming.
Yoga is 99 percent practice, one percent theory.
Body is not stiff. Mind is.
Like the phoenix bird, the Primary Series burns us down to ashes so that when we graduate to the Intermediate Series we are a new bird with a more flexible, cleansed mind and body. Willing to spread its wings and discover new dimensions of its body and mind, continuing on the never ending path of Yoga.
Author: Ruchi Kapoor
Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Used with permission from Fabio Filippi