Notes on The Primary Series and the vinyasa system
Over the past two weeks we have explored a modified version of the Ashtanga primary series. The primary series is also known as Yoga Chikitsa (yoga therapy) or simply “first series.” This series lays the foundation for the Ashtanga and vinyasa system.
The name Yoga Chikitsa refers the cleansing and strengthening effect repeated practice of the sequence is reported to have on the internal organs, endocrine system and lymphatic system via the many postures that compress, stretch and twist the abdomen. This repeated compressing, stretching and twisting of the abdomen can be viewed as a way to manually massage and stimulate the internal body.
In addition, practice of the vinyasa method seeks to create internal heat and promotes sweating. This heat and sweating combined with stretching is thought to improve circulation of blood and fluid in the body. Greater and freer circulation of fluid in the body could have many therapeutic benefits to the circulatory and lymphatic system.
From a musculoskeletal perspective the sequence seeks to gradually take the spine and hips into deeper states of flexion. It also seeks to build deeper external rotation of the hips. The flexion of the spine and hips is seen in the many and progressively harder forward folding postures and variations on squatting. The deeper external rotation of the hips is built throughout the sequence through variations on padmasana, janu sirsasana and baddha konasana (lotus, head to knee and bound angle.)
In addition the primary series both introduces and heavily features the movement of “jumping through” from downward facing dog to a seated position and “jumping back” from a seated position to chaturanga dandasana (plank.) A strong coordination of breathing and movement is required to execute this jumping or floating properly. This is an extremely important point that I will address more in a later essay.
The foundation postures of this floating action are lolasana (swing) and tolasana (scale.) The repeated effort of lifting the weight of the body off the floor and tucking into a ball to make the feet clear the floor develops a muscular intelligence, connection and communication between the upper and lower body. In other words it requires a simultaneous co-activation of many shoulder, back, core, hip and pelvic muscles, essentially teaching these many different muscle groups to work together and create something greater than the sum on their parts. This concept of upper and lower body working in union is first introduced in surya namaskara (sun salutation) through the postures adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) and chaturanga dandasana (plank.)
Why modify and split the sequence?
The choice to modify and/or split the sequence is both common and controversial. I will address the two points separately.
Although referred to as the Primary Series, the sequence is anything but “primary.” The full sequence features postures that are just not appropriate for an all levels, drop in yoga class. The sequence features many postures in padmasana (lotus), inversions and even a posture with both legs behind the head. This sequence is traditionally taught on an individual basis from teacher to student. The student is expected to practice daily and is only taught the next posture in the sequence when the student has committed the previous postures to memory and can perform them to the teachers satisfaction. When practiced daily in this way the full primary series is expected to take one to three years to learn and perform competently.
This vertical style of learning is referred to as Mysore style in the yoga world. Like any style of learning and teaching there are positives and negatives to this approach. It is the way I choose to study yoga under my teacher.
In my modification of the sequence I left out many of lotus postures and a few of the more exotic and difficult poses. My feeling is that there are poses and ranges of motion in the body that only develop and are needed if you are practicing asana daily and desire to someday progress to advanced asana. Two examples of this from the primary series are janu sirsasana C and marichyasana D... they are worth a Google search. Although advanced poses have possibly greater benefits to the body and mind for the lay practitioner they are not needed to enjoy and benefit from yoga practice.
The choice to split the sequence into two parts is mostly due to practicality and time constraints. The full sequence is over 50 poses from start to finish and takes practitioners who know it by heart 60 to 90 minutes to perform without stopping for breaks. Our vinyasa classes are 75 minutes in length and none of the students know the sequence by heart.
The splitting of the sequence also highlights the different focus from first half to second half. The first half focuses almost exclusively on asymmetrical forward folding and twisting asana with navasana (boat) seen as the half way point. The second half focuses almost exclusively on symmetrical forward folding and strength building postures. The second half also introduces postures and transitions that require greater synchronization of breath and movement.
You can view the entire primary series taught by its propagator Sri K. Pattabhi Jois on youtube.