On September 23, 2020, I decided to turn on the video camera, along with a few more lights than usual, and film my Third Series Ashtanga practice. The video takes place in the dark early morning hours of 2:25 – 4:15 am, at home in Kenderan, Bali, before going to teach my Mysore class at The Seeds of Life Cafe in Ubud.
The video is not meant to be a perfect demonstration, but rather an accurate documentation of what an average practice looks like for me, as it is and as it has been each and every day since I began to practice the Ashtanga system of Asana in 2003. I chose not to select my “greatest hits” (scripted performances of my best asanas) nor did I edit out any mistakes or weaknesses. There was no staging, editing, retakes, music, enhancements, or anything else. This is real and raw practice.
The video above is the entire Third Series from Surya Namaskar A to Utpluthi. I made three cuts in the video – editing out a toilet break, a break where I had to chase the dogs out of the room when they decided to play around my mat (the brighter lights usually aren’t on and it seemed to make them more active than they usually are at this time of the morning), and lastly I cut out the section of Fourth Series postures, so the video jumps from the last posture of Third Series to final backbending. Aside from those three cuts there are no further edits.
I also cut the video up into six separate segments, and over a period of several months in late 2020 and early 2021, I posted those segments to my Facebook page, along with an extensive commentary for each section. I have now collected all of those commentaries and posted them below, alongside each of the video segments, so the entire series now has a home as a collected whole here on my website. Each commentary focuses on some of the fundamental principles of the energetic dynamics of the Ashtanga system. The principles that I discuss in each section are inspired by that particular section of Third Series, however they are also principles which apply to the Ashtanga system as a whole, and therefore should be of interest and relevance to practitioners of all levels.
Part 1: Surya Namaskar A & B + Standing Sequence
00:00 – 5 x Surya Namaskara A
06:52 – 3 x Surya Namaskara B
12:41 – Padangusthasana – Padahastasana
14:10 – Trikonasana A & B
16:12 – Parshvakonasana A & B
18:03 – Prasarita Padottanasana A – D
21:29 – Parshvottanasana
In the Ashtanga system of asana practice, we always begin with 5 repetitions of Surya Namaskara A, 3 repetitions of Surya Namaskara B and the Standing Sequence, regardless of which series we are going to practice on that day. These first 25 – 30 minutes of practice are the same for all practitioners, regardless of whether one has yet to complete Primary Series, or whether one has been practicing Third or Fourth Series for decades.
I’ve begun my daily practice with this 25 minute sequence each morning for the past 19 years. The repetitive nature of the Ashtanga system and the simplicity of this introductory section of the practice is a feature which some aspiring practitioners consider to be boring. The necessity of working through this initial aspect of self-encountering (the tendency to become distracted and bored while craving for gratification through novelty) dissuades them from delving deeper into the system. At my shala in Ubud, Bali, I frequently receive inquiries from practitioners with varied backgrounds who are interested in giving a trial to the Ashtanga practice. For someone who does not already have an established, daily Mysore style practice, the minimum requirement to join my class is one week of daily practice. One week of practice is actually not enough to begin to experience the essence of the Ashtanga practice’s influence on the human organism. A more appropriate initial trial length would be one month. Due to the transient nature of travelers passing through Ubud, I make a concession for one week. This requirement of time commitment is still enough to dissuade many potential students. It weeds out those who are not interested in cultivating focus and commitment.
Those who do commit to join for at least one week encounter the next requirement – which is the ability to memorize the vinyasa sequences of Surya Namaskara A & B and the Standing Sequence, before they are moved on to begin learning the Primary Series. In today’s era of fragmented attention and instant gratification, memorizing this 25 – 30 minute sequence proves to be a challenge for many new students, and they often do not accomplish it within one week. Those who consider themselves to already be accomplished and advanced asana practitioners from other systems of practice – and who perhaps expect to be practicing hand stands, arm balances and advanced backbending – sometimes find that being asked to repeat the Standing Sequence three or four times (or until mistakes in memorizing the sequence are resolved) and then to lie down and take rest is not very gratifying for the ego. They often do not return for a second week of practice.
For those who persevere, and apply themselves to this style of learning, a rich universe of authentic practice and self cultivation opens up for exploration. Surya Namaskara and the Standing Sequence become the cornerstone of a lifelong practice. It is the ground and the roots upon which we build the structure of the core series of asanas. It is the foundation that we can always return to in order to stabilize and recalibrate when the transformative process of the core series of asanas become overly intense or overwhelming. This is ground zero of Ashtanga practice.
Surya Namaskara A & B introduce the fundamental process of coordinating the movements of body and breath in the vinyasa system of practice. For a true beginner, this alone can be enough to grapple with for at least a few days. The key postures Chaturanga Dandasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog) and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) are introduced here. The sequence linking these three postures together is often repeated 50 times or more in a full series practice, so it is imperative that we cultivate some degree of experiential understanding and ease in these three postures.
During the practice of Surya Namaskara, we can focus on the three core postures without the added complication of the other postures of Primary, Intermediate or Advanced series. In particular, it is important to cultivate some degree of comfort in Chaturanga Dandasana. For those who begin the Ashtanga practice with a lack of strength, or with certain injuries or disabilities, we can certainly modify Chaturanga in the beginning stages. In the majority of cases, I prefer that a student applies himself to develop the ability to practice Chaturanga properly (without the knees or belly on the ground) before I begin to teach them the seated asanas of Primary Series. I’ve had students join my shala who have been taught full Primary Series, and yet they cannot perform Chaturanga – Upward Dog – Downward Dog without touching their knees or belly on the ground. Cultivating a 90 minute full Primary Series practice of movement and flexibility without a corresponding cultivation of strength is an extremely imbalanced way to go about progressing through this practice, and I deem it to be incorrect. Also consider that asking someone to begin to cultivate a proper Chaturanga at this stage – when they are already practicing it in a modified way 50 or more times per session – would be overwhelming and destabilizing. It is much more appropriate to cultivate it properly from the beginning. The same philosophy applies to jumping. It is fine for beginners who lack confidence, strength and control to step forward and back – rather than jumping – in the beginning stages. However, by the time one is working on the first seated postures of Primary Series, I do expect at least a rudimentary form of jumping to be attempted.
The importance of the Standing Sequence is often overlooked. This sequence of postures is stabilizing, balancing and therapeutic in nature. Although the postures are basic, there are infinite layers of depth to be found within them for one who practices with a commitment to embodied awareness and an attitude of exploration. After 19 years of practicing this sequence each morning, I still regularly experience new insights within these postures. The way that I experience them within myself continues to evolve and and change over time. The Standing Sequence is often the most enjoyable part of my practice. I appreciate the relaxed stimulation of my body and breath opening up and aligning in a gentle way, before the more intensive postures of the core series exert their effect upon me. The way that I feel during the Standing Sequence is also an important indicator of the constantly changing state of my body, breath and nerves on each particular morning.
A fundamental skill which is essential to cultivate in the Standing Sequence is the ability to harness the force of the earth and to channel it throughout the entirety of our body and breath. This is the core alignment which is common to each and every asana that we practice. It is also known as “Mula Bandha.” Mula Bandha is experienced when the part of our body which is in contact with the ground is able to press down into the earth with firmness and stability, while we simultaneously release tension in order to allow the resistance that comes from our engagement with the earth to spread and reverberate throughout our entire body. In essence, Mula Bandha is the experience of a continuous and unbroken energetic connection between ourselves and our surrounding environment. A tree drops its roots into the ground, while growing and spreading upward and outward into the space surrounding it. Similarly, our body and breath extend themselves downward into the earth, while simultaneously expanding outwards into the atmosphere around us. For me, asana practice is a cultivation of the fluidity of my relationship with my environment to the extent that the boundaries between myself and my environment are blurred. Bandha is a process of working with the ground and space as if they are extensions of one’s own body and breath. Refining the way that we respond to the ground beneath us and the space around us – at an intuitive and phenomenal level of experience – is the key to cultivating efficiency and fluidity in our movement patterns. I have written in greater detail about this process in my article “The Tree of Bandha.”
Standing on the ground, and cultivating the ability to harness the earth’s energy through the soles of our feet is the appropriate place to begin to cultivate the process and state of Mula Bandha. Those who fail to learn how to harness the earth’s energy through their feet in the Standing Sequence, will most likely not be able to do so with other parts of their body in the more complex postures of the core series of asanas. I’ve seen practitioners who manage to get through Primary Series and some of Intermediate Series based on flexibility alone, without cultivating strength and stability through a solid connection to the earth. At some point in Intermediate Series, these practitioners become stuck and they aren’t able to move forward until they learn how to cultivate the foundational element of deepening their connection to the ground beneath them, so that effective and efficient movement can blossom from this base.
The grounding and stabilizing aspect of the Standing Sequence is also therapeutic in nature. When the structurally transformative process which is induced by the more intensive postures of Primary, Intermediate or Advanced series becomes overwhelming, and the body and nerves become destabilized and excessive pain is experienced, my advice is always to continue to practice at least the Standing Sequence – returning to ground zero – until things begin to stabilize and the system is able to manifest a certain degree of dynamic balance again. Once this balance is re-established, we can then move back into the core series of asanas.
Part 2: Advanced A – Lateral extensions and Leg Behind The Head Variations (Visvamitrasana – Durvasana)
00:00 – Visvamitrasana
01:25 – Vasisthasana
02:33 – Kasyapasana
05:18 – Chakorasana
06:50 – Bhairavasana
08:51 – Skandasana
10:53 – Durvasana
Third series can be divided into four distinct sections on the basis of energetic dynamics. Each of these four sections can be further divided into subsections, but the boundaries that delineate the four main sections are the most noteworthy for me and they mark distinctive turning points during my embodied experience of third series.
The first two sections of the series are deeply apanic in nature, while the concluding two sections are pranic in nature. Prana and apana represent opposing, but complementary forms of energetic movement within the human organism. Apana governs exhalation and the movement of energy in the downward direction, while prana governs inhalation, and the movement of energy in the upward direction. An intention of practice should be to cultivate a dynamic and balanced relationship between these two movements. If we are successful in nurturing harmonious communication between these two energetic patterns, we experience a state of bandha.
In the previous section on the Standing Sequence, I characterized the phenomena of bandha as an engaged relationship with our environment. In this context, apana is responsible for the ability to press downward with whichever part of our body is in contact with the earth. Those who are unable to engage firmly with the ground need to cultivate more apanic energy within themselves and their relationship with their environment. Apana is also responsible for the various elimination processes. Defecation, menstruation, and the release of stress and tension through a deep exhale or a heartfelt sigh are all examples of apanic energy movement. The apanic energy pattern is cultivated through postures which stretch the back part of the body (i.e. forward bending) or move the body toward the ground. Vinyasas which are apanic in nature are always executed with an exhalation. In terms of working with the breath, learning how to press the breath down into the root of the belly and the pelvis at the end of the exhalation will improve our proficiency in working with apana. Mastery of the apanic pole of the breath has been attained when we are able to feel clear contact between the end of the exhale and the pelvic floor.
Prana governs the complimentary response to the downward apana movement. It allows us to lift and spread upward. Apana allows us to tap into the energy of the earth (gravity) and prana distributes our response to the earth’s energy throughout our body. Those who are unable to feel a natural ease in lifting the ribcage up and away from the pelvis, and who frequently feel heavy, as if they are sinking down into the earth, need to cultivate more pranic energetic movement within themselves and their relationship with their environment. It should also be noted that prana requires resistance from the ground to manifest effectively. Asana should always be practiced on a firm surface for this reason. A rubber mat and thin cotton rug is usually firm enough, but anyone who has attempted to practice Ashtanga on a plush carpet, or loose sand has experienced the impossibility of overcoming the sinking feeling of excessive apana. I also recommend that seated meditation be practice on a firm surface, for the same reason. A folded wool blanket is the maximum softness which will allow for effective resistance to stimulate pranic lift in the body. Standard meditation cushions are too soft and will lead to compression in the spine due to excessive apana. Those who experience a backache after sitting in meditation for long periods of time should experiment with a firmer meditation cushion. A similar philosophy also applies to sleeping mattresses. A night spent lying on a mattress which is too soft will result in a feeling of compression in practice the next morning.
The qualities of expansion and vitality are governed by prana. Asanas which stretch the front part of the body or lift us upward and away from the ground cultivate the movement of prana. In the Ashtanga system of practice, we execute these types of vinyasas with an inhalation. When working with the breath, we can maximize the expansion of prana by cultivating the ability to inhale into the entire thoracic cavity, including the top of the chest, between the scapula, and the sides of the chest below the armpits. When we can expand the inhalation freely and without restriction into these areas, we have mastered the pranic pole of breathing.
As one matures in the Ashtanga system of practice, a realization tends to occur: The entire practice is designed to enhance and refine the way that we engage with the complementary movements of prana and apana within ourselves and with our environment. Bandha is both a process and result of fluid, stable and dynamic relationship between these two forms of energy, and is a defining feature of mature practice.
There are various methods through which the dynamic balance between prana and apana is cultivated within the Ashtanga system of practice. We can first examine the energetic structure of the ordering of the vinyasa sequences. All of the vinyasa sequences – from Surya Namaskara A to the postures of Third and Fourth Series – follow a similar pattern of oscillation between pranic and apanic movements. For example, in Surya Namaskara A the vinyasas Ekam, Trini, Pancha, Sapta, and Nava are all pranic in nature and executed with an inhalation. The vinyasas Dve, Catvari, Sat and Astau are all apanic in nature and executed with an exhalation. In other words, we alternately stimulate prana and apana, from one vinyasa to the next, for the entire duration of our practice. The net effect of this continuous oscillation is an interwoven communication between prana and apana, which builds a state of bandha over the duration of practice.
We can also examine the balance of prana and apana within each posture. Most postures can be characterized as either predominantly pranic or predominantly apanic in nature. To maintain dynamic balance between prana and apana – and to experience bandha – we must consciously cultivate the pattern that is opposite to the predominate natural pattern of each posture. For example, in a naturally apanic posture such a forward bend, we will predominantly experience the apanic pattern of the back of the body stretching and the movement of the body toward the ground. Yet, to maintain a balanced state within the posture – and thus to experience bandha – we should also consciously cultivate some pranic movement by maintaining spread and opening in the chest and lengthening the crown of the head towards the toes. We should also inhale deeply into the entire back of the rib cage. If we don’t add these pranic elements to a forward bend, and instead allow ourselves to flop over with the entire spine completely flexed and relaxed, the posture feels lifeless. By adding active and engaged pranic movements to a forward bend, we experience the flow of life force and the state of bandha due to a more balanced internal pattern. It is worth noting here that I don’t advocate the “yin” system of asana practice as a complement to the Ashtanga system. Ashtanga is not a “yang” practice, which needs to be balanced by a separate “yin” practice. The yang and yin – or prana and apana – can and should be experienced together within each posture, each breath, and across the energetic experience of the practice as a whole.
We can also consider a counter example of the same principle: In a naturally pranic posture or movement, such as backbend, we must consciously apply engaged apanic patterns in order to bring about the desired state of balance and bandha that we are attempting to nurture. Backbends tend to feel exhilarating and energizing as they lift us away from the earth. If we overindulge in this phenomena, our internal experience can resemble a manic high, which is neither sustainable nor balanced. At some point later on we will crash and experience a “backbending hangover.” I’ve witnessed practitioners drive themselves deeply into imbalance and pathology by repeating this process over a long period of time. In order to experience the positive benefits of backbending in a balanced and sustainable way, we must add apanic elements to these postures. Pressing the body downward into the earth and consciously cultivating stability in both body and breath is the most effective way to do this. In Urdhva Danurasana, for example, we must actively press the feet down into the ground. The next time you practice backbending and dropping back and standing up, see if you can do so without moving your feet from their initial position on your mat. This will give you a sense of how grounded (or not) your backbends are. Those who are not able to maintain a solid apanic connection to the ground are not yet energetically prepared to integrate the pranic stimulation of deeper backbending.
Another important aspect of the dynamic balance between prana and apana to consider is the long term psychological and physiological tendencies that we carry. We’ve discussed how most postures have a natural pranic or apanic bias to them. People also have an innate structural bias towards either pranic or apanic energy as their natural baseline state. Those who have an anteriorly tilted pelvis tend to have a pranic energetic bias, while those who have a posteriorly tilted pelvis tend to have an apanic energetic bias. The preceding statement is a gross generalization, and each individual experience is subtle, complex and nuanced, but our natural biases are an important factor to consider. Understanding our personal pranic – apanic biases will help us to understand why some postures, movements and breathing patterns feel more natural and comfortable, while we struggle with others. This bias will also shift and change over time, as the practice shapes and alters our innate structure. When the Ashtanga system is applied correctly – that is, when we are required to complete each posture or movement before learning the next one in the series – we are forced to encounter, cultivate and integrate the movement patterns which are less natural and comfortable for us. This is what makes the Ashtanga system unique in its structurally transformative and balancing effects. Progress through the system must be gradual, if it is to be sustainable. Deep structural changes which shift our fundamental biases require time, patience, and often involve a certain degree of discomfort as we integrate them. A skillful teacher will ensure that his students work through this process in a way that is sustainable and not overwhelming.
Finally, we can zoom out to observe the relationship between prana and apana across the broader scale of the structure of entire series. Primary Series is apanic in nature. Only two of the postures (Purvottanasana and Setubandhasana) are pranic. Apana represents the roots from which the tree of prana rises and spreads. This is why we begin our journey through the Ashtanga system by fully developing the rooting apanic pattern in Primary Series. Once the roots of apana are firmly established within us, we can use this stable foundation as a base upon which we nurture the growth pranic energy.
Urdhva Danurasana represents a counter posture to the entire Primary Series, and cultivation of pranic energy though backbending at the end of the series is necessary to elicit an overall balance. Developing some integrated experience of pranic energy through proficiency in backbending (including the ability to stand up from and drop back into Urdhva Danurasana) at this stage is necessary before we learn Intermediate Series.
The first section of Intermediate Series features a powerful sequence of eight backbending postures in a row. The net effect of practicing these postures together, with the connecting vinyasas and breathing, creates an experience of pranic stimulation which most practitioners are unprepared for. It is not uncommon for practitioners who begin a daily practice of this sequence to experience disturbed sleeping patterns, vivid dreams, resurfacing of old and possibly traumatic memories and emotional instability. These phenomena illustrate the extent to which the transformative influence of the Ashtanga system reaches the deepest layers of our embodied selves. It is worth repeating that a stable and integrated practice of the apanic Primary Series, along with the initial pranic experience of standing up and dropping back from Urdhva Danurasana are essential prerequisites to attempting to integrate the more intensive pranic experience of the first section of Intermediate Series.
The next section of Intermediate Series features leg behind the head postures and arm balances. This section provides a stronger apanic stimulation than primary series provides, and also counters the pranic stimulation of the first section of Intermediate Series. It is at this stage that we can remove Primary Series from our daily practice, and focus on Intermediate as a stand-alone practice, since both the pranic and apanic sections have now been cultivated within Intermediate Series.
Third Series reverses the order of energetic patterning that we experience in Intermediate Series. In Third Series, we begin with apanic stimulation and finish with pranic stimulation. Changing the order in which we stimulate the two patterns elicits a very different phenomenal experience of the practice.
The first section of Third Series begins with Visvamitrasana and Vasisthasana. I consider these two postures to be advanced variations of the standing postures Trikonasana and Parshvakonasana, respectively. We could refer to these postures as Trikonasana C and Parshvakonasana C. In terms of the pranic – apanic energy spectrum, these postures are relatively neutral in nature. Beginning the series with these two postures functions as an extension of the Standing Sequence, which is helpful when we are practicing Third Series as a stand-alone practice (without preceding it with Intermediate Series). This subsection is an effective way to ease into the series before the deeper postures which follow.
The remainder of the first section of Third Series features a deeply apanic sequence of five variations of Eka Pada Sirsasana (leg behind the head). It is essential that one has mastered Eka Pada and Dwi Pada Sirsasana in Intermediate Series, before one is moved on to begin Third Series. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Dwi Pada Sirsasana is one of the most poorly performed postures in the Ashtanga system. I have observed very few students who are taught this important posture properly – that is, cultivating the ability to spread the feet apart with the toes pointed away from each other and to keep the head held upright. I struggled with this posture myself, and it was only when I went to Mysore to practice with Sharath Jois for the first time in 2014, that I was required to learn the correct technique. I detailed my experience with Dwi Pada in my article “You Stop There.”
Those who fail to cultivate the prerequisite depth and comfort in the Intermediate variations of leg behind the head are far more likely to encounter structural issues if they are taught the five variations in Third Series prematurely. Practicing these five variations in a row with the connecting vinyasas induces a tremendous amount of structural shifting – especially for those who have a natural pranic bias in their body structure. If the ground work has not been sufficient to prepare oneself for this experience, there is a high likelihood of experiencing pain in the hips, pelvis and lower back as the core part of the body restructures to accommodate the daily inputs of these extreme apanic postures. It is also essential to have developed enough strength and opening in the upper body and shoulder girdle to safely hold the leg behind the head without strain on the neck. This sequence should not be approached casually or lightly. For those who are prepared, and who learn these postures in the gradual manner that is taught in Mysore, our understanding and mastery of the apanic energetic pattern is deepened and these postures provide a grounded entry into the power of third series.
Part 3: Advanced A – Arm Balances (Urdhva Kukkutasana – Astavakrasana)
00:00 – Urdhva Kukkutasana A
00:44 – Urdhva Kukkutasana B
01:22 – Urdhva Kukkutasana C
02:08 – Galavasana
03:11 – Eka Pada Bakasana A
04:17 – Eka Pada Bakasana B
05:23 – Koundinyasana A
06:28 – Koundinyasana B
07:38 – Astavakrasana A
08:45 – Astavakrasana B
The second section of apanic postures is considered to be the most demanding part of Third Series by many practitioners. This section features ten consecutive arm balancing postures. If we count both sides the bilateral postures, the total is seventeen consecutive arm balances. Those who have a natural apanic bias in their physical structure will tend to have an easier time with this section than those who have a pranic bias. For pranic types, this section will undoubtedly pose the greatest challenge in Third Series. The potential for profound structural transformation is accordingly high for a pranic practitioner who dedicates the time and musters the necessary perseverance to master this section.
A sufficient level of strength cultivation is the most obvious prerequisite to completing this section of the practice. Mastery of Intermediate postures such as Bakasana, Karandavasana, Mayurasana and Nakrasana (along with their connecting vinyasas) and deep stability and comfort in Chaturanga Dandasana will be necessary before tackling the arm balance section of Third Series. There is simply no possibility of compromising for a lack of strength by working around, avoiding or modifying these ten postures, which represent a significant chunk of Third Series. At this stage, one must fully embrace the strengthening aspect of the Ashtanga practice.
Strength is not the only necessary factor for mastery of these postures. A sense of ease in accessing the apanic rounding pattern of the back and pelvis is also extremely important. The rounding pattern is essential to experience the full expression of the first six of these arm balances – which are done with straight arms and the back rounded in the characteristic apanic shape. The apanic rounding is less relevant to the final four arm balances, which are done with the arms bent and the spine in a twisting pattern. The rounded shape of the back is cultivated through mastery of Intermediate postures such as Bakasana, Dwi Pada Sirsasana and Karandavasana and Primary postures such as Baddha Konasana B
Eka Pada Bakasana A is the most difficult of these ten arm balances. The apanic rounding of the back is absolutely necessary, in order to attain the full expression of the posture with both of the arms relatively straight, the kneecap of the bent leg placed on the arm and the foot of the bent leg pulled up. Most practitioners end up doing the “easier” version of this posture, where the shin of the bent leg rests on the arm (rather than the kneecap) and the foot of the the bent leg hangs down, which ultimately makes it impossible to straighten the arm that the bent leg is resting upon. This was one of the Third Series postures which posed the greatest difficulty for me to learn (the other being Gandha Berundasana, which comes in the next section). For over a decade, I did the “easy” version of this posture. It was only when I was given Eka Pada Bakasana A in my practice with Sharath Jois on my fourth trip to Mysore in 2018, that I was required to learn the full version in order to satisfy his standards. I am happy to have been pushed to this level of integrity in my practice, as the full version always felt out of reach for me prior to that trip. Two and a half years later, my ability to execute this posture has improved significantly, though it is certainly still a work in progress (as are all of the postures in the practice).
The third aspect of self-cultivation which is indispensable for success in the arm balance section of Third Series is that of stamina and concentration. The qualities of stamina and concentration go hand in hand. They support one another and work together synergistically. It is impossible to fully cultivate one of these qualities without the other. Mastery of these qualities within the Ashtanga practice is represented by the ability to flow through all of the vinyasas and postures of a particular section or series without the need to stop and break the flow of body and breath in order to rest, or to distract oneself with anything outside of the structured flow of the vinyasa count. In other words, stamina and concentration are responsible for the ability to follow the flow of the vinyasa count precisely, without breaking or deviating from the count for the duration of one’s practice.
The ability to “follow the count” is one of the most important, but least recognized components of mastery of the Ashtanga system of practice. Teachers who focus on this feature of the practice in the training of their students tend to produce the strongest and most stable practitioners. This is one of the defining features of the teaching style of Sharath Jois (and those of his authorized teachers who follow his teaching faithfully.) I’ve noticed that the ability to follow the vinyasa count tends to be lacking in students who prefer to learn from “workshop teachers” – many of whom seem to discard the importance of the vinyasa counting system from their teaching styles. At my shala in Bali, I’ve encountered students who have been trained by “workshop teachers” to the level of Intermediate or even Third Series. Some of these students haven’t even learned what the appropriate vinyasa counts are, let alone cultivated an ability to flow through them without interruption. These same students tend to have distracted, unfocussed practices, lack stamina, and often complain of chronic pains and injuries.
In the previous section, I discussed the structure of the vinyasa count with respect to the way that it alternately stimulates prana and apana, via oscillation between apanic vinyasas, executed with an exhalation, and pranic vinyasas, executed with an inhalation. When a practitioner cultivates the ability to focus continuously on this oscillating internal pattern of breath and bodily movement in a meditation on internal form, the phenomena of bandha builds up within him. Bandha is not something that can be turned on or off from moment to moment with a simple muscular contraction. I am sometimes asked by students if they should be “holding bandha.” Bandha is not something that can be “held.” Rather, it is something that is built up through sustained flow and internal concentration on the continuous movement of body and breath. For steam to build up in a pressure cooker, heat must be applied continuously, and the lid must be kept tightly sealed on the pot. If the application of heat is stopped – even for a few moments – the internal buildup of pressure in the pot will cease and the pressure will begin to decrease. If we take the lid off the pot, the internal pressure escapes completely. Similarly, if we stop the continuous oscillation between pranic and apanic stimulation via the flow of breath and movement through the vinyasas, then we remove the heat which drives the buildup of internal pressure which generates bandha. If our concentration wanders away from our embodied, phenomenal experience, then we have taken the lid off the pot and we lose everything. Nothing inside gets “cooked” and we don’t experience the internal transformation that we could potentially have experienced.
Sharathji once made a comment during conference that stuck with me and is relevant to the present discussion. He said that the biggest cause of injury in practice is a lack of concentration. I had never thought about this fact in these particular terms before, but the statement resonated with my understanding of the practice and injury completely. As I previously mentioned, it is often those students who have not been trained to follow the vinyasa count precisely, and who have distracted and unfocussed practices, who seem to be nursing chronic pains and injuries. These students tend to address these injuries by deviating from the structure of the practice even further – obsessively squirming around, adding in extra stretches in between postures and vinyasas and skipping certain postures and vinyasas altogether. They generate a vicious circle where the very thing that contributed to their injuries (improper application of the Ashtanga system) becomes the tool they attempt to use to address their injury, which only drives them deeper into discomfort. When I encounter such a student in my shala, I usually address the issue by bringing them back to the foundational sequences – Standing Sequence and Primary Series – and I train them to move slowly and carefully through these sequences with emphasis on focus and attention towards the count of the vinyasa. In most cases – for those who are willing to follow my instructions for a sustained period of time – the injuries and pains work themselves out, and the student then progresses further into the system feeling stronger and more stable. When one is deeply focused on the vinyasa count and engrossed within one’s internal experience of movement of body and breath, a profoundly embodied state of being arises which is characterized by the primacy of intuitive, animal intelligence. This is a state where injury or mistakes that will lead to excessive pain are much less likely to occur.
When we remain internally focused on the sensations involved with the flow of body and breath, and we commit to staying with the continuous flow of vinyasa from one posture to the next, we encounter challenging experiences within ourselves. The state of bandha is not a natural experience which would occur in ordinary circumstances outside of the practice. When we build bandha through continuous flow of body and breath, we experience unique sensations in deep somatic layers, which are unlike sensations that we would naturally encounter our mundane lives. These sensations can be connected to subconscious samskara patterns (habitual patterns of reaction which we generate throughout our lives, and which we tend to default to.) These deeper sensations can sometimes feel overwhelming and unpleasant (though they can also sometimes feel blissful and intoxicating), and the default tendency will be to react to these sensations by attempting to avoid them. This is particularly common when we approach or arrive at the most difficult postures or vinyasas in our practice. Aversion and the tendency towards avoidance lead us to either stop and take a rest, or perhaps to distract ourselves by adding in extra stretches, squirming around, looking at other people practicing near us, picking our toenails, or any of the myriad of escape techniques that practitioners employ.
When the process of building bandha through continuous flow of body and breath is sustained for longer stretches of time, our internal experience and the samskaras that we encounter can become even more challenging. This is why it it is necessary to build the intensity our practice up gradually, taking the time to adapt to each section of practice by training ourselves to be non-reactive towards the internal sensations that arise through the unique experience of flowing through the vinyasa count. If we hold ourselves accountable to the vinyasa count for each section of practice, and train ourselves to master the ability to flow through the count without interruption, then we can adapt to our inner experience and work through these layers of samskara patterns in a sustainable way. If we don’t habituate gradually, and we launch into the more intensive postures and vinyasa sequences of Intermediate and Third Series prematurely, the samskara patterns which arise can be overwhelming and destabilizing, causing serious emotional and energetic imbalance. This can lead to a full blown breakdown which often results in abandonment of the Ashtanga practice altogether. If one does take the time and effort to work though these layers of samskara in a gradual and sustainable way, one becomes stronger and more resilient emotionally and energetically. Emotional and energetic resilience and equanimity are key signs of correct long term application of practice.
When I consider whether to move a student forward and add more postures to their practice, the ability for that student to flow through the vinyasa count of their current practice without interruption and without exhibiting signs of being energetically or emotionally overwhelmed is an extremely important factor. It is of equal importance as the mastery of the postures themselves. A student may be able to bind or complete all of the postures in his practice perfectly, but if he cannot flow smoothly through the vinyasas without becoming distracted or excessively fatigued, then I won’t move him forward and teach him new asanas until his focus and stamina improves. This is also a factor that I closely monitor when judging the state of my own practice.
The arm balance section of Third Series is a make or break point in terms of stamina and concentration. Most students will need to stop and take breaks during this section, especially when they are in the process of learning it. In my opinion, this section of Third Series is not mastered until one can flow through it without interruption, following the vinyasa counts.
Following the vinyasa counts does not mean that one cannot take extra breaths here or there, when necessary. Taking extra breaths within the flow of the vinyasa is quite different from dropping out of the flow altogether to rest, or to distract oneself. Taking extra breaths within the flow of the vinyasa count lessens the intensity of internal experience, but allows one to maintain the process of building bandha. If you watch the video closely, you might notice that I do take some extra breaths in my execution of the arm balance section of Third Series. For example, when I jump into headstand, and then position my leg on my arm, in a few of the postures I then take an extra inhale and exhale, before I then inhale into the final state of the posture itself. Ideally, even these extra breaths should eventually be eliminated completely. In Primary Series, it is possible to flow through the entire series without these sorts of extra breaths. In Intermediate, and especially Advanced Series, most mortals will need a few extra breaths here and there.
Part 4: Advanced A – Transitions and Peak Backbending (Purna Matsyendrasana – Supta Trivikramasana)
00:00 – Purna Matsyendrasana
02:10 – Viranchyasana A
04:47 – Viranchyasana B
08:32 – Viparita Dandasana A
09:55 – Viparita Dandasana B
11:40 – Viparita Salabhasana
12:46 – Gandha Berundasana
14:06 – Hanumanasana
16:08 – Supta Trivikramasana
The third section of Third Series features the transition from the apanic energetic cultivation of the first half of the series into the pranic cultivation of the second half of the series. This section also features what I consider to be the energetic culmination of the series in the difficult backbending postures Viparita Salabhasana and Gandha Berundasana.
The transition from apanic to pranic movement patterns occurs over three seated postures: Purna Matsyendrasana, Viranchyasana A and Viranchyasana B. These postures maintain a slight apanic bias in their nature, but help to prepare one for the subsequent backbending postures by also featuring strong pranic elements. Purna Matsyendrasana and Viranchyasana B are both twisting postures, which require apanic movements in the lower body, combined with pranic expansion of the upper body. Viranchyasana A is a variation on the leg behind the head theme, which is deeply apanic, but also features pranic cultivation with the addition of binding the arms in Gomukhasana style.
I find these three transitional postures to be the calmest part of Third Series. They are a welcome respite after the intensity of the arm balances which precede this section, and before the peak backbending which follows these postures. These three postures are complex, as they combine elements from several different categories of posture. Provided one has completed the necessary groundwork to established the various types of required mobility, the energetic demands are less here than in other parts of Third Series, giving this section a feeling of calm between the apanic and pranic storms which precede and follow it, respectively.
Transitioning back and forth between pranic and apanic movement patterns is an important feature of the Ashtanga practice. As I have previously discussed, bandha manifests through a fluid and dynamic balance between the pranic and apanic energetic poles. If we are successful in cultivating the phenomena of bandha, one hallmark should be ease and resilience in our ability to move back and forth between opposing patterns of movement and energy. In other words, a sign of maturity and competence in the Ashtanga practice is the ability to move effortlessly and fluidly between pranic and apanic trends.
A state of bandha is analogous to walking upon a high and narrow mountain ridge between two valleys. From the vantage point of the ridge, we can clearly see the terrain of both valleys and if we should choose to move into either valley, we can easily do so from the central point of the top of the ridge. Conversely, if we are stuck in either one of the valleys, it is impossible to see the terrain in the other valley. If we want to move into the other valley, it requires great effort as we must first climb up the ridge, and then down into the opposite valley.
I once had a unique experience while walking along a steep and high ridge while trekking in the Indian Himalaya. I was trekking alone, without a guide or companions. It was mid-morning, and I had set off from my starting point about 90 minutes prior to reaching the ridge. I hadn’t seen anyone, or any signs of human settlement since setting off, and I wasn’t fully confident that I was on the correct route to my destination. The ridge and the surrounding mountainscape were stunning and I felt intoxicated by the power of the mountain wilderness. At the same time, I felt a gnawing apprehension due to the extremity of the environment and the potential of getting lost.
There were broken sections of thin rock wall upon the ridge, and the walking path meandered back and forth from one side of the rock wall to the other. When the walking path passed along the side of the wall which exposed me to the Northwest and blocked my exposure to the Southeast, I was struck by a ferocious and icy cold wind blowing from the main Himalaya range. There was no sun on this side and the path was full of patches of snow and ice, as was the steep and foreboding valley that lay on this side of the ridge and the jagged mountain peaks that stretched out beyond the valley. The icy wind stung my face and threatened to throw me off balance as I carefully navigated the icy patches of ground. I felt my fear and apprehension of getting lost increase dramatically when I was on this side of the rock wall. Then suddenly the rock wall would end and a new section of rock wall would emerge, with the foot path running on the opposite side of the wall, exposing me to the Southeast and blocking my exposure to the Northwest. As soon as I passed onto this side of the rock wall, the entire universe shifted. The howling wind was abruptly cut off by the wall and replaced with a calm stillness, punctuated only by the heartening chirp of birdsong. The sun shone warmly on this side. There was no snow or ice and the valley running down this side of the ridge towards the gentle foothills was green and sparkled majestically in the morning sunlight. I loosened my clothing and felt my mood shift just as abruptly as the wind had ceased. Here, I felt confident that I was on the right path and I basked in the gentle warmth of the morning sun and birdsong playing on my senses. Then, the rock wall would end again and the next section would take me back to the opposite side with its wind, cold and fear. My memory of walking this particular ridge exemplifies the experience of bandha. When we are moving from the perspective and vantage point of bandha, we can taste the essence of both extremes which lie on either side of the middle line, and we can effortlessly move back and forth between them. It is this vantage point and perspective which we should strive to cultivate in our Ashtanga practice, always keeping one foot on the ridge of bandha, while we move between the opposing valleys of prana and apana.
As we progress through the sections and series of the Ashtanga system, the macro level transitions between pranic and apanic tendencies becomes more intense and more challenging to navigate. The more deeply we venture into either extreme of prana or apana, the more difficult it becomes to move back into the opposite pattern. Using the example of the mountain ridge, we can say that the further we descend into one valley, the more difficult it becomes to climb back up to the ridge and then down into the other valley. One of the first places we may encounter this challenge in the Ashtanga system is after Supta Kurmasana in Primary Series. Supta Kurmasana is one of the deepest expressions of apanic energy in Primary Series. Many people will find that after exiting from Supta Kurmasana, the subsequent upward facing dog (a pranic position) will feel a little bit stiffer than usual.
The next place we may encounter this challenge is in practicing the backbending sequence (Urdhva Danurasana and dropping back and standing up) at the end of Primary Series. After spending the entirety of the Primary Series cultivating an apanic pattern in the body and nerves, it can feel difficult to suddenly attempt to move deeply into the opposing pranic pattern with Urdhva Danurasana. Dropping back and standing up – and perhaps even catching the legs with the hands – brings us even deeper into pranic expression. Some newcomers to the system complain about the abruptness of this transition and about the requisite of cultivating the ability to drop back and stand up from Urdhva Danurasana before starting Intermediate Series. It’s common for people to suggest that practicing the milder backbends at the beginning of Intermediate Series is a more appropriate way to ease the transition into the deeper backbending of Urdhva Danurasana and dropping back and standing up. I address this issue by pointing out that Ashtanga system is designed to aid us in cultivating the skill to move between the extremes of prana and apana with ease and fluidity. As we cultivate the elemental skills of the practice, we should require fewer transitional steps to move between extremes. The transitions between deeply apanic and deeply pranic sections of postures increase in intensity as we move into Intermediate and Advanced Series, so it is essential that we cultivate some skill in transitioning between extremes while we are still in Primary Series.
After completing backbending, we flip back into apanic energy with Paschimottanasana. Just as upward facing dog can feel a bit stiff after Supta Kurmasana, most practitioners have probably had the experience of needing a few breaths to get fully into Paschimottanasana after drop backs or catching the legs in backbending. The ease and fluidity with which we can move between these extremes is indicative of our state of internal balance and bandha. If we can easily move into a full Paschimottanasana without resistance after deep backbending, this indicates that our body and nervous system are relatively stable energetically balanced. If, however, we feel stiff and it requires a few breaths to fully move into Paschimottanasana after backbending – and especially if this phenomena happens for several days in a row – this indicates that our body and nerves are not in an ideal state of balance. This could be due to some deeper structural shifting that is taking place. In this case, it is appropriate to exercise increased caution and awareness in our practice until things feel more balanced and a sense of ease returns to our pranic – apanic transitions.
In Intermediate series, we encounter the macro level transition from the peak pranic posture Kapotasana to the peak apanic postures Eka and Dwi Pada Sirsasana. This can be a tricky section of the series to navigate and it is essential that the learning and integration process not be rushed. Students should cultivate ease and full integration of each posture before learning the next one in the series. An experienced teacher will usually keep a student on Kapotasana for some time, even after the student has cultivated the ability to catch the heels with the hands. Keeping a student on Kapotasana for a few weeks (at least) after attaining the ability to complete the posture will ensure that the peak pranic experience is deeply imprinted in the body and nerves. This integration of the extreme pranic pattern will make the subsequent transition to peak apanic movements less destabilizing. If a student is moved past Kapotasana prematurely, the result is often that the ability to catch the heels in Kapotasana is lost when the apanic cultivation of putting the legs behind the head begins to be developed. If one is simultaneously struggling with both Kapotasana and Eka Pada Sirsasana, the potential for the body and nerves to become completely overwhelmed – and for a painful breakdown to occur – is much higher.
Cultivation of new structural and energetic patterns in the self-organizing network of the human organism is a process that cannot be rushed. The power and depth of the re-organizing process which is induced by the Ashtanga system must be respected. Rushing through the system prematurely and without proper integration of each step is a sign of immaturity and lack of respect (often on the part of a teacher who encourages their students to move through a series too quickly), and inevitably leads to negative results such as excessive pain and emotional and energetic imbalance. The vast majority of injuries and negative experiences in the Ashtanga system are caused by moving through the series too quickly and without respect for the depth of the process. I believe this is the main reason Sharathji chose to slow down the pace at which students are taught new postures over the years after he took over from his grandfather.
In the third section of Third Series, the buildup to the peak of pranic backbending in Gandha Berundasana occurs quickly, over four backbending postures. Gandha Berundasana was the most difficult asana in Third Series for me to learn, and is still the most psychologically intimidating part of the series for me. On the majority of my Third Series practice days, I catch myself thinking “I can’t do that today” at the beginning of my practice. Experience has taught me that this doubt is always unfounded. Rather than obsessing about sections of the practice which are yet to arrive, I let go of those thoughts as soon as they occur, and drop into embodied presence within each movement and each breath. I patiently complete each posture and vinyasa of the practice with this embodied awareness. Then, when I do arrive at Gandha Berundasana, I find there is no longer any doubt and I am always able move into it with minimal struggle. I wrote at length about my process of learning this posture, and my experience of practicing it with Sharath Jois in the main shala on my last trip to Mysore.
A final reflection on the cultivation of the ability to transition between pranic and apanic states in our practice is to understand how this trains us to be able to shift energetic states in our daily lives off of the mat. We all have physiological biases in our bodies towards pranic or apanic patterning. Similarly, we all have habitual states of our nervous system which we default to in our interactions with the world. All states of the nervous system have advantages and disadvantages. Some states are appropriate in certain situations and inappropriate in others. If we remain limited to a small repertoire of states in our nervous system, and we always default to these select few states, we limit our ability to engage with life in the fullest and most effective way possible. If we cultivate the ability to move between all of the different possible states of our nervous system with ease and fluidity, then are able to engage with life more effectively. Cultivating the ability to transition easily between pranic and apanic postures and movements in the Ashtanga practice – and to feel equally comfortable in all off the different varieties of postures – will aid us directly in cultivating more resilience and fluidity in the way our nervous system responds to different situations in life. We use our practice to reconfigure our nervous system to function more effectively and efficiently.
Part 5: Advanced A – Standing Balances & Final Backbending (Digasana – Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
00:00 – Digasana
01:14 – Trivikramasana
02:08 – Natarajasana
03:29 – Rajakapotasana
04:05 – Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
The final section of Third Series consists of five postures, all of which are pranic in nature, and three of which are deep backbends. This section begins with a return to Samasthiti, followed by three postures which involve balancing on one leg. After the deep backbending (Gandha Berundasana, etc.) of the previous section, the standing balances function to restore some stability and grounding to the body and nerves. Although the three standing balances are pranic in nature, they also require deep focus on the standing leg and the connection of the foot to the ground. These features aid in cultivating the apanic qualities of strength and stability, which are essential to counterbalance the strong pranic stimulation of the second half of Third Series.
After completing the standing balances, we return to the ground for the final two postures, Rajakapotasana and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, both of which are deep and stimulating backbends.
Although none of the five postures in this section could reasonably be classified as “easy”, they are less difficult than the peak backbending of Viparita Salabhasana and Gandha Berundasana in the previous section. The aforementioned postures are the peak “hump” in Third Series, and after completing them there is a tangible feeling of winding down as one approaches the end of the series. Although the five final postures of Third Series do require meticulous presence and depth, once one has attained the ability to complete Gandha Berundasana, there are no major challenges remaining.
All of the series in the Ashtanga system share the feature of having the most challenging postures in the middle section of the series. The final section of each series is a winding down of sorts, with relatively easier and somewhat restorative or grounding postures.
In Primary Series the peak challenges of the series occur in the section from Marichasana D to Garbha Pindasana. Once Garbha Pindasana has been completed, the final section of postures are much easier, and several of them are performed in the Supta (reclined) position, lying on the back. These Supta Variations are restorative in nature and function to replenish one’s energy reserves after the peak effort required in the middle of the series.
In Intermediate Series, there are three postures which comprise the peak challenges, all of which occur in the middle part of the series. Those postures are Kapotasana, Dwi Pada Sirsasana and Karandavasana. Once Karandavasana has been completed, the final section of Intermediate Series won’t pose any significant challenges. The final few postures involve twisting and lateral movements, which are restorative and help to release any tensions in the back which may have arisen from the deeper peak postures. The seven Sirsasana variations which close the series are restorative in nature.
The phenomena of winding down with easier postures towards the end of a series helps to stabilize the internal energetic dynamics, so that one can approach the final backbending and finishing postures in a state of relative calm and repose.
There are a total of seven deep backbending postures in Third Series, all of which occur in the second half of the series. In my discussions of Third Series thus far, I have focused extensively on the dynamic balance between the opposing patterns of prana and apana, and how the two patterns collaborate to create bandha via their antagonistic energetic movements. I’d like to conclude my discussion of Third Series by acknowledging that there are also antagonistic patterns within both pranic and apanic categories of postures.
It is natural to assume that if a person is competent at performing certain backbending postures, this competency will extend to all backbends. This is untrue, and it was the seven backbending postures in Third Series which gave me an experiential understanding of this fact. Although all seven of the Third Series backbends are pranic in nature, and all seven postures involve deep extension of the spine, there are also antagonistic movement patterns within this subset of postures. For example, when I first began to practice Third Series, well over a decade ago, I noticed that on days where Viparita Salabhasana felt quite deep, Rajakapotasana would feel more difficult than usual, and vice versa. This is extremely counterintuitive. If we examine the two aforementioned postures, we can see that the shape of the body itself is nearly identical in both postures, with the only major difference being the orientation of the body with respect to the ground. My experience of the antagonism between these two postures makes little sense, if one approaches the analysis from a reductive, mechanical perspective.
I no longer experience the antagonistic dynamic between the aforementioned two postures, however I do experience antagonism within the seven backbends in Third Series in other ways. When I filmed the practice that I have presented in the videos here – in September 2020 – I was able to press my heels onto the ground in Gandha Berundasana. This had been the case for several months prior to the filming of the video. However, at this time I had difficulty in keeping my heels together and touching the entire foot on my head in Viparita Salabhasana, as well as in Vrichikasana (both the variation in the final backbending sequence and the variation in Fourth Series). I could touch my toes on my head, but I struggled to keep my heels together, and could not fully press my heels to my head. Gandha Berundasana is structurally very similar to Viparita Salabhasana / Vrichikasana, however I found the former to be easier than the later. Then, a short time after filming this video, the bias between this antagonistic set of postures switched. Over a period of several weeks, it felt like my ability to keep my heels together and press my feet more fully into my head was improving dramatically, but at the same time, my ability to press my heels on the ground in Gandha Berundasana became more difficult. By November, I found it very easy to keep my heels together and was able to fully press my heels on my head for a sustained period of time in both Viparita Salabhasana and the two Vrichikasana variations. This represented a depth of movement I had never previously experienced. At the same time, I completely lost the ability to touch the heels to the ground in Gandha Berundasana. I could still catch my feet with my hands, and I could press my toes on the ground, but I could no longer bring the heels all the way down. At the time of writing – in February 2021 (and still, at the time of posting this article on my website, in May 2022) – this antagonism and bias between these two very similar types of pranic posture remains in the state I have just described.
Maturity in the Ashtanga practice should lead one to the experiential understanding that antagonism and trade-offs between moving parts are a fundamental property of self-organized living systems. An even more important realization is the fact that we have very little control over how these trade-offs and antagonisms manifest themselves. I have observed that relatively few practitioners and teachers posses this important insight. More commonly, I see reductive biomechanics being erroneously applied to the Ashtanga practice, and to the human organism in general.
The pioneering systems biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela beautifully described an important property of complex living systems with the following statement:
“You can never direct a living system. You can only disturb it.”
A complicated system, such as a machine, is fundamentally different from a complex system, such as a cell, a human being, or an ecosystem. All living systems are complex systems. They self-organize, behave non-linearly, and are fundamentally less predictable than complicated systems. We can direct the behaviour of a complicated machine such as an airplane or a factory. One who devotes the necessary time to study and fully understand the mechanics of how these complicated systems function is able to manipulate certain parts of the system, in order to attain a predictable and desired result. It is for this reason that airplanes generally succeed in transporting millions of people through the sky without disaster each day of the year. Complicated systems are predictable and they can be directed by one who has the skill and knowledge to do so.
The fundamental fallacy of modern biomechanics and medical science is the assumption that complex, living systems will also behave predictably if we attempt to direct them. In the postural yoga and Ashtanga world, we often see this philosophy applied. If one experiences tightness, or discomfort in the shoulders, for example, a teacher who applies biomechanics philosophy may recommend adding in some “shoulder openers” before key postures or outside of the usual practice routine. These well intentioned recommendations rarely give the desired result, because they fail to take into account the non-linearity and lack of predictability inherent in complex living systems.
If one develops tightness or pain in the shoulders during the course of their Ashtanga process, this may very well be a natural result of the deep and complex structural reorganization involving the network of relationships between all of the parts and systems of the human organism. The shoulders may develop tightness or discomfort due to other parts of the body opening up or strengthening in order to accommodate particular postures or movement patterns which have been added or deepened in the practice. Adding in extra shoulder stretches may temporarily relieve pain or stiffness in the shoulders, but the deeper and unpredictable costs of doing this may be to completely sabotage the intelligence of the underlying structural reorganization which is under process. The result will be that the pain or stiffness in the shoulders will simply re-emerge in a different form elsewhere in the system a few days later. One may end up feeling a pain in the back, or the hips, or the knees, and other postures or movements will then suffer. The ignorant practitioner or teacher will again apply symptomatic linear treatments to the afflicted part, in a never ending cycle of futile attempts to exert control over the direction of the evolution of a complex living system. I consider this an immature and erroneous way to approach the Ashtanga system and it’s influence on the human organism.
An approach that represents matured wisdom and understanding of the dynamics of the evolution of complex systems, is to recognize that our practice – and especially adding new postures / elements to our practice – is simply a method of “disturbing” the complex balance of our internal structural dynamics. After consciously choosing to disturb our own internal balance through our practice, it is appropriate to step back, release our desire to control and direct, and allow the results to unfold as they will. The evolution of our bodies and nerves may not proceed in the way that we expect or desire them to, but if we respect the innate intelligence of our body to integrate the “disturbance” that we give it via the sequence of asanas, and we allow our bodily intelligence to integrate that disturbance into a new structural framework at its own pace, we will eventually emerge on the other side of the transformative process in a state that is stable and balanced.
The tendency to always move towards balance, stability, or homeostasis is another important feature of complex living systems. When the system is disturbed – i.e. new information, elements or features are added to it – the system will temporarily be pushed out of balance as it attempts to integrate the new input into its organization framework. The phenomena of being temporarily pushed out of balance accounts for the various stiffnesses, aches and pains, etc. that we experience when we add new asanas, or move deeper into existing asanas in our practice. The new asanas, or the experience of attaining new depth in an asana, “disturbs” our internal state of balance. The important thing to understand is that the choice of adding new features to our practice is where our ability to consciously influence the result ends. We are in control of whether we add new asanas or not, or whether we push ourselves to attain new depths in an asana. Beyond that initial choice, we have no control or ability to direct how this disturbance will influence or change our internal organizational patterns. The mature and wise practitioner will step back and simply allow the results to play out within themselves. It may takes days, weeks, or months for a new state of balance or internal homeostasis to manifest. Once this new balance or homeostasis is attained, it then becomes time to disturb the system again by adding more new postures, and then to again step back and allow the innate intelligence within us to sort things out. This is the cyclical process of self-evolution via the Ashtanga practice in a nutshell.
A mature teacher understands this process and watches for the stages of integration and rebalancing in his students. When we add new asanas to a student’s practice, or we take a student deeper into asanas, it is normal to witness a period of destabilization in the student’s body and practice. A patient teacher understands that this destabilization must be given time and space to play out, and that it is not necessarily appropriate to attempt to “fix” any discomfort that the student may experience during this process. When a student reports discomfort or stiffness, my response is nearly always to acknowledge that this phenomena is “okay” to experience and to encourage the student to respect the process of integration that he is going through, rather than reactively attempting to apply quick fixes to make the discomfort or stiffness go away. There certainly are cases where we do need to make mechanical changes to the structure or form of the student’s practice, but usually this simply involves a scaling back of intensity in order to create space for the body to incorporate and accommodate the process of structural evolution.
For one who has undertaken the commitment to a long term, daily Ashtanga practice, I feel that an understanding of the nature of complex systems is essential.
When one experientially understands the process of disturbance – discomfort – rebalancing within oneself, a deep respect for the intelligence inherent in nature should develop. The innate self-organizing intelligence of the human organism is a manifestation of the intelligence of nature. Self-healing (rebalancing) is an inherent feature of natural intelligence, and once we experience this phenomena inside ourselves, we can more readily see it happening everywhere in nature. Have you ever watched how quickly a dog with an injured leg adapts to it’s condition? Or how a deeply disturbed ecosystem eventually finds a new balance, within which it can support life and flourish? Nearly every human attempt to engineer an ecosystem produces unintended and often negative consequences. Yet, if left alone, an ecosystem will always move towards health and homeostasis. The self-organizing intelligence inherent in nature is vastly superior to the rational, analytic intelligence of human beings. Undoubtedly, the rational human mind has invented and discovered wonderful things over our species evolutionary history. But none of these human inventions come close to the complexity and functionality of what nature itself has designed. Our experiments in tinkering with nature over the past few centuries have elucidated this inferiority. Unfortunately, our modern techo-industrial culture has not understood this important aspect of reality, and we continue to make devastating mistakes in our attempts to direct and control natural complex systems. Imagining that we can control the population growth cycle of a seasonal respiratory virus through totalitarianism is a recent example of this sort of mistake. This mistake is born from the same philosophical position that imagines it can hack the internal rebalancing process which arises through the Ashtanga practice.
My approach, which I believe is in resonance with the laws and properties inherent in nature and natural intelligence, is one of surrender. I actively and consciously choose how and when to disturb things and then I surrender to allow the effects of that disturbance to play out. The wisdom lies in knowing when to step forward and exert our will to disturb something, and when to step back and surrender to allow nature to take its own course. This is the ultimate balance I strive for in my practice and in my life. The Ashtanga practice is a wonderful teacher which guides my experiential understanding of the laws of nature.
Part 6: Final Backbending Sequence
00:00 – Urdhva Danurasana x 3
01:21 – Drop back and stand up x 3
02:20 – Tick Tocks x 3
03:00 – Vrichikasana
03:50 – Catching
04:55 – Paschimottanasana
In the Ashtanga system of asana, we practice the backbending sequence following the completion of whichever core series (Primary, Intermediate or Advanced) we have practiced on that day. Just as Surya Namaskar A & B and the Standing Sequence are always practiced before the core series, the backbending sequence is always practiced afterwards. Backbending serves as an intense and somewhat dramatic conclusion to the deep work of the core series, before we move into the final finishing postures.
The structure of the backbending sequence remains the same, regardless of whether one is practicing Primary, Intermediate, or Advanced Series. The backbending sequence is gradually built up, and elements are added to it after certain milestones are reached in our progression through the various core series.
Urdhva Danurasana is usually added to the end of one’s core series practice at some point during the first half of Primary Series. Exactly which point in Primary Series the backbending is brought in at will vary depending on the unique strengths and weaknesses of each practitioner. By the time one has reached the Marichyasana sequence, it is usually appropriate to also be practicing Urdhva Danurasana.
The next element to be added to the backbending sequence is dropping back into and standing up from Urdhva Danurasana. This is usually initiated when a student is at or near the end of Primary Series, though it can be added earlier for students who are naturally proficient in backbending. It is important NOT to begin forcing drop backs with a student who is not ready to do so. There is significant risk and effort involved in working on dropping back and standing up prematurely – for both the student and teacher – with little benefit to be gained. Attempting to drop back and stand up before the necessary prerequisites are developed will often lead to excessive pain and inflammation, and potentially more serious injury for the practitioner. It is also very taxing for the teacher, who would have to bear the entire weight of the student, if the student is not able to at least partially support himself during the movement up and down.
It is more appropriate and productive to begin cultivating the necessary skills to support dropping back and standing up while practicing Urdhva Danurasana on the ground. One should easily be able to straighten the arms in Urdhva Danurasana, and also to comfortably walk the hands in towards the feet. If one can straighten the arms and then walk the hands in at least half of the initial distance between the hands and the feet, then one likely has the requisite level of flexibility to attempt dropping back and standing up.
Strength and stability are also important factors to cultivate. Some practitioners are flexible, and can easily walk the hands in towards the feet, but are wobbly and cannot sustain a backbend without squirming around or coming down prematurely. I like to test a student’s stability in Urdhva Danurasana by placing my hands on the two iliac crests of the pelvis, and pressing down on them while asking the student to push up against my hands. If a student can easily meet my pressing downwards with an equal amount of counter pressure upwards, and can sustain this resistance for a significant length of time, then I usually become confident that the student has sufficient strength in both the arms and the legs to support the dropping back and standing up movement. Another good test of a student’s stability is whether he can follow a leisurely paced vinyasa count in the three backbends at the end of a led Primary Series class. If a student cannot hold Urdhva Danurasana for a somewhat slow count to five, three times in a row (without lowering to the ground) at the end of led Primary Series class, then that student is not ready to benefit from dropping back and standing up. I’ve witnessed students who are working on Intermediate Series, and yet cannot sustain the vinyasas count for Urdhva Danurasana at the end of a led Primary Series class. This is a recipe for disaster.
Standing up from and dropping back into Urdhva Danurasana without assistance is considered to be a prerequisite for beginning to learn Intermediate Series. Learning to drop back and stand up at the end of Primary Series ensures that a certain degree of flexibility, strength and control are developed for the backbending movement, and that the nerves become habituated to the pranic stimulation of the nervous system during the backbending sequence. If this prerequisite is firmly established while a student is still practicing Primary Series, the subsequent process of learning Intermediate Series will be smoother and less shocking to the body and nervous system.
Catching the legs with the hands can be added at any point in Primary or Intermediate Series as the final element of the backbending sequence. Needless to say, one must be able to drop back and stand up with ease, in order to begin catching. One should also be able to easily walk the hands all the way to the heels while in Urdhva Danurasana on the ground. The legs must be strong, stable and grounded in order to support the catching position safely. To test this, I first ask a student to walk his hands all the way to his heels while in Urdhva Danurasana on the ground, and then to keep the hands and feet firmly engaged with the ground while I push down on their iliac bones with my hands. If I can feel the student’s legs confidently engage to push back against my hands in this position, then I will usually feel comfortable to start working on catching with this student.
It should be emphasized that adding catching as the final element should not be rushed, and some students may never be ready to do so. Catching is an extreme posture and should only be attempted by those who have put in the necessary effort and dedication in practice over a period of months or years to cultivate the necessary skills to attempt it safely. Usually, by the time one has fully integrated Kapotasana in Intermediate Series, it will be possible to begin working on catching.
Within the catching posture itself, there are also varying degrees of depth one can work at, and it is customary to gradually work a student’s hands higher up on the legs as their proficiency in the posture develops. One can hold the legs anywhere from the lower ankles to the lower thighs. In my last trip to Mysore, I experienced Sharathji putting my hands on my lower thighs, completely above my knee caps, for the first time. I discussed this experience in my article about my last trip in Mysore. In this video of my home practice, my hands are on my upper calves, just below the knee caps.
The final two elements of the backbending sequence – tick tocks and Vrischkasana, are not added until one has completed Intermediate Series, and sometimes not until one has practiced at least a few postures into Advanced A Series. These movements are practiced after dropping back and standing up, and before catching. They both add deeper elements of strength, co-ordination and flexibility. Vrischkasana was the most difficult element of the backbending sequence for me to develop, and it was only in January 2021 that I was able to fully place the entirety of my feet on my head, with my heels pressed together. When this video was filmed – in September 2020 – I could touch my head with my toes, but not with the bottom part of my feet.
I practice the full backbending sequence as described above – and as shown in the video – on the three or four days (Mondays – Thursdays) that I practice Advanced Series. On Sundays, when I practice Intermediate Series, my backbending consists of Urdhva Danurasana, drop backs, and then low catching at the ankles (no tick tocks, Vrischkasana or higher catching). On Fridays, when I practice Primary Series, my backbending consists of three Urdhva Danurasana on the ground, followed by Chakrasana and Paschimottanasana, as in a traditional led Primary Series class. I don’t practice the other elements of backbending on Fridays.
It is important for practitioners to understand that there is a vinyasa count for the entire backbending sequence. The sequence should be practiced fluidly and seamlessly, in co-ordination with the breath, according to the vinyasa count. It is natural to need a few extra breaths to prepare for Urdhva Danurasana, and perhaps in between each of the different elements of the backbending sequence. In the video, you can see that I do take some extra breaths in between each element of the sequence.
As a teacher, I often see students abandon the vinyasa method completely when they practice the backbending sequence. It is common to see students lying on their mat for long periods of time before, or in between repetitions of Urdhva Danurasana, or adding in extra stretches to help prepare, etc. I have seen students literally take 20 minutes to complete three Urdhva Danurasana on the ground, and just as long to complete three drop backs. The backbending sequence should be practiced with the same focused flow of body and breath as one practices the core series. It should take no longer than a few minutes to practice the full backbending sequence. In my video, it is done in six minutes from start to finish, including nearly 1/3 of that time spent in Paschimottanasana.
A daily practice of the Ashtanga system of asana is difficult to maintain, especially when one does not have the support of a teacher and shala. Digging deeply into oneself and finding the willpower and motivation to persist in completing one’s practice to the best of one’s ability – each and every day – is the field where significant growth, evolution and progress arises from. It is only through cultivating the ability to maintain a strong and consistent personal practice in the face of adversity, that one can expect to realize one’s full potential.
As a teacher based in Bali, I work predominantly with visiting students who practice with me for a temporary duration of time. There are a number of students who I see once or twice per year, for periods of time ranging from a few weeks to a few months. Of these returning students, there are three basic types. One type of student practices deeply, working at their edge consistently, year round, whether they are practicing in my shala, or whether they are elsewhere working on their own or with another teacher. When this type of student visits me, I can clearly see the progress that has been made in their practice during the time period that they have been away from Bali. A second type of student practices deeply when they are in my shala, but when they are elsewhere, they maintain only a basic or rudimentary level of practice. When this type of student visits me, it is usually as if they are picking up where they left of on their previous visit with me. There has not been any progress during the time they were elsewhere, but there has also not been regress. The third type of student practices deeply when they are in my shala, but when they are elsewhere, they stop practicing altogether, or they practice only sporadically. This type of student usually regresses between trips to practice with me, and when they return it takes a few weeks or a few months of practice, just to attain to the same level they were at when they left at the end of their previous trip.
All students are welcome at my shala, whether they are consistent practitioners or not. I make the above distinctions to outline the fact that continuous application of effort to encounter one’s edge is necessary to make deep and long lasting progress in the Ashtanga system. Furthermore, cultivating the ability to find one’s edge when one is alone, with fewer external motivating factors then one would have in a shala, brings a certain level of depth and self-understanding that cannot be found when practicing in a shala with a teacher. This is not easy to do, and the reality is that many Ashtanga teachers do not practice deeply themselves. We all experience situations where, for one reason or another, it becomes necessary to back off from the intensity of our practice for a period of time. There is however, a big difference between taking a temporary respite from stronger practice, and simply lacking the motivation or willpower to engage in deep practice at all.
My practice is not effortless, and I struggle nearly every day. Awakening for practice at a time of the night when some people are just going to bed is difficult. Stepping onto my mat in those dark hours of the morning, regardless of how I feel, requires strength of will. More often than not, I begin my practice while being assailed by thoughts such as “there is no way I can do this today.” I always give myself an out, by telling myself that if things end up going very badly in my practice, I will revert to “only Primary” or cut my practice short regardless of which series I am practicing on that day. More than 99 percent of the time, I do end up completing my intended practice for that day, and I almost always feel great at the end of my practice. The consistency of this outcome helps to generate the motivation to begin practice each morning. The process of dropping into my embodied experience in each moment, each vinyasa and each breath – and attempting to confine my awareness to each of these moments – is key. When one learns how to be fully present and absorbed within each posture and within each breath, it becomes natural to work deeply at one’s edge in each vinyasa and in each posture, for the duration of one’s entire practice, on each and every morning. This is an exercise in sustained embodied focus and concentration.
Success in the endeavor of maintaining a strong daily practice over a long period of time is empowering. One gains familiarity with the process of overcoming the unique and idiosyncratic obstacles that one encounters within oneself. Self empowerment is one of the main benefits of long term practice of the Ashtanga system. A system which necessitates reliance on external forces or authorities to derive benefit leads to disempowerment and enslavement. A system which necessitates the cultivation of self-motivation and self-reliance leads to self empowerment and freedom. The main difference between a true teacher and a predatory leader is that the former attempts to transmit independence and self-reliance through their teachings, while the latter manipulates their students into co-dependence and enslavement.
At present, in human societies all over the planet, there are significant forces at work which are acting to disempower people. There are large scale attempts to coerce people into surrendering their autonomy and freedom and to outsource the responsibility for their own health and well-being to external authorities. I’ll refrain from a digression into global politics, but I will conclude by emphatically stating that I find the self-empowering nature of my personal practice to be more important than ever under the present conditions which persist in human society.