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Ashtanga Yoga Poses

 

The Ashtanga yoga practice consists of a sequence of yoga movements that depend on the breath-synchronized movements. The Ashtanga yoga practice is a set of six different series of yoga poses. The first series, or Ashtanga Yoga Primary series, is the most commonly practiced series of yoga poses.

 

Ashtanga Yoga Primary series

ashtanga yoga posesOne of the advantages of this yoga system is that it provides a set methodology for performing each movement, making it easy to follow for yoga practitioners. Like any yoga practice, it is a sequence of moves a practitioner follows one movement after the other until reaching the closing poses. Variations and modifications are available for most of the asanas.

While yoga can be considered a spiritual practice, one of the benefits of Ashtanga yoga is its effect on the physical body. This practice can improve body awareness, strength, and flexibility by focusing on a fixed point of gaze, breathing, and smoothly connecting poses with movement. 

 

Features of the Ashtanga yoga practice

Movements

When doing asymmetrical poses, a movement begins on the right side of the body. The movements between poses, called vinyasa, are as important as the poses themselves. Bandhas, while not always taught, can be applied to anchor muscles for greater ease while doing poses and moving between them.

Breathing

When practicing, one should hold each pose for five breaths. A breathing method called Ujjayi breathing, or Ujjayi Pranayama, is used throughout. It involves breathing through the nose while constricting the throat to provide resistance for the breathing muscles. It creates a constant deep hissing sound while breathing. Breathing and movements between poses are synchronized.

Unique features

During Vinyasa, one relies on Drishti, or gazing points, to keep their eyes open during the practice, except when blinking and during the corpse pose. While not known for improving flexibility, the practice does lend itself to improving physical strength. The combined Vinyasa, the Drishti, and the breathing technique all turn this practice into a moving meditation.

 

Overview of the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga

The primary series of Ashtanga yogaThe primary series of Ashtanga yoga begins with Surya Namaskar A and B. These sun salutes can be repeated three to five times for the warm-up. Surya Namaskar A has ten movements, while Surya Namaskar B has 16.

Following Surya Namaskar is 18 poses that make up the Ashtanga standing series.  While there isn’t a strict correspondence, the standing poses have a rough correlation to the seated yoga poses that follow.

The seated poses of the Ashtanga yoga primary series can be divided into two sections. These poses focus on forward bends and twists, but vinyasas performed can be more arduous than those done while standing. The vinyasas involve a subset of poses. They go from the Surya Namaskar, jumping back to Chaturanga Dandasana - four-limbed staff pose - followed by Adho Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, the upward-facing dog, and Adho Mukha Svanasana, the downward-facing dog, followed by jumping through to sitting again.

At the end of the Ashtanga yoga series practice, finishing poses - closing postures - are done. These include the wheel pose, plow pose, shoulder stand, ear pressure pose and headstand, and the final pose of Shavasana. Closing postures calm the mind and return the body to a balanced state.

 

Mysore-Style Classes

One of the benefits of the Ashtanga yoga poses system is that poses can be taught a few at a time in a Mysore-style class. Teachers at Mysore classes teach more poses once they see that learners have learned previous poses. Individuals can then proceed at their own pace once they have learned the poses. Another option for doing Ashtanga yoga is attending a lead class where an instructor talks practitioners through the poses.

Practitioners can always choose to learn the poses on their own. If adopting this approach, a suggestion is to memorize the order of the poses and learn and practice them a few movements at a time.

 

The Sequence of Ashtanga Yoga Poses

Tadasana

illustration of woman in mountain pose, tadasanaThe starting pose for an Ashtanga yoga practice is the Mountain pose, Tadasana. It is also referred to as Samasthiti, or equal standing. It can be done with arms on the sides or hands touching in front of the heart in a prayer position. When doing the standing series of Ashtanga yoga poses, one returns to Tadasana between the various sets of standing poses.

 

Sun Salutation A and B

As mentioned, an Ashtanga yoga pose practice always starts with three to five repetitions of Surya Namaskar A, followed by three to five repetitions of Surya Namaskar B. These sun salutations focus on breath-linked movements, or Vinyasa. Rather than holding a pose, move from one pose to the other with either an inhale or an exhale. The exception is Adho Mukha Svanasana, or downward-facing dog, which is held for five breaths.

When learning Surya Namaskar A and Surya Namaskar B, one approach to memorizing them is to break down each sun salutation into a smaller mini-sun salutations.

 

Standing Yoga Poses of the Ashtanga Practice

Once sun salutations are completed and end in Tadasana, the standing forward bends of the standing series of Ashtanga yoga poses are to follow.

 

Padangusthasana and Padahastasana

For both of these standing forward bends, feet are placed hip-width with the legs straight. For the first pose, Padangusthasana, or big toe pose, bend forwards and grab the big toes with the first two fingers of each hand.

For the second standing forward bend, Padahastasana, place the hands beneath the feet so that the toes butt up against the wrists. The palms are facing up with the fingers pointing back toward the ankle. This pose is also known as the hands-under-feet pose. Return to Mountain pose after doing Padahastasana.

 

Utthita Trikonasana

illustration of a woman in Utthita Trikonasana, triangle poseAfter the two standing forward bends, the following two poses are the triangle pose, Utthita Trikonasana, and the revolving triangle pose, Parivrtta trikonasana. These are both asymmetrical yoga poses, so movement begins on the right side.

For the Triangle pose, Trikonasana, the legs are placed about legs-length apart and have to be straight. For the first side, the right foot is turned out, and the left foot is slightly in. Bend to the right and grab onto the big toe. Repeat on the left side. After doing Trikonasana on both sides, move on to Parivrtta Trikonasana.

 

Parivrtta Trikonasana

For the Revolving triangle pose, the hips face the same direction as the front foot. Bend forwards and place the hand on the same side of the back foot to the outside of the front foot. Twist the body to the side of the front foot with the hand on the same side of the back foot reaching straight up. Tadasana follows the movement on both sides.

 

Utthita Parsvakonasana

The next set of standing yoga poses, Pasvakonasana, is similar to the triangle set. The main difference is that in Parsvakonasana, the front knee is bent. The foot position for these poses is also slightly wider than in the two triangle variations.

As with the triangle pose, for Parsvakonasana, a movement begins on the right side. Step the feet wide outwards, wider than the placement for the triangle pose. Turn the right foot out ninety degrees and bend the right knee. Adjust the foot position so that the right shin is reasonably vertical. Tip the upper body to the right, touching the right hand to the floor to the outside of the right foot. Reach the left hand up and over the head so that the left side of the body, from foot to hand, forms a single straight line. After five breaths, repeat the pose on the left side.

 

Parivrtta Parsvakonasana

Next comes the Revolving side angle pose. For the full version of this pose, turn the hips towards the right foot, starting with the right side. Bend the right knee and bend forwards while twisting to the right and reaching the left arm to the outside of the right thigh behind the knee. Put the left hand on the floor to the outside of the foot. With the torso twisted to the right, reach the right hand past the head to form a line with the left leg.

 

Binding in Parsvokonasana

Binding can be part of both versions of Parsvakonasana. Binding means grabbing or pressing one part of the body against another. It allows the muscles to exert against each other, which in some positions can be extremely beneficial since it can help to protect the joints involved. It can also provide extra leverage to help with getting deeper into any pose.

To bind in the right side of Utthita Parsvakonasana, position the torso in front of the right thigh. From there, reach the right arm back, under the right thigh. At the same time, reach the left hand behind the back. Reach the right hand upwards to grab the left wrist.

To bind in the right side of Pravritta Parsvokonasana, position the left arm to the outside of the right thigh. Push the forearm under the thigh. Reach the right arm behind the back and grab the right wrist with the left hand.

 

Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C and D

illustration of a woman performing Prasarita Padottanasana, wide-legged standing forward bend posePrasarita Padottanasana is a wide-legged standing forward bend. The legs are straight in this set of four poses, repeated four times with a different hand variation. Return to the upright position between each position, but not to Tadasana.For the first Prasarita Padottanasana variation, bend forwards and place the hands on the floor shoulder width apart. Position the hands to keep the forearms vertical when the elbows are bent.

For the next variation, keep the hands on the waist.

For Prasarita Padottanasana C, clasp the hands behind the back and lift them back and up, keeping the elbows straight.

For the final variation, grab onto the big toes. As with Padangusthasana, grab the big toe using the first two fingers of each hand. Read more on the Prasarita Padottanasana series of poses, including variations, modifications, and an additional pose that may be added after the first variation.

 

Parsvottanasana

After the four Prasarita Padottanasana poses comes another straight-leg pose called Parsvottanasana. It is commonly called the reverse prayer pose because the hands are positioned behind the back in a prayer position, with palms facing each other and the fingers pointing up.

From Tadasana, step the left foot back. Remain facing forward. Place the hands behind the back in prayer form and bend forward towards the right leg. After five breaths, come up, turn around, and repeat the pose on the left leg. Afterward, return to Tadasana.

 

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana A, B, and C

illustration of a woman in one of the four Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana variationsThe next set of standing poses in the Ashtanga primary series is Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. This set of three poses involves balancing on one foot while the other is to the front or side.

To begin, shift weight to the left foot and grab the big toe of the right foot.

  • Standing upright, straighten the right leg to the front.
  • After five breaths, swing the leg out to the right. Look to the left.
  • Hold here for five breaths, and then bring the leg forwards again.
  • One modification is to bend towards the leg for a breath, then bring the torso upright and release the leg, holding it out to the front with the hands placed on the waist for five breaths.
  • Another modification is to skip the forward bend and release the grip, holding for five seconds.

Afterward, lower the leg and repeat this set of poses with the left leg lifted.

 

Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana

One of the more challenging leg positions in the primary series is Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, or the half-bound lotus pose. It is recommended to leave out this pose and variations, especially if practicing alone. Read the options and modifications for this half-bound lotus standing forward bend pose in Ardha Baddha Padmotanasana.

In this pose, take more than a few breaths while moving the foot into the lotus pose and binding it.  Standing on the left leg, grab the right foot and carefully position the blade of the foot in the crease of the left hip for the lotus pose. Wrap the right hand around behind the back and try to grab onto the big toe of the lotus foot from behind. This pose is the bind-in-half-bound lotus pose.

From here, bend forwards and place the free hand on the floor beside the standing leg foot.

Hold for five breaths and then stand up while holding the bind. Then, release and move to the other side.

 

Utkatasana

The next pose is called Utkatasana, or powerful pose. This knees-bent pose, also known as the chair pose, resembles sitting on a chair. This pose is the first and last pose used in Sun Salutation B.

Standing in Tadasana with feet together, do a mini-sun salutation as follows:

  1. Inhale and lift the arms.
  2. Bend forwards and touch hands to the floor with an exhale.
  3. Look forward with an inhale.
  4. Jump back to Chaturanga Dandasana with an exhale.
  5. Do an upward dog with an inhale.
  6. Do a downward dog with an exhale.

From downward dog, inhale and jump the feet forward. In the same breath, lift the torso with the knees bent, reach the arms above the head and touch the palms together with the elbows straight. Hold for five breaths.

From here, bend forwards, straightening the knees and keeping the hands on the floor. Do another mini-sun salutation, looking forwards with an inhale and then jumping back to Chaturanga Dandasana with an exhale. Then, do an upward-facing dog followed by a downward-facing dog.

 

Virabhadrasana I

​​illustration of a man and a woman doing virahhadrasana I and II or warrior 1 and 2 poseFrom the downward dog, step the right foot forwards between both hands. Bend the knee and position the foot so the front shin is nearly vertical. Turn the left leg out so that both feet are flat on the ground. Lift the torso and reach both hands up over the head, touching the palms and keeping the elbows straight. Hold for five breaths, and then for the left side, turn to the back of the mat for the left side.

 

Virabhadrasana II

This pose is the one exception to doing the right side first. For Virabhadrasana II, step the feet slightly wider from the left side of Warrior 1, turning the hips to face the side. Reach the arms out to either side and look over the left hand.

Hold warrior 2 for five breaths on the left side and then switch to the right side. Afterward, do another mini-sun salutation. From Downward dog, jump to sitting for the seated ashtanga yoga poses.

 

Ashtanga yoga seated poses

After sun salutations and the series of Ashtanga standing yoga poses, the practice of the primary series moves to the ground for a series of seated poses. A natural breakpoint for the seated poses is Navasana, or boat pose.

Where the seated poses before Navasana tend to be variations of seated forward bends, the poses following could be classed as a mixture of yoga poses that stretch and strengthen the hips, shoulders, and spine.

Most of the seated poses involve some element of binding feet and hands. If binding cannot be done in any of the poses, an option is to exert opposing muscles against each other to get a similar strengthening effect. Another option is to use a strap, towel, or other body parts to help extend the reach.

 

An overview of Ashtanga seated poses up to Navasana

Leading up to Navasana, the series of Ashtanga seated yoga poses includes:

  • Dandasana, or staff pose: sitting upright with legs straight out in front.
  • Paschimotansana - west stretch or stretch for the back of the body, A, B, C, and D versions - seated forward bend:
    • first, grab the big toes,
    • then hands to the soles of the feet (as in Padahasasana),  
    • then grab the sides of the feet,
    • then clasp a wrist beyond the feet.
  • Purvottanasana - east stretch or stretch for the front of the body: lift the body with legs straight and place hands on the floor.
  • Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana, or bound half lotus pose seated forward bend: for the first side, bend forward with the right foot in lotus and right hand grabbing the right big toe from behind the back.
  • Triang Eka Pada Paschimottanasana, or half-hero pose forward-bend: for the first side, bend forward with the right shin folded to the outside of the thigh in the half-hero pose.
  • Janu Sirsasana A, B, C (head to the knee pose): for the first side of each variation, bend forward with:
    • A - The right knee is bent on the floor with the foot to the left inner thigh
    • B - The right knee is bent with the buttocks positioned over the right heel
    • C - The right knee is bent with the foot turned down so that the heel is directly over the forefoot.
  • Marichyasana A, B, C, and D, or sage pose: for the first side, the right knee is bent upwards with the foot on the floor.
    • The first and second variations are forward bends, while the third and fourth are twists.
    • For the first and third variations, the left leg is straight, while the left leg is in lotus for the second and fourth.
  • Navasana, or boat pose: balance on the buttocks with the torso angled back and straight legs angled forward and up. Repeat five times, lifting up after each.

illustration of a woman seated in Navasana, boat poseWith seated postures, vinyasa involves lifting the body up, swinging the legs back through the arms, and then jumping back to Chaturanga Dandasana followed by upward facing dog, downward facing dog, and then jumping the feet back through the hands for whatever seated pose is next.

 

Right side first

In Ashtanga yoga, the general rule is to do the right side first. A benefit of this rule is always knowing what side to start on. Follow the below guidelines to determine what side constitutes the right side in the seated postures:

  • In a half-bound seated lotus forward bend, the right side of this pose has the right leg in the lotus.
  • For Triang Muka Eka Pada Paschimottanasana, the right side has the right leg bent into a hero pose.
  • For the Janu Sirsasana series, the right side of the pose has the right leg in Janu Sirsasana.
  • For Marichyasana, the right side has the right leg bent with the knee pointing up in the Marichyasana position.

 

An overview of the Ashtanga yoga poses that follow Navasana

After Navasana, the poses up to the wheel pose are as follows:

  • Bhujapidasana, or shoulder pressure pose: balance arms and cross legs with thighs resting on the back of the upper arms.
  • Tittibasana, or firefly pose: balance arms with thighs pushing down on upper arms and legs straight.
  • Kurmasana, or tortoise pose: forward bend with legs straight and apart with arms straight and positioned under the thighs.
  • Supta Kurmasana, or sleeping tortoise pose: forward bend with feet crossed behind the head, and one wrist grabbed behind the back while binding the legs.
  • Garbha Pindasana, or embryo in the womb pose: legs in lotus with arms poked through the gaps behind the knees and hands reaching towards the chin. Roll in a circle nine times.
  • Kukkutasana, or rooster pose: balance on the hands with legs in lotus and arms through the knot of the lotus behind the knees.
  • Baddha Konasana A, B, or bound angle pose: forward bend with feet together and knees bent out to the side:
    • The first variation has the spine straight.
    • The second variation has the spine bent forward
  • Upavistha Konasana A, B, or seated wide angle forward bend A: forward bend with legs spread wide and knees straight while grabbing big toes.
    • A - legs on the floor
    • B- balancing on the buttocks
  • Supta Konasana, or inverted wide leg forward bend: balance on shoulders with legs spread wide while holding onto big toes with feet on the floor behind the head.
  • Supta Padangusthasana A, B, C, or reclining big toe pose: lay down on the back while grabbing the right big toe:
    • A - the leg pulled down toward the torso
    • B - the leg open to the side
    • C - the leg pulled down to the torso, and the head lifted toward it.
  • Chakrasana, or backward roll.
  • Ubhaya Padangusthasana, both big toes pose: forward bend that starts on the shoulders with big toes grabbed. Roll up to balance on the buttocks with elbows straight.
  • Urdhva Muka Paschimotanasana, or upward facing intense west stretch: forward bend that starts on shoulders with sides of feet grabbed. Roll up to balance on the buttocks and hold the pose with elbows bent.
  • Setu Bandhasana, or bridge pose: note that the Ashtanga variation is different from other versions of bridge pose.
  • Urdhva Dhanurasana, or wheel pose.

 

The closing sequence

The poses following Urdhva Danurasana have often been termed the finishing or closing series when doing the primary series of Ashtanga yoga.

  • Salamba Sarvangasana or shoulder stand: weight on shoulders and elbows, with chin to chest, torso, and straight legs reaching vertically up.
  • Halasana, or plow pose: weight on shoulders with chin to chest, hands clasped behind back, torso vertical, toes touching the floor behind the head with knees straight.
  • Karnapidasana, or ear pressure pose: weight on shoulders with hands clasped behind back. Knees are bent with shins on the floor with knees beside the ears and pressing inwards.
  • Urdhva Padmasana, or the upward facing lotus pose: weight on shoulders with torso vertical and legs in lotus with hands pressing up against the knees.
  • Pindasana, or embryo pose: weight on shoulders with torso vertical, legs in lotus and with arms hugging legs to chest.
  • Matsyasana, or the fish pose: legs in lotus while lying back with back arched off of the floor and top of the head on the floor. Hands grab the feet.
  • Uttana Padasana, or raised leg pose: back arched off of the floor with the crown on the floor. Legs are lifted off of the floor with knees straight. Arms and legs reach forwards and upwards.
  • Sirsasana A, B, or the headstand pose: Headstand with hands clasped behind the head and forearms and head on the floor.
    • First variation: legs straight and vertical
    • Second variation: legs straight and bent at the hips so that legs are horizontal.
  • Balasana, or child’s pose: bending forward while kneeling with forehead on the floor.
  • Baddha Padmasana, or the bound lotus pose: sitting with legs in lotus and bound with both hands behind the back.
  • Tolasana, or lifting pose: lifting the body up with legs in lotus.
  • Padmasana, or the lotus pose: sitting with both legs in lotus.
  • Shavasana: lying on back with arms slightly to the side, elbows and knees straight, eyes closed.

 

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References

An overview of the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga Poses

Vinyassas for the Standing Yoga Poses in the Ashtanga Primary Series

Seated poses of the ashtanga yoga primary series

 
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