Ashtanga Yoga Series

The Primary Serie

The primary series of Ashtanga yoga is a precise sequence of postures, linked together with vinyasa sequences. It is used as the daily yoga practice for yogis who practice Ashtanga yoga, the sequence of yoga as was taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. The primary series is the first series students learn.

The primary series is a foundational practice which provides the basis for the other five ashtanga vinyasa sequences. As well as the postures, it includes a specific breathing technique, use of bandhas, drishti (gaze points) and coordinated movement with the breath.

The Sanskrit name for the primary series is yoga chikitsa, which can be interpreted as “yoga therapy.” It is given this name because it is said to purify and heal the body.

Although many consider the primary series to be the easiest series of Ashtanga yoga because it is the one that students learn first, it is said that it is actually the most difficult to perfect. This is because it is in the primary series that the student, their mind and their body get used to the system of Ashtanga yoga, and to the reality of practicing yoga every day. From there, progressing on to the next series is easier, as the body is used to daily ashtanga practice. It is simply a case of integrating new postures into an established system. Many students practice the primary series for years before moving on to the next series, the intermediate series, or nadi shodana.

The sequence itself is a progression of postures which promote both strength and flexibility. It begins with forward bends before moving on to twists, hip openers and backbends. These postures and the vinyasas between them build internal heat. It is said that the practice has significant benefits on a number of levels. Mentally, the primary series builds willpower, focus and mind-body awareness. Physically, it strengthens, improves flexibility and detoxifies the organs. Energetically, the poses clear obstacles to free the flow of energy in the nadis, or energy channels of the body.

The Ashtanga yoga method of practicing the primary series is to memorize the postures, and practice them six days per week, following the rhythm and counting of the yogi’s own breath, rather than a teacher. This is said to encourage introspection and focus.

Second Series

Also called the intermediate series or the nadi shodhana series, is a sequence of poses designed to clear the energy channels. Ashtanga yoga asana practice begins with five repetitions each of sun salutation A and sun salutation B followed by a standing sequence; and practice ends with the closing sequence. In between the standing and closing sequences, the yogi practices one of six series, which range from the primary series to advanced.

Ashtanga yoga is believed to be an ancient form of the discipline that was rediscovered by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century. Some say he developed the sequences that make up the series.

In the second series of Ashtanga yoga, the focus is on back bends, which benefit the spine and open energy channels that let prana flow. The series also includes hip openers and some headstands.

The second series begins with noose pose and then flows into heron, followed by a series of back bends, including locust, frog, bow, side bow and camel poses. The back bends provide a range of benefits, including improving posture, opening the heart center, and improving lung function. The back bends are followed by counterbalance poses and then deep forward bends, which assist nerve cleansing and increase blood flow to the spine, lungs and heart. The inversions that follow – mostly headstands – detoxify the internal organs and build confidence. The series ends with paschimottanasana, a calming forward fold.

Third Series of Ashtanga Yoga

also called the advanced A series, is a sequence of postures that work with gravity and are designed to calm the mind and strengthen the body. The third series is one of four sequences that comprise the advanced series, which is known as sthira bhaga, or “divine stability.”

All levels of Ashtanga yoga asana practice begin with two versions of Sun Salutation and a standing sequence, and they all end with the closing sequence. In between, the yogi performs one of six series, which increase in difficulty.

The third series of Ashtanga yoga builds on the first two series, known as the primary and intermediate series. The focus continues to be on energy flow, with additional emphasis on flexibility, strength and concentration. The series sets the yogi on the path to the ultimate goal of Self-realization.

Arm-balancing poses are key components of the third series, requiring the yogi to work with gravity to maintain stability. Among those poses are:

  • Eka pada Koundinyasana B
  • Chakorasana
  • Kala bhairavasana
  • Urdhva kukkutasana A, B and C
  • Eka pada Galavasana
  • Eka pada bakasana A and B
  • Koundinyasana A and B
  • Astavakrasana

The third series of Ashtanga yoga also includes intense backbends such as viparita dandasana A and B, viparita shalabhasana, rajakapotasana and eka pada rajakapotasana. The backbends open energy channels and stretch the spine.

Fourth Series of Ashtanga Yoga

The fourth series of Ashtanga yoga, also sometimes referred to as the advanced B series, is a sequence of asanas that strengthen the body, increase flexibility, calm the mind and build inner strength. The fourth series is the second of four sequences that together are known as sthira bhaga, or the advanced series. Sthira bhaga is a Sanskrit term that means “divine stability.”

Regardless of the level, all asana practice in Ashtanga yoga begins with two variations of Sun Salutation and a standing sequence, followed by one of the six series and ending with the closing sequence.

The sthira bhaga series of Ashtanga yoga, including the fourth series, builds on the the primary and intermediate series. The first of the sthira bhaga series, also known as the third series or advanced A series, continues Ashtanga’s focus on energy flow, but adds more emphasis on flexibility, strength and concentration. The fourth series mixes more difficult poses with meditative poses, continuing and further developing the advanced series’ emphasis on inner strength. The goal of the fourth series is to move the yogi along the path to the ultimate goal of Self-realization.

The fourth series of Ashtanga yoga includes backbends and a number of poses with one or two feet behind the head, in addition to the meditative poses. The asanas in this series are:

  • Mulabandhasana;
  • Nahushasana;
  • Vrschikasana;
  • Sayanasana;
  • Buddhasana;
  • Kapilasana;
  • Variations of padangustha dhanurasana and Marichyasana;
  • Parsva bakasana;
  • Pungu kukkutasana;
  • Eka pada dhanurasana;
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana A and B;
  • Paryankasana A and B;
  • Mandalasana A and B; and
  • Several variations of dandasana poses, among others.
Fifth Series of Ashtanga Yoga

An advanced sequence of postures, or asanas, designed to improve body and mind. It is the third of four sequences that together are known as sthira bhaga, or the advanced series. Sthira bhaga is a Sanskrit term meaning “divine stability.”

The asana sequences in this series have evolved over the years. They consist of the primary series, the intermediate series and the advanced series, which used to be composed of two sequences, advanced A and advanced B, or the third and fourth series. Through several incarnations, the Ashtanga advanced series was spread out into the third, fourth, fifth and sixth series. The fifth series is sometimes referred to as advanced C.

Regardless of the level, all asana practice in Ashtanga yoga begins with two variations of sun salutation and a standing sequence followed by one of the six series; it ends with the closing sequence. While the primary and intermediate series tend to be universal, the asanas used in the fifth series can vary depending when the particular series was developed or taught. Like all Ashtanga series, the fifth series builds on the skills learned in the prior series and adds more challenging poses interspersed with easier postures.

A focus in the fifth series of Ashtanga yoga are the many handstand vinyasas and other inversions. Such poses include: taraksvasana A and B, eka hasta vrksasana, uttana salabhasana A and B, vrksasana, viparita chakrasana, urdhva prasarita padasana A and B, and tiriang mukha utthita trikonasana, among others.

Sixth Series of Ashtanga Yoga

The most advanced sequence of postures that comprise asana practice in this structured form of yoga. Some say that only one person has ever advanced to the sixth series, Sharath Rangaswamy, the grandson of K. Pattabhi Jois, who developed the modern Ashtanga series of postures. Others, however, claim to practice what is known today as the sixth series and even to have learned it from Jois.

What is not disputed is that the asana sequences have evolved in the modern era, as series were added or existing series split into several series.

The Ashtanga yoga vinyasa series today consists of primary (first series), intermediate (second series) and four levels of advanced series, which are collectively referred to by the Sanskrit term sthira bhaga, or “divine stability.” Each series includes challenging and restorative poses performed in the same order each time, but each series of vinyasa is increasingly more difficult than its predecessor. The goal of vinyasa in these series is to strengthen body and mind.

Like all Ashtanga practice, the sixth series starts with two different sun salutations and a standing sequence; it ends with the same closing sequence. Between the standing and closing sequences, the yogi follows the flowing sequences of poses that comprise the series. Unlike in the primary and intermediate series, the postures in the sixth series are not universal. The makeup of the vinyasa and the order of the poses can vary depending on when it was originally learned. The sixth series, though, tends to include difficult backbends, handstands and other inversions that require advanced flexibility and balance.

Sthira Bhaga

Sthira bhaga is a Sanskrit term that describes the advanced series of Ashtanga yoga. Sthira translates as “strong,” “stable,” “steady” and “resolute” while bhaga means “prosperity,” “good fortune” and “happiness.” The term is often translated as “strength and grace,” but also as “divine stability” and “sublime serenity.”

Modern Ashtanga yoga and the development of its progressive levels of vinyasa series are credited to yogi Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) and his student K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009). Each Ashtanga practice consists of an opening sequence of sun salutes and a standing sequence. It is followed by one of up to six increasingly difficult vinyasa series and ends with a set finishing sequence.

Initially, Ashtanga yoga had primary, intermediate and advanced series. The advanced series has evolved to include four series, referred to either as advanced A, B, C and D, or as the third, fourth, fifth and sixth series. Sthira bhaga is sometimes used to refer to just the third series of Ashtanga yoga, but is typically used to describe the advanced series as a whole. The primary series is called yoga chikita, while the intermediate series goes by the name nadi shodhana.

The first series tones the physical body, the second series strengths nervous system, while sthira bhaga builds on that foundation with a focus on both physical and spiritual strength, flexibility and balance. Each level of sthira bhaga, and each posture within each series, must be mastered before moving to the next.

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