Doing an Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice involves much more than merely doing the asanas enumerated in the Primary Series. As a sequence, the primary series is the foundation of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice. It plants the seeds that will grow into the other sequences. But it’s not limited to the asana element. The seeds that should be planted are also the more subtle components.
The more important seeds that should be planted and cultivated in the primary series are the ones that are related to breath, bandha, and dristhi. In the end, it is these elements that are at the heart of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice. I often tell groups of students that just because they are doing the asanas in the sequence that is known as the primary series does not mean that they are actually doing the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
Doing the sequence while also maintaining these additional elements is what doing the practice actually means. Of course this can also be where disagreement begins. What is the correct method of breathing? What is the correct application of bandha and dristhi?
We argue and debate over these elements, but mostly I think that it’s just the mind once again getting the best of us, distracting us from actually having the experience of doing. An important element to remember is that our experience of these elements will naturally change over time. People often think of the practice, an individual asana, or even one of these elements as being “all” or “none.” They forget that they are on a path of progression and of proficiency of breath, bandha, dristhi, and asana.
So, the primary series should establish a firmness and openness of the body with the asanas themselves. The primary focus in the physical body and these asanas is to actually open the hips. If the hips aren’t open then it’s difficult to get into the spine, which is where the real work of yoga is because it contains the nervous system.
The side benefits of working with the asanas are that we learn discipline and stir the fires of desire to do better and explore further. Primary series is quite grounding as sequences go, but with all the changes in the body that tend to come along with it, we can end up ungrounded. We can start to impress ourselves so much that our ego inflates, thinking that our physical abilities equate to spiritual evolution—and they don’t necessarily.
The primary series should start the work of understanding Tristana. The first part of this is the breath.
In terms of breathing one should be able to have control over his breath lest his breath control him. The control of the breath allows us to coordinate the breath with our movement. Understanding the vinyasa count is a great tool to make and keep us accountable to the number of breaths we take when moving into or out of postures. Too many extra breaths between postures usually means there is a lack of control. Although it is not “wrong,” the ideal is that we become more efficient with our coordination of breath and movement.
It is very typical to hear and see students take a short inhalation with a long loud exhalation to follow. This also shows a lack of control of one’s breath. The ideal that we’re trying for is that the breath be more or less even between inhalation and the exhalation. Key word here is that this is an ideal to head toward. The act of trying and striving is enough, perfection through the whole practice may be unrealistic.
Breath control is one of the most difficult aspects for students to find. I think this is because it requires an additional level of discipline on top of the doing of the actual sequence of Asana. But without this level of discipline and control, I’m not sure that the student will come to realize the potential of the bandhas.
The bandhas are perhaps the most misunderstood element of the practice. Students often get lost in squeezing the right thing in the right way. They forget that the bandha is an energetic component of us that is stimulated by the physical contraction of certain areas of our body. Again, we argue the right way to do this and where we should squeeze. In the end it is where we place our attention and intention that matters more. It is how the bandhas manifest themselves within the practice that is truly important.
Dristhi is the last—and I personally found to be the most difficult—piece of the tristana puzzle. Yes, it’s a looking place, but it’s a looking place that maintains attention on that looking place. Looking at your toe and thinking about the emails you have to reply to isn’t dristhi. Of course trying to do this is hard work and forces us to continue to control our mind and place it somewhere. We all know how difficult this can be at times.
Putting It All Together
The primary series is the training ground for all of these elements. Not just the asana by itself. Not just the breathing, or the bandhas or dristhi, but it is the integration of these elements. Primary is the place where we plant the seeds of tristana and water them so that they blossom into an integrated yoga practice.