Ashtanga yoga requires that practitioners follow a sequence of poses that can be modified based on different bodies and issues. However, even the modifications don’t stray too far from the original pose. Something that I hear often is, “beginners do that pose in vinyasa yoga, but in Ashtanga it is in the Adavanced series. Why?” “Or, I am really good at that pose, why do I have to wait?”
Reasons for following the Ashtanga sequence
The ability to follow the sequence shows discipline which is important on the yogic path. The purpose of yoga is liberation from the five vrittis (mental fluctuations) that keep peace away which are right knowledge (lack thereof), misconception, memory, deep sleep and verbal delusion (for more information on these, check out the Yoga for modern life series). In order to still the 5 vrittis, one most be extraordinarily disciplined. Also discipline is import for reaching any goal in life.
Patience and perseverance
Working towards a pose teaches patience and perseverance which are needed to overcome the 5 vrittis mentioned above and are also important for overall success in life.
Each pose sets you up for the next
I recently used the Sun Salutes, in this article, to explain how each pose sets you up for the next. Another example would be Lotus pose. All of these poses set you up for Lotus pose success.
Side Angle Series
Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose 2
Standing Half Bound Lotus
Seated Bound Half Lotus
3 Limbs Facing Intense West Stretch
Janu Sirsasana Series
Marichyasana B and D
Before you get to Lotus, you have stretched out the hips, groins, knees and did Lotus on both sides before every approaching full Lotus. If these poses are done proficiently and without pain, the student should be ready for Lotus.
It establishes a balance between strength and flexibility
Lets use the example of Handstand. It is a really popular pose right now that everyone wants to be able to do. Many people with really tight shoulders can do Handstand because lack of mobility, caused by the tightness, makes their shoulders stable. This plus upper body strength from other activities such as working out, gives them an advantage in Handstand. If the student continues to Handstand, without working the flexibility of the shoulders, the shoulders get tighter and tighter. Tight shoulders lead to neck and arm pain, head aches, and a limited range of mobility. While they will excel in arm balancing and floating, they will have limited success in postures that require open shoulders like binds and back bending.
In Ashtanga, Handstand is more of a transition. Legs straight in the air while standing on the hands is usually a path to another pose. Usually, it is not until Intermediate Series that legs straight in the air with straight arms is worked on as an aid to a controlled drop over into Wheel with straight arms. Some teachers will have a Primary Series student, who is close to entering Second Series do these as well and they will also allow students to add them to Primary Series transitions. It should be noted that, Sharath Jois, the current lineage holder for Ashtanga, has spoken out against the over use of Handstand and it is frowned upon in Mysore. By the time a student starts playing with Handstand, the shoulders are extremely open from all the binds and back bends they have done previously. They have also established strength and stability by Jump Throughs, Jump Backs, Shoulder Pressure pose , Crow Pose, Forearm balance, Fire Fly Pose and other transitions they have encountered on the way.
There is debate about the existence of the Yoga Karunta, which was the book that Ashtanga supposedly came from. Even if the book was never real, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga and Krishnamacharya, his teacher, had extensive knowledge on the benefits and energetic properties of each pose that, unfortunately, was not passed down to the modern day Ashtanga teacher. B. K. S Iyengar a great yoga teacher who was also a student of Krishnamacharya, wrote Light on Yoga which comes the closest to breaking down specific benefits of each pose and even it is just scratches the surface.
These men dedicated their lives to yoga. They were great yogis who studied the ancient texts and lived and studied with the masters in India. Compared to these guys, most practitioners are just dabblers. One of the reasons practitioners don’t mess with the sequence is simply because it works. They don’t understand how it works but it does. To use an example, it is one thing to do research on your surgery and be educated, it is another to tell the doctor step by step how to do your surgery. Most people will look for the best doctor they can find so that they can feel at ease and confident that the doctor will perform the surgery properly. Even Pattabhi Jois, who was a Sanskrit scholar, didn’t stray that far from what he was taught. He may have put what he learned together in a more succinct way but he was known for saying that he just teaches what his teacher taught him. Many Ashtangis feel that if Ashtanga works, and they don’t fully understand why that is, then they have no right or need to mess with the sequence. Just like a patient with a doctor, an Ashtanga practitioner will do their research and find the best teacher they can and trust the process.