Below are the 2 common reasons people feel Ashtanga is not balanced . This article is not geared towards people who have unique circumstances within their body that need special attention. Of course, the practice needs to change for them. This is about the healthy individuals who feel that the practice is imbalanced.
Ashtanga is Just Forward Folds
There are 50 + backbends in Ashtanga’s Primary Series! You do them in the Sun Salutes. You do them between almost every pose during floor work and than you finish with them! Upward Facing Dog is a back bend! Second Series has so many backbends that is is called “the nervous system” series. Advanced A and Advanced B are also full of backbends. I have never seen another practice that has more backbends than Ashtanga! If anything, people should complain that there are to many backbends!
In addition to that, there is back extension (down dog), full body strengthening (chaturanga) and arm balancing (pick it up and take it back) between almost every pose and you come back to your feet for down dog. The purpose of the jump through and jump back is to reset and balance out the body between every pose. Also, counter poses, or poses that balance the body, are built into the sequence. An understanding of Vinyasa Krama/sequencing, alignment, and the energetics of the poses really help in understanding the balance of the practice.
I used to think that every time I went into a forward fold, the purpose was to make each one deeper! NOOOOOO. The focus is on the part of the body that is changing not the fold.The fold is just a means of bringing depth to the area that has changed. For instance, if I sit down, bend my knee and stay upright, there is not much sensation. If I start to fold, I start to feel the change in my hips, spine, side body, quads etc, depending on the angle of the bend.
It is the same thing that is happening with the standing postures in other styles of yoga. In the average Vinyasa class, 60-%75% of the class is done standing. The emphasis is on what is changing as you stay standing. It is funny, I rarely hear people complain that they stand to much in Vinyasa classes. It is very obvious to them that they are working on what is changing. Ashtanga though…not so much.
There are Not a Lot of Hip Openers in Ashtanga
One of the best articles I have seen on this subject was by Jenni Rawlings entitled, “Lets Forget About Hip Openers“. It is one of a 3 part series.
We talk a lot about “hip-openers” in yoga, but hip-opening is actually more complex than we often realize. Pigeon pose and its variations are usually considered the main group of poses which “open our hips”, but surprisingly, most people unknowingly practice these poses in a way which bypasses the actual hip-opening they offer. The truth is that nearly all yoga poses are hip-openers, but we haven’t learned to think about them this way, and we therefore don’t align our joints to find this hip-opening potential that our bodies so desperately need.
Instead of thinking about the small group of poses we usually classify as “hip openers”, we should broaden our focus and learn to open our hips throughout our entire yoga practice.
For much of my yoga-practicing career, I was under the impression that if you wanted to open your hips, you basically just needed to do pigeon pose a lot, and that pretty much summed up all you need to know about hip opening.
But hip-opening is about so much more than simply pigeon pose. There are a total of 22 muscles that cross the hip on all sides and at varying angles, including your hip flexors in the front, your hamstrings, glutes, and deep lateral rotators in the back, your inner thigh muscles (collectively called your “adductors”), and your outer thigh muscles (collectively called your “abductors”).
A “hip-opener” is technically any stretch that lengthens any of the 22 muscles that cross the hip. This means, for example, that all hamstring stretches are hip openers, all inner thigh stretches (think baddha konasana) are hip-openers, all standing poses (warriors, lunges, etc.) are hip-openers, many of yoga’s twists are hip-openers, and as counterintuitive as it may seem, all backbends are also hip-openers. (Crazy, huh?)
Can you see that once we have an anatomical definition for what hip-opening is, it’s difficult to name a yoga pose which is not a hip-opener? (Inversions aren’t really hip-openers, but I wish they were! ) Our whole yoga practice is basically just one big hip-opening opportunity.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.