The primary series of Ashtanga Yoga is called Yoga Chikitsa, which means Yoga therapy. The entire practice is put together to cleanse and purify the body on many different levels. The practice of postures works primarily on keeping the body healthy; if the body is diseased we must put our energy into healing the body instead of our spiritual development.
Ashtanga Yoga is a scientific approach developed to cleanse and purify the body in a systematic manner:
- Sun Salutes warm the body up to prepare us for the practice of postures
- Standing poses begin the opening process in the hips and back of the legs to allow the body to get deeper into asana to receive deeper benefits
- Seated poses—this is where the inner work begins, when learning the first series of Ashtanga yoga (known as Primary Series) we are beginning the detoxification of our body and mind, Second series works on the nervous system and the advanced series (now broken into four parts) builds strength and stamina in the body and mind.
- Closing Series is a series of inversions that are designed to bring our spine into alignment reversing the effects of gravity. These inversions also bring energy back into the body, strengthen the body, purify and strengthen the nervous system, and bring our body into the state of homeostasis, or balance.
Seated poses = yoga chikitsa, or yoga therapy
Yoga Chikitsa undoes much of the tension produced by living a normal life and corrects misalignments in the body that lead to pain, these are some of the external benefits of yoga chikitsa.
Stress is a major cause of dis-ease and illness in body! Without a practice or a conscious attention at removing stress from our body and mind we succumb to stress related illnesses easily. Stress related illnesses include heart disease and cancer, among many other dis-eases. These dis-eases are easily prevented—but hard to cure once developed!
Tightness and unawareness of how we move our body leads to misalignments and pain! Again stress is a major cause of this pain—along with traumas in our lives that cause us to tense our jaw, hold our shoulder blades high and rigid in the typical “protect the heart” stance, stand with our bellies hanging out and/or shoulders slumped forward, or allow our heads to hang forward or jut the chin forward pinching at the base of our skull causing headaches. Or we go to the other extreme where we become very rigid with our perfect posture, this too causes pain. We need to find a balance between having enough inner strength to maintain good posture without over using our external strength to make us appear to have good posture when inside we are struggling. Yoga Chikitsa will help us with that balance, strengthening us from the inside out—giving us inner strength and outward relaxation—feeling comfortable with life, our bodies, and what is going on around us.
It seems that most of us are not drawn to yoga because “we see the light” but because we “feel the heat”—in the form of pain—physical, emotional, or mental!
Yoga Chikitsa—inside out.
In the seated poses we are working inside out—this yoga is about the internal work, not the external work! The internal work is done while forward bending with the leg in half lotus, the external work is done in the standing poses loosening up the hips and hamstrings and releasing tension from the body. Another aspect of the external work is worrying too much about binding. The binds do help you get deeper in the pose to get more detoxification, but don’t get so caught up in the bind that you let it keep you out of the forward bending part of the posture—this is where the true benefit comes. In Primary Series many of the preceding poses prepare your body for the pose to come, for example, Marichyasana A prepares you for Marichyasana B—where the deeper inner work is performed.
Yoga Chikitsa is not just about our organs but also about other systems of the body such as the endocrine system, nervous systems, and more subtle areas such as the chakras. Many of the shoulder stand type inversions are working on the endocrine system—stimulating the thyroid and balancing the release of hormones within our body. Backbending postures work to clean and purify the nervous system allowing us to operate with clearer seeing. Many postures also work to break free blockages within our emotional and “chakra” systems freeing up the movement of energy in our body. When prana (energy) can circulate freely through our bodies we are energetic, happy, passionate, beings!
Yoga Chikitsa is also not just about detoxifying our organs, endocrine, and nervous systems. It is about building strength! At first glance of the Ashtanga system the primary series may seem like the easiest of the series, however it is the hardest! It is the hardest because you are a beginner when you start primary series. We build our strength with the primary series—not only are you learning the discipline of practicing regularly but you are also learning how to literally “pick yourself up” over and over again, this gives us the inner strength we need in our lives to pick ourselves up over and over again, be it picking ourselves up emotionally, physically, or mentally!
We are also building heat with this practice, heat aids in the purification process of detoxifying the body—and the spirit. Pattabhi Jois says the heat and discipline (known as tapas in Sanskrit) we build in Yoga Chikitsa will burn away The six poisons—the six poisons surround the spiritual heart. In the yoga shastra it is said that God dwells in our heart in the form of light, but this light is covered by six poisons; kama, krodha, moha, lobha, matsarya, and mada. These are desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth. When yoga practice is sustained with great diligence and dedication over a long period of time, the heat generated from it burns away these poisons, and the light of our inner nature shines forth.
After spending a few years learning Primary series, it is important to progress to the intermediate series of Ashtanga Yoga, knowns as Nadi Shodhana or nerve cleansing.
This series begins with back bending postures, these postures encourage us to open our heart, to not be afraid to drop back and see what is behind us (all the while not holding on to that!).
It them moves on to a series of putting your leg(s) behind your head 8 different ways! Putting your legs behind your head teaches humility, they invigorate the spine encouraging blood flow to spaces between the intervertebral discs and the heart/lung system, they strengthen both the abdominals as you work to move your leg behind your head and then to strengthen the spinal extensors as you try to straighten your spine with your leg back there! Leg behind your head postures also induce a state of meditation, as if we are tucking our head in our shells like a turtle blocking out extra-sensory sights and sounds to look inward.
Finally second series ends with arm balances—building our external strength and preparing us for the advanced series of Ashtanga Yoga.
(Each series unlocks a particular aspect of the body and mind. The primary series called yoga chikitsa (yoga therapy) realign and detoxify the physical body, particularly the spine. It also builds a foundation of considerable physical strength, especially important to balance out the overly flexible students who are often drawn to hatha yoga practice. The intermediate series, nadi shodana (cleansing of the nadis or river or channels), purifies and strengthens the nervous system and the subtle energy channels that link the seven chakras.
The four advanced series (originally taught as two series, but subdivided to make them more accessible) are collectively known as sthira bhaga (divine stability). These sequences take to new heights the strength, flexibility, concentration, and energy flow cultivated in the first two series.)