In Pattabhi's Ashtanga yoga system of movement prescribed to western students there are six series of asanas. But no matter which series you are working in you must always begin the practice with sun salutations and the 6 fundamental asanas. Depending on how you group these asanas and count them you could also argue that there are only 5 or as many as 11 asanas. Have you ever wondered what makes the small handful of fundamental asanas so important? Why were these poses selected and made compulsory for all students? If you've practiced them you may have noticed that they do open up the body quite efficiently and prepare you for the rest of the practice. So, what's the 1% theory behind the magic? If you're not familiar with the sanskrit names of these poses check out the cheat sheets here.
Now let us take a step back and zoom out to a very wide picture. We are dealing in the ancient and scholarly world of yoga and ayurveda. These systems were developed with a holistic approach that recognizes the interconnected nature of both the body and the mind. For this article we are going to zoom in on working with the body in particular which is where the western mind tends to focus anyway on asana. Teachers that I prefer to work with recognize that asanas are quite useful to correct postural imbalances. But we must let go of the outward form and start to look into the function of the asana and the inner sensation that it creates in the student. Asana works on the grossest dimension of the student. This dimension should not be discredited as it also affects the other dimensions of the person as well. After all, if one cannot connect to their grossest dimension how could they connect with the subtler ones? In my opinion this is why Pattabhi's Ashtanga for westerners is asana-centric since the gross layer of the body is easy for our minds and eyes to see and feel. Just imagine what it's like to look at yourself like a chiropractor or a physical therapist would. What kinds of measurements would you take? i.e. Where are the hips in relation to the shoulders, etc...
In ayurvedic terminology there are 5 main categories of âsanas:
Samasthiti The spine is vertical. This might sound pretty basic but if you've studied anatomy you will realize that we are all a little bit asymmetrical. Not only do most people differ from right to left we can also be thrown off of this ideal vertical state from front to back. Given the complexity of the spine now imagine that we are ever so slightly leaning to the left and we have a subtle rotation to the right between our 2nd and 7th thoracic vertebra (connected to the ribcage there are 12 total). Do you see where this is heading? When a teacher adjusts us and helps us find the state of a neutral and vertical spine it can feel quite strange if we have been living with a pattern that is pulling us off of the ideal posture. Some practitioners I'm sure could tell their chiropractor between which vertebrae their pattern of tension lies based on their inner sensations that have been explored in these fundamental asanas after many years of study. Imagine hanging upside down by your feet. This is the sensation you should create through your spine when standing upright which requires strength and flexibility in every segment of the spine to fight against gravity. We practice samasthiti between the groupings of fundamental asanas. It is a pose that is repeated often and with good reason. Even after practicing over a decade you could very well still find new nooks and crannies that should be lifted in your spine. Have you been glossing over these transitions in your own practice? Perhaps you should take a closer look at what happens if you give your lower back, ribcage and your neck an extra lift when you pass through samasthiti. Poses that exemplify Samasthiti include samasthiti, tâdâsana, and shavâsana. (Although shavâsana is technically not vertical since we are lying down flat and yes, I know Pattabhi never called taking rest after practice shavâsana, but you know what I am saying)
Pascimatâna The back of the body is being stretched. These poses are done on an exhalation because as we bend forward the chest cavity compresses expelling air from the chest. Two types of postural imbalances can be corrected in this category:
The first kind is when the back is over-arched. If the lower back has too much curve (known as lordosis or sway-back) we can encourage the student to engage the abdominal muscles in order to tone them and to pull the over-worked and tight muscles of the lower back into a deeper stretch.
The other type of imbalance is when the abdominal muscles and also possibly the hamstrings are too tight. If the abdominal muscles are lifting the front of the pelvis we can encourage them to relax and stretch as we pull the ribcage in a way that also stretches the hamstrings. The pelvis is quite important because it is the foundation of the spine. If the pelvis is tilted too far forward or backward everything that stacks above it will be off skew. If your pelvis tilts forward (sway back) then try engaging your abdominals a little bit when you fold forward. If your pelvis tilts backward (tight hamstrings and abdominals) then try to lengthen your abdominal muscles by engaging the muscles along your spine when folding forward. Poses that exemplify Pascimatâna include padangustasana, padahastasana, and parshvottanasana - all of which are fundamental asanas.
Pûrvatâna The front of the body is being stretched. These poses are done on an inhalation because as we open up the front of the body the chest cavity naturally expands. Typically we do these poses to bring back healthy samasthiti alignment a spine that exhibits a tendency to slouch (hunchback). This type of problem is typical of people who work at a desk all day. There are numerous times when we transition between a fundamental asana into samasthiti and we first outstretch our arms on an inhale and bring our feet to the top of the mat on the exhale. Each time you stretch out your arms before samasthiti notice if you've been glossing over that transition. Can you expand through your chest a little more? Poses that exemplify Pûrvatâna include prasarita padottanasana B & C, as well as parshvottanasana. It is a common pattern for a beginner to allow their chest to cave in parshvottanasana, so notice if that is happening when you fold forward. Also notice how you transition into prasarita padottanasana B & C, it's common for beginners to "get creative" with those transitions. Make sure you include that inhalation and expansion of the chest first before you fold in on the exhalation.
Parivritti The body is being twisted. We do these on an exhalation because of the same principle described in pascimatâna. People who have to work in a twisted position such as sitting at a desk and looking at a computer in one direction but talking to a customer in another direction will end up with a postural pattern where there spine is held in a twisted position. The position in which we sleep can also result in spinal rotation or twisting if we tend to prefer one side over the other. When we develop a pattern that favors twisting to one side we must therapeutically work to twist towards the opposite side. It can feel quite unnatural to twist to the side we have neglected but this will in fact help to straighten the misalignment. If one side is more challenging try to hold it for a few extra breaths. Poses that exemplify Parivritti include parivritta trikonasana, and parivritta parshvakonasana.
Pârshva One side of the body is stretched. This is called lateral flexion of the spine. If one leg is longer or there is some other reason why the pelvis is not held in a straight horizontal position parallel with the horizon then we can also expect some compensation patterns to arise between the hips and the shoulders. The body will always do it's best to keep the eyes parallel with the horizon. You don't ever see people walking around tilted like the leaning tower of Pisa now do you? That's because these slight shifts are well obfuscated by the spine to maintain the skull and sensory organs it contains straight and upright. Poses that exemplify Pârshva include utthita trikonasana, and utthita parshvakonasana.