Workshop dispatch: Primary series (Yoga Chikitsa)

Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice.

Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice.

This is the next in a “Workshop dispatch” series based on the workshops I took with Tim Miller at Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio from Friday, April 13, 2012 through Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Tim has taught annually in Columbus for 14 years. This year, he held his traditional weekend (Friday through Sunday) program, but debuted a new intensive program (Monday through Wednesday). Each day of the three-day intensive focused on a different series of the practice. In the mornings, we chatted a little bit and then did a practice that could run up to 2.5 hours (to allow time to do several research, or prep, poses, during the second and third series). In the afternoon, we could ask questions, go over problem spots and generally discuss the practice. (Full workshop description here.) What follows are notes and thoughts from Day 1 of the intensive, which examined the primary series.  

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“You guys are the guinea pigs,” Tim Miller told us on Day 1 of the One-Day Yoga Intensives portion of his annual Yoga on High program. Pretty cool place to be for the roughly 40 of us in the room. Some of us had traveled from out of state, others were Yoga on High teachers, and several in the room were enrolled in Yoga on High’s  teacher training program. (As a side note, I think it’s very cool that Ashtanga students enrolled in YOHI’s teacher training are required to take Tim Miller’s workshops.)

Gunas

Over the course of the three-day intensive, Tim talked about the qualities of each of the series as they relate to the gunas and the pancha kosas (five sheaths). In The Heart of YogaT.K.V. Desikachar describes gunas simply as “qualities of the mind; qualities of the universe). In a nutshell, there are three gunas:

  • Sattva, which possesses the quality of harmony
  • Rajas, which possesses the quality of activity
  • Tamas, which possesses the quality of inertia.

Tim was careful to note during the workshops that while we often think of the quality of being sattvic as being the most desirable of the gunas, we need all three for balance. “It’s easy to say tamas is bad, sattvic is good and rajas is mixed,” Tim said. “But you need all three. We are always trying to find balance between these qualities.”

Since we’re on the topic, here is what B.K.S. Iyengar says about the gunas in Light on Life:

As I said, the guna is made up for three complementary forces. They are: tamas (mass or inertia), rajas (vibrancy or dynamism), and sattva (luminosity or the quality of light).

Let us look at a practice example. In asana, we are trying to broach the mass of our gross body, to break up the molecules and divide them into atoms that will allow our vision to penetrate within. Our body resists us. It is muleish. It will not budge. Why? Because in body tamas predominates. It has to. Body needs mass, bones need density, and sinew and muscle need solidity and firmness….

With regard to asana practice, this means that initially we need to exert ourselve more as resistance is greater. Of the two aspects of asana, exertion of our body and penetration of our mind, the latter is eventually more important. Penetration of our mind is the goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat.

But once there is movement and then momentum, penetration can start. When effort becomes effortless, asana is at its highest level. Inevitably this is a slow process, and if we break off our practice, inertia reasserts itself. What we are really doing is infusing dense matter with vibrant energy. That is why good practice brings a feeling of lightness and vitality. Though the mass of our body is heavy, we are meant to tread lightly on this earth. (pp. 45-46)

The overarching quality of the primary series, relative to the other series, would be tamasic. Second series: rajastic. Third series, sattvic.

Pancha koshas

In general, the sheaths go from the grossest (most physical) to more subtle manifestations.

  • Annamaya kosa: Physical body
  • Pranamaya kosa: Energy body. This is the body of chakras.
  • Manomaya kosa: Body of mental (and emotional) impressions. You find samskaras (habits, conditioning) here.
  • Vijnanamaya kosa: The body of the buddhi (intellect).
  • Anandamaya kosa: Blissful body. The place of the soul. The place of unconditioned awareness. (Iyengar refers to this sheath as the divine body.)

It was very helpful for me that Tim discussed the sheaths as one of those nesting Russian dolls.

Primary series

Whew. That’s a lot of necessary lead in. Let’s get to the primary series itself. Primary series — Yoga Chitiksa (“Yoga Therapy,”) works most on the outer doll. The physical sheath. Tim noted that if we work on one doll, it does affect the other dolls.

The first series has a slew of health benefits, as anyone who has practiced the series consistently understands. It is designed to:

  • Restore the body
  • Detox us
  • Restore natural range of motion to our joints
  • Restore sensitivity to our sense organs

The practice also helps to reduce excess adipose tissue (yep, that’s body fat).

Think of all the forward folds and twists in the first series (if you’re new to the series, you can see the poses here). Primary works quite a bit on:

  • The gastrointestinal system
  • Digestion
  • Assimilation
  • Elimination

If the concept of the pancha kosas – the five sheaths — is new to you, I recommend reading Light on Life. And, of course, try to find time to study with Tim Miller. I’m sure he’ll be doing more of these one-day intensives now that he’s had the chance to test it out on our group.

Tim said this about the Ashtanga method as we were discussing the primary series: “It’s very scientific. It’s very sophisticated. And best of all, it works.” Seeing these notes again remind me that Steve of The Confluence Countdown recently posted an interview with Eddie Stern about a new yoga study that includes what is essentially a distillation of part of the primary series. Interesting stuff.

My relationship with the practice

On a personal level, the primary series has been an incredibly positive influence for me — for years the metronomic quality of the practice was about the only calm consistency in my life that I could point to — but the process has been as slow as molasses. Some people fly through primary. Not me.

I spent years and years without an Ashtanga teacher, and cobbled together a practice based on a couple of weekend workshops with David Swenson and some practice cards. I was lucky enough to be in a led class taught by Pattabhi Jois when he paid a visit to Montreal during one of his North American tours, but I still didn’t understand the series well enough by that time to even get into the marichyasana twists without assistance.

During those lonely years without a teacher, I had enough internal drive to know this was good for me, but not enough tapas to practice daily and fully wring out the benefits of the practice. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had met Tim Miller or Angela Jamison all those years ago. Despite knowing that the past is what it is and there’s no point dwelling on it, I admit to still having twinges of regret now and then — less so for what my practice could be now that I am on the cusp of turning 36 (though I would be lying if I didn’t say that is part of it), and more so for what better choices I could have made in my life had I had a consistent daily practice in my 20s.

The silver lining for all this is that I have a deep well of patience for teaching primary series, and I invest as much as I can to trying to help students who seem to need someone to put them in closer touch with their practice. As I told one of my students once, every single one of your challenges with the practice becomes a gift you have for your students. And my god, have I had an abundance of challenges — from my unforgiving work schedules to the far-from-any-shala locations I have lived to the less-than-ideal body proportions that makes poses like supta kurmasana and pasasana a steep uphill journey.

Ah, pasasana — the gateway pose to second series. We’ll get to that in the next blog post.

(Photo: My friend Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice. Jen teaches Ashtanga and vinyasa yoga and Pilates in Washington, D.C. If you’re in D.C., check her out — she’s excellent.)

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