Thursday, 10 August 2017

Was the Ashtanga Primary series 'designed' as Yoga Therapy?

I do find this therapeutic 'design' argument for the Ashtanga Primary series in the recent Sonima article ( link below) puzzeling. The suggestion here is that the Primary series was designed for it's therapeutic benefit...

"Jois called the Primary Series of Aṣṭāṅga yoga “roga cikitsā” meaning disease therapy and “cikitsā vibhāga” meaning therapy section.... The title cikitsā vibhāga, given to the Primary Series, indicates that it’s MAIN PURPOSE (my caps) is disease therapy, especially designed to repair, rejuvenate, and strengthen the system for the purpose of yoga. "

And yet it's clear that Pattabhi Jois merely took Krishnamacharya table of yoga groupings of easy, tricky and ruddy difficult postures (primary, Middle and proficient) and taught them as series for his Sanskrit college teaching gig, rather than as groups and taught them as such - no doubt because he needed a four year syllabus. The Primary group is barely changed from Krishnamacharya's table(see Appendix below), although the Intermediate Marichiyasana D was moved by Jois into the Primary group/series. Pattabhi Jois then took this group of 'Primary postures and called them 'yoga therapy, the second series, again only slightly more changed from the original became referred to as nerve cleansing.

Nor should we perhaps imagine that PattabhiJois 'constructed' the series/sequences of asana in any sense of collaboration with Krishnamacharya, Jois was but a boy, Krishnamacharya a terrifying (by all accounts at this time) court philosopher and yoga teacher. The most that probably happened is that the young Jois shyly passed his teacher his four series and received a curt nod of acceptance.
Krishnamacharya's groups of asana are the same as those listed for ease/difficulty of practice but at some point they received a therapeutic name. Pattabhi Jois may have looked at the asana in these groups/series and thought that combined they had such therapeutic benefits but they clearly weren't designed from the ground up with such an intention.

Pattabhi Jois was barely out of his teens when he began to teach these group of asana as series, he didn't construct them, or design them, or even reorder them that much ( the Advanced series was a different case), he merely tweaked Krishnamacharya's table a little. There is no evidence that Krishnamacharya saw his groups of asana as a series or taught them as such other than perhaps out of convenience as a regular group of beginner postures (this table may have been intended for his assistants, like the young Jois as krishnamacharya may well have been in side rooms with private students and patients teaching them Vinyasa Krama, the tables may also have been used for exam purposes) .

That said Krishnamacharya did give health benefits in his books ( Yoga Makaranda, Mysore 1934, Yogasanagalu, Mysore 1941) for each asana as well as a vinyasa count and indication of breathing, the same health benefits and count that Pattabhi Jois carried over to his book Yoga Mala.
Practice of the Ashtanga Primary series may well have many benefits but to suggest that the series was 'designed' with these benefits in mind strikes me as highly questionable.
Of course we don't know at what point Pattabhi Jois started to refer to and 'promote' Krishnamacharya's groups of asana as yoga therapy

Updates from fb: 

Half the time we blog, I think, to 'speak' out loud and see if we still agree with something we've written by the end of the day, month...year (or ten), I know I do,for that reason I'm including these comments of mine from the fb thread on the topic.

1. Krishnamacharya was clearly very interested in Yoga Therapy, benefits are listed for every asana, he was treating patients back in the Mysore days as well in his later years. All I'm questioning here is the suggestion that the Primary series was constructed or designed as yoga therapy. Nothing wrong with focussing on that aspect of course as Manju seems to be doing. Personally I've never believed half the claims made for it, certainly not for individual asana...Curing leprosy... Seriously?

2. But even here we can fall into the trap of thinking the practice was 'constructed', 'designed' rather than asana being thrown together into groups depending on how challenging they were. It may be they settled into a rough routine and this is what Jois carried forward but rather than being designed for boys, boys just happened to be the students Krishnamacharya had. Of course he also had one to one patients and students but it's not clear how involved Jois was with them if at all. Jois reports that krishnamacharya was jumping from asana to asana in that first pre Mysore palace demo so that seemed to be in place already. The vinyasa count isn't rocket science. if you choose to begin and end at samastithi and count every movement to and from the asana you end up with a vinyasa count, it made sense to link that to the stages of the breath, it's all intuitive.

It's more likely that the Ashtanga Vinyasa we have was designed not so much for boys as for the slightly older adolescents of the Sanskrit college who Jois was required to teach. But again not so much designed as slightly reformatted to fit the four year syllabus.

3. We have no evidence that he (Pattabhi Jois) was 'brilliant'. Charismatic, generous in his teaching certainly but we know the table of asana was already there, we've seen photos of his asana that suggest he wasn't THAT gifted a practitioner by today's standards, it's certainly not suggested that he was even the best in the shala. Yoga Mala is a vinyasa by vinyasa rewriting of Yoga Makaranda. He shared his teacher's practice with us, was a devoted to his students and to passing along his teachers methodology, it's enough isn't it?

But then of course we aren't after gold medal winners in asana championships (it's not Bikram) but Ashtanga yogi's. The system may well be flawed in that too often it leads us into more obsession with self and appearance, attachment , attaining a hot body, the next asana and series, immersion in more dogma. As generous as i feel Pattabhi jois was I've seen footage of him adjusting in that video of Advanced series and we do have to question him as a teacher, his adjustments in that video are terrifying and I would argue foolhardy. The early teachers are the best guide to understanding him i think, they loved him but considered him totally human.

4. I like that image too Randolph but aren't we in danger of projecting a Western pedagogical model on to an Asian one and suggesting ours is the ideal, which is disrespectful to a system that 'worked' for a thousand years or two. Even here, in Japan today, you don't tend to question your teacher. Iyengar gives us a good insight into how Krishnamacharya was with his students ( and he was family) but we can also look to Singleton and Yoga Body for more accounts and even to Mohan and Ramaswami in Krishnamacharya's 'softer' years and how they would tend to wait and hope for him to discuss a topic rather than ask. Krishnamacharya was no Mr. Miyagi.... And come to think of it Miyagi Sensei just made the Karate Kid clean his car.

Jois said that Krishnamacharya gave his approval for the four year syllabus but then he would, it was his own table of asana spread over four years. Have always wondered how K. felt about Jois getting the Sanskrit College gig, perhaps he was indifferent.

5. I figure, overall, a 'smart' practice is beneficial but like you I would practice anyway, it grounds and disciplines my life, it helps me breathe and it helps me to Sit. I don't believe most of the claims made for asana by Krishnamacharya or Jois but thank them every morning for the gift of the practice I love, however much i may have modified it. I tend to think Ashtanga, as taught in Mysore, and when passed along unreflectively and unmodified is overall, probably harmful, certainly in the long term if not in the short. I wince every time I see Sharath encourage somebody to work towards grabbing their heels, shins, thighs or at the thought of every Led class and assist.

I'm not alone in this, I understand David Williams for one, neither assists or allows headstands.

That said I happen to love headstands.

I do respect Sharath though as well as Manju and Saraswati for preserving the practice as they were taught it just as Pattabhi Jois preserved one form of Krishnamacharya's teaching however modified it may have been for the Sanskrit college course, it's one of the best insights we have into how Krishnamacharya taught at a particular time to a particular group of students.

Thankfully we have David (Williams) and all the other reflective teachers as well as our own common sense to decide how we want to approach that preserved form of the practice.

If we believe those who profess that the practice was designed and constructed with therapeutics in mind..., if we believe that Krishnamacharya, Jois, ever opened an anatomy book let alone studied the area in any depth rather than relying on the imperfect awareness of bodyworkers...., if we believe they developed a practice on the basis of a profound and knowledgeable understanding of the mechanics of the body rather than questionable Chinese whispered texts (with apologies to the Chinese) and an accident of circumstance (groups of asana to fixed sequences) then we are likely to trust it and those 'certified' to teach it rather than trust to our own common sense and, while choosing to practice our modified version of it, be prepared to say no thank you very much to an instruction or element of the official practice or to a teacher that expects us to allow them to guide (force) us deeper into a questionable posture and the dogma that surrounds it.

Thankfully there are a lot of smart teachers around to counter the dogmatics that come with passing something along faithfully.


Complete asana table from Krishnamacharya's Yogasanagalu, Primary, Middle and Proficient asana groups

Visit The ongoing Yogasanagalu (1941) Translation Project page for the translation we have so far.

NOTE: With the translation of Krishnamacharya's second book Yogasanagalu ( Mysore 1941 - 3rd edition with additional chapter 1972) now complete, I'm just putting the finishing touches on a free to download edition of the full text that will be available for personal study on the Free Download page at the top of the blog.

'Therefore, how many vinysas for asanas? Asana position comes at which vinyasa count?  When do you perform rechanka and puraka?  When to do antah kumbhaka and bahya kumbhaka?  What are its benefits?  For yoga practitioners information, it is listed in the table below'.

Yogasanagalu Asana table



Antah kumbhaka (purakha kumbhaka) = retention of the breath after inhalation
Bahya kumbhaka (recaka kumbhaka= retention of the breath after exhalation
Ubhya kumbhaka = retention of the breath after both inhalation and exhalation

*In the Primary group above kumbhaka is indicated explicitly in only three postures, baddha padmasana, uttanasana and sethubandasana. In the earlier Yoga Makaranda (1934) however, kumbhaka is indicated other primary postures. This may be that while learning the Primary asana we may forgo kumbhaka in most of the primary postures until gaining familiarity and a degree of proficiency with those asana when we would then begin to work in the kumbhaka. this may be made clearer as the translation continues.

Kumbhaka (mentioned explicitly) in the Yoga Makaranda Primary asana
Tadasana (here implies samasthiti )- purakha kumbhaka
Uttanasana -purakha kumbhaka (we can perhaps presume that all the uttanasana variations would also include antha kumbhaka EG. padahastasana, parsvauttanasa
na, prasaritapadauttanasana.
Ardha baddha padma uttanasana - recaka kumbhaka
Urdhavamukhssvanasana - puraka kumbhaka
Adhomukhssvandasana - recaka kumbhaka
Paschimottanasana - purkha kumbhaka (recaka kumbhaka implied ?)
janusirsasana - purka kumbhaka & Rechaka kumbhaka
Upavistakonasana "recaka kumbhaka is the central principle for this posture"
badhakonasana - recaka kumbhaka
Suptapaddangusthasana- recaka kumbhaka
utthitahastapadangusthasana - recaka kumbhaka
Bhujapidasana - recaka kumbhaka
marichiyasana - recaka kumbhaka ?

Pictorial representation of the table (made up of my old file pictures ).

Krishnamacharya's Primary group (Incomplete ; made up of pictures from his Yoga Makaranada).
Original table


  1. The notion that the Primary Series is cikitsā always seems laughable to me. Cikitsā is what I do with dying people in hospice or with the people with dementia in the nursing home. Or even what I teach in my "Gentle" classes. Sometimes I teach a led 1/2 Primary with many, many offers of modification. My experience is that 99% of people in my classes are nowhere near ready for a full-on Primary or even a full-on 1/2 Primary. I call ashtanga: yoga for the 1% (although I know it is probably more than 1%). My own experience of practicing it is that its therapeutic benefits, if that is how wants to frame it, are very subtle and are as much about the manomaya as the anamaya, to use the panchamaya model (sorry, not inserting the proper Sanskrit accents). Showing up day after day to practice whether I want to or not seems to have as much or more of a therapeutic benefit than proceeding to do 1.5 hours of vigorous asana. Let's enjoy the practice - there is much to enjoy! - but let's be real about what it is.

  2. Propaganda. The commercialization of Ashtanga is too hot to turn back though. After the practice has hurt so many people, you can't tell all the newbies that the healing aspects aren't there.

    I am on board with you on this Simon stuff. I discovered spinal movements back in December and have been practicing all the element sequences and Simon's pranayama.
    Being 24 years old I am excited to explore a system that isn't competitive for once in my life, and doesn't make me have a crash after. You motivated me to quit the shala and start a home practice for ashtanga, and now to fully dedicate myself to spinal movements. Except for the occasional primary series at the park with my girlfriend :)

    We are onto something Grimmly! I'll start posting more on here and working with you on different stuff!