Mastering Ashtanga Yoga: The Primary Series Guide

Ashtanga Yoga is a dynamic and structured style of yoga that synchronizes breath with a progressive series of postures. Originating from the yogic teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, this practice is known for its rigorous and disciplined approach, promoting physical strength, flexibility, and mental clarity. The Primary Series, also known as Yoga Chikitsa, is the foundational sequence in Ashtanga Yoga, designed to detoxify and align the body. Through consistent practice, Ashtanga Yoga cultivates a deep sense of focus, inner peace, and overall well-being.

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga is a traditional system of yoga that emphasizes a structured and dynamic practice, integrating breath with movement through a set sequence of postures, which may include koṇāsana. This style of yoga is rooted in the teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who developed and popularized it in the 20th century.


Ashtanga Yoga traces its origins to the ancient text, the “Yoga Korunta,” which was reportedly compiled by the sage Vamana Rishi. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois studied this text under his guru, T. Krishnamacharya, and later adapted its teachings into the modern Ashtanga Yoga system. Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, where he taught and refined the practice, attracting students from around the world.


The philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga is deeply rooted in the eight-limbed path (Ashtanga means “eight limbs” in Sanskrit) outlined by the sage Patanjali in the “Yoga Sutras.” These eight limbs are:

  • Yama (moral restraints)
  • Niyama (observances)
  • Asana (postures)
  • Pranayama (breath control)
  • Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
  • Dharana (concentration)
  • Dhyana (meditation)
  • Samadhi (absorption or enlightenment)

Ashtanga Yoga primarily focuses on the third and fourth limbs, Asana and Pranayama, through its structured sequences of postures and breath control techniques. However, the practice also encourages the development of the other limbs, promoting a holistic approach to physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

The practice is characterized by its use of Vinyasa (breath-synchronized movement), Ujjayi Pranayama (a specific breathing technique), Bandhas (internal energy locks), and Drishti (focused gaze). These elements work together to create a meditative flow, purify the body, and cultivate a deep sense of inner awareness and discipline.

Understanding the Primary Series

The Primary Series, known as Yoga Chikitsa, is the foundational sequence in Ashtanga Yoga. “Yoga Chikitsa” translates to “Yoga Therapy,” highlighting the series’ role in detoxifying and aligning the body, promoting overall health and well-being.

Structure of the Primary Series

The Primary Series consists of a set sequence of postures that are performed in a specific order. This sequence is designed to build strength, flexibility, and stamina while also promoting mental focus and inner peace. The series can be broken down into several key sections:

Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar A & B)

These are dynamic sequences that warm up the body, synchronize breath with movement, and prepare the practitioner for the subsequent poses.

Standing Poses

This section includes a variety of standing postures that build strength, balance, and flexibility. Examples include Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose) and Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose).

Seated Poses

The seated postures focus on deep stretching, hip opening, and forward bending. Examples include Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) and Marichyasana (Marichi’s Pose).

Finishing Sequence

This final section includes inversions, backbends, and relaxation poses that help to cool down the body and integrate the benefits of the practice. Examples include Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand) and Savasana (Corpse Pose).

Objectives and Goals

The Primary Series aims to:

Detoxify the Body: Through the combination of breath and movement, the practice generates internal heat, which helps to purify the muscles and organs.

Align the Body: The sequence is designed to correct structural imbalances and improve posture.

Build Strength and Flexibility: The progressive nature of the postures helps to develop physical strength and flexibility over time.

Enhance Mental Focus: The repetitive and meditative nature of the sequence cultivates concentration and mental clarity.

Promote Overall Well-being: By addressing both physical and mental aspects, the Primary Series fosters a holistic sense of health and well-being.

Importance in Ashtanga Practice

The Primary Series serves as the foundation for more advanced sequences in Ashtanga Yoga. Mastery of this series is essential before progressing to the Intermediate and Advanced Series. It provides a solid base for understanding the principles of breath, movement, and alignment that are crucial for a safe and effective practice.
By consistently practicing the Primary Series, practitioners can experience profound physical, mental, and spiritual benefits, making it a cornerstone of the Ashtanga Yoga tradition.

Breakdown of the Primary Series

Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar A & B)

Sun Salutations, a sequence of yoga postures, offer numerous benefits for both the body and mind. Physically, they enhance flexibility, strengthen muscles, and improve cardiovascular health by increasing heart rate. This flow of movements promotes better circulation and can aid in weight loss. Mentally, Sun Salutations help reduce stress and anxiety, fostering a sense of calm and focus. Regular practice also encourages mindfulness and deep breathing, which can improve overall respiratory health. Moreover, this sequence serves as a great way to start the day, energizing the body and mind for the tasks ahead.

Surya Namaskar A

  • Samasthiti (Mountain Pose)
  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Ardha Uttanasana (Halfway Lift)
  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
  • Ardha Uttanasana (Halfway Lift)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
  • Samasthiti (Mountain Pose)

Surya Namaskar B

  • Samasthiti (Mountain Pose)
  • Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Ardha Uttanasana (Halfway Lift)
  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
  • Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) – Right Side
  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
  • Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) – Left Side
  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
  • Ardha Uttanasana (Halfway Lift)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
  • Samasthiti (Mountain Pose)

Standing Poses

The standing poses in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series serve a foundational role, providing stability, strength, and balance essential for progressing to more advanced postures. These poses, which include asanas like Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), are designed to build physical endurance and flexibility. They engage and strengthen major muscle groups, enhance spinal alignment, and improve posture. Additionally, standing poses help to cultivate mental focus and concentration, grounding practitioners and preparing them for the deeper, more meditative aspects of the practice. By establishing a strong, balanced base, these poses lay the groundwork for the fluid transitions and complex movements characteristic of the Ashtanga sequence.

  • Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose)
  • Padahastasana (Hand Under Foot Pose)
  • Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
  • Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
  • Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
  • Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)
  • Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C, D (Wide-Legged Forward Bend)
  • Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose)
  • Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
  • Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (Half-Bound Lotus Standing Forward Bend)
  • Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
  • Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)
  • Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II)

Seated Poses

The seated poses in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series are essential for deepening flexibility, enhancing joint mobility, and cultivating inner focus and stillness. These asanas, which include Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) and Marichyasana (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi), target the hamstrings, hips, and spine, promoting greater range of motion and muscular balance. They also stimulate the digestive and circulatory systems, aiding in detoxification and energy flow. Seated poses encourage a meditative state, allowing practitioners to connect with their breath and achieve mental clarity. By fostering patience and introspection, these postures help create a harmonious and holistic yoga practice, bridging the gap between the dynamic standing poses and the calming finishing sequence.

  • Dandasana (Staff Pose)
  • Paschimottanasana A, B, C (Seated Forward Bend)
  • Purvottanasana (Upward Plank Pose)
  • Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (Half-Bound Lotus Forward Bend)
  • Tiryang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana (Three-Limbed Forward Bend)
  • Janu Sirsasana A, B, C (Head-to-Knee Pose)
  • Marichyasana A, B, C, D (Marichi’s Pose)
  • Navasana (Boat Pose)
  • Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose)
  • Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose)
  • Supta Kurmasana (Sleeping Tortoise Pose)
  • Garbha Pindasana (Embryo in Womb Pose)
  • Kukkutasana (Rooster Pose)
  • Baddha Konasana A, B (Bound Angle Pose)
  • Upavistha Konasana A, B (Seated Wide-Angle Pose)
  • Supta Konasana (Reclining Angle Pose)
  • Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
  • Ubhaya Padangusthasana (Both Big Toes Pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana (Upward-Facing Forward Bend)
  • Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose)

Finishing Sequence

The finishing sequence in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series serves as a crucial component for consolidating the benefits of the practice and transitioning the body and mind towards a state of rest and integration. This sequence, which typically includes inversions like Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), and Sirsasana (Headstand), as well as calming forward bends and supine poses, helps to calm the nervous system and balance the energy cultivated during the earlier dynamic postures. Inversions enhance circulation, detoxify the body, and promote mental clarity, while the forward bends and relaxation poses facilitate deep release and relaxation. The finishing sequence allows practitioners to absorb the physical, mental, and energetic benefits of the practice, fostering a sense of completeness and tranquility. This closing ritual ensures a smooth transition from the active practice to a state of rest, culminating in Savasana (Corpse Pose), where full relaxation and integration occur.

  • Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand)
  • Halasana (Plow Pose)
  • Karnapidasana (Ear Pressure Pose)
  • Urdhva Padmasana (Upward Lotus Pose)
  • Pindasana (Embryo Pose)
  • Matsyasana (Fish Pose)
  • Uttana Padasana (Extended Fish Pose)
  • Sirsasana (Headstand)
  • Baddha Padmasana (Bound Lotus Pose)
  • Yoga Mudra (Yoga Seal)
  • Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
  • Tolasana (Scale Pose)
  • Savasana (Corpse Pose)

Starting and Progressing Safely

Begin with a Warm-Up: Always start with a few rounds of Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) to warm up your body and prepare for the more intense postures.

Learn the Sequence: Familiarize yourself with the order of the postures. Knowing the sequence helps you flow smoothly from one pose to the next.

Start Slow: If you are new to Ashtanga Yoga, begin with a few poses and gradually add more as you build strength and flexibility.

Listen to Your Body: Pay attention to your body’s signals. If you feel pain or discomfort, modify the pose or take a break.

Use Props: Don’t hesitate to use yoga props like blocks, straps, or blankets to help you achieve proper alignment and support.

Importance of Breath and Drishti (Gaze)

Focus on Ujjayi Breath: Practice Ujjayi Pranayama (victorious breath) throughout the sequence. This deep, rhythmic breathing helps to generate internal heat and maintain focus.

Maintain Drishti: Each pose has a specific focal point (drishti). Keeping your gaze steady helps to enhance concentration and balance.

Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Flexibility Issues: If you struggle with flexibility, practice gentle stretching exercises outside of your Ashtanga routine to gradually increase your range of motion.

Strength Building: Incorporate strength training exercises to build the necessary muscle strength for challenging poses like Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose).

Consistency: Aim to practice regularly, even if it’s just a short session. Consistency is key to progress in Ashtanga Yoga.

Dealing with Fatigue: If you feel fatigued, take a moment to rest in Child’s Pose (Balasana) or skip a few poses to conserve energy.
Role of a Teacher or Guide

Seek Guidance: Practicing under the supervision of a qualified Ashtanga Yoga teacher can provide valuable feedback and corrections. If you don’t have any Ashtanga teachers in your area, join Omstars for access to Ashtanga teachers and classes online.

Attend Workshops: Participate in workshops or retreats to deepen your understanding and refine your practice.

Additional Tips

Set an Intention: Begin each practice with a clear intention or goal. This can help to keep you motivated and focused.

Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of water before and after your practice to stay hydrated, especially if you sweat a lot.

Practice Mindfulness: Approach each pose with mindfulness and presence. This not only enhances the physical benefits but also promotes mental clarity and inner peace.

Be Patient: Progress in Ashtanga Yoga takes time. Be patient with yourself and celebrate small achievements along the way.

Rest and Recover: Allow your body time to rest and recover. Incorporate restorative yoga or gentle stretching on rest days.

By following these tips, you can create a safe, effective, and enjoyable practice of the Primary Series, leading to significant improvements in your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Mastering the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga offers a transformative journey that enhances physical strength, flexibility, and mental clarity. This structured sequence, rooted in ancient traditions, provides a comprehensive workout that detoxifies and aligns the body while promoting overall well-being. By incorporating the tips provided—such as focusing on breath, maintaining consistency, and seeking guidance—you can safely and effectively progress in your practice. Embrace the challenges and rewards of the Primary Series with enthusiasm and dedication, and you’ll discover profound benefits that extend beyond the mat. Begin your Ashtanga Yoga journey today and experience the holistic growth it brings to your life.

Photo by Mor Shani on Unsplash