The overarching purpose of Yoga as taught by the Yogis, saints and sages of India is to seek an experience of being that is absent of suffering. Some have called this liberation, enlightenment, nirvana, the bliss of being, and a host of other names. While the names and descriptions may vary, there is a thread that connects them all, and that commonality is the quest to know, to understand, to go deeper into the purpose and meaning of our life. Yoga is a philosophy, a practice, a quest, and a state of being all at the same time. It has many entry points, and so a student may come to the practice from where they are, what their individual needs are, and evolve from there. Since our bodies are our primary source of identification, it is an obvious place to begin an inner search, so we find practices such as Yoga, Tai-Chi, Chi-Gung, prostrations, etc. all use the physical body to begin to form a relationship with the subtle aspect of our lives.
The Primary Series, called Yoga Cikitsā, or Yoga Therapy, is a sequence of yoga āsanas derived from the teachings of Sri T. Krishnamacharya. It is a collection of several sub-groups of postures that are similar in shape and benefits. Standing postures, forward bending postures, poses for the hips, backbends, and inverted positions are all grouped together in order to enhance their collective benefits on our physiological systems. The poses of the Primary Series largely influence the thoracic and abdominal cavities through the massage that occurs to the visceral organs during forward bends, twists, and inversions, and the parasympathetic nervous system through regulated breathing patterns and stretching of the cervical and sacral vertebrae. While this may sound overly clinical, the Yogis had a deeper reason for promoting health and longevity. They considered spiritual insight is easier gained when we are well, and more difficult when we are sick or weak.
Robust health has been valued as the basis of a fulfilled inner and outer life for as long as we have had recorded history (which includes the oral tradition that Yoga is a part of). Birth is a precious gift, and the maintenance of our health and the health of the planet is one of the ways that we display respect, gratitude, and appreciation for the profound mystery and majesty of this inexplicable thing that we call life. In the wisdom traditions of the world, a variety of methods were suggested for maintaining daily health and for preventing disease. Yoga and Ayurveda are examples from the Hindu traditions that use diet, exercise, meditation, herbs, and right living for the maintenance of health and harmony. Both of these systems hold that our health and our capacity for clear perception is intimately associated with our ability to digest and assimilate the food we eat and experiences that we have.
If our digestive power is weak, or our nervous system is in overdrive due to stress, anxiety, and burnout, we cannot digest our food and nourish ourselves, and we cannot respond appropriately to the demands of life.
Ama is the Sanskrit name for the accumulated waste that is left over when we cannot digest or assimilate food or experiences, sometimes translated as toxins. In ama are the seeds of disease. Fire is the element of transformation and assimilation, so when our assimilation is weak, our fire needs to be tended to. Building up our digestive fire can lead to the removal of ama through improved digestion and elimination. We keep our system clean and functioning to its optimum. The poses of the primary series are designed to help build up the digestive fire so that we have both a strong appetite and digestion, and as well to keep our body healthy and energetic. Emotional and mental clarity comes at the same time, as āsanas are also a practice of awareness and presence.
There are two complementary forces that we work with in life: effort and receptivity. Physical or spiritual practice is designed to help us become more receptive to our present condition, and we become aware of whatever that condition is only when we are quiet, and in a natural state of attention or awareness. We are quite good in the Western cultures at applying effort, but not as well trained in becoming receptive to the messages that our body, mind, and emotions send us. Yoga āsanas, prāṇāyāma, and meditation practices help us to learn how to listen inwardly.
The āsanas of Primary Series are organized systematically and address the different organs and functions of the body in a methodical manner. While it is not necessary to practice each asana every day, those that are practiced should be done in a systematic manner, and they are grouped together below to show how several small sequences of poses exist together within the overall primary series.
A practice can begin with Sūrya Namaskāra, unless you have an injury or health issue that prevents you from performing them, and end with the inversions and seated, meditative poses, or simply the meditative poses alone.
The benefits of the āsanas given below are derived from a variety of modern sources of yoga that discuss overlapping benefits. However, older, traditional Yoga texts have not been so much concerned with strengthening individual organs as discussed below, but with the overall energetic value of āsanas to restore balance to the body. Balance to the body is restored by supporting the internal mechanism of homeostasis, our body’s innate system for restoring and maintaining balance. The body is able to heal itself when homeostasis is supported. Disease arises when homeostasis is thrown off through lack of exercise, sleep, poor diet, smoking, alcohol, and surrounding ourselves with negativity and stress. To do the opposite of that is where health occurs: physical, emotional, and mental.
The benefits given below are not prescriptive, but are included simply for the sake of being aware of current dialogue around yoga āsanas. I have been involved in several scientific studies on Yoga, and we have seen that Yoga does have a direct influence on physiological health, however, there are no studies at present that have researched a single āsana to see if it gives any of the benefits below. All of the studies that show physiological gains are made up of interventions that contain groups or sequences of practices. Most of the Yoga teachers of India who have taught these practices say the same thing: āsanas should not be done individually, but in groups that balance the different aspects of the body, in conjunction with regulated breathing, and a calm, focused awareness.
Our physiological systems work together, our mind and emotions influence our body, and our body can influence our mind, emotions, and also levels of self-perception and stress. It’s best to look at Yoga as a whole mind-body-spirit practice, and that all of the various practices are aimed at restoring to us the experience that we are indeed one thing all at the same time, even though we like to divide things up all the time. It is also true that there are individual organs or functions that stop working well, or need support – but usually that support comes from doing a few things differently. Eating well. Resting enough. Exercising. Meditating or spending time in quiet contemplation. Breathing deeply. Spending time with people we love. This is basically yoga. So, rather than taking the below as prescriptive views on yoga, read through remembering that the Yogis took a holistic view on the body-mind-spirit complex.
Sūrya Namaskāra A & B
The Sun Salutations create heat in the body, warm the blood, and help establish a pattern of breath and movement, which together is known as vinyāsa. As one progresses through the subsequent āsanas, the warmed blood will move through the whole body, drawing out toxins from the muscles, joints, ligaments and internal organs.
Six Fundamental Āsanas
The six standing āsanas strengthen the legs and waist, remove accumulated fat from the waist, purify the lower intestines and colon, and prepare the legs for subsequent āsanas that follow them by stretching the hamstrings and hip rotator muscles. These āsanas are helpful in removing joint pain, and help the body become light and healthy.
Two Balance Poses
Utthita hasta pādāṅguṣṭhāsana strengthens the spine, waist, hips and lower abdomen. Ardha baddha padmottanāsana is helpful in purifying the colon, esophagus, liver and spleen. The massage given through the placement of the heel in a standing half padmāsana, and further deepened by the grip of the arm around the back, is said to prevent gas from occurring in the stomach that arises from poorly prepared food, poor food combination or spoiled food that is hard to digest. Both poses are helpful for constipation, and as well improve balance and spatial awareness.
Primary series begins with utkaṭāsana and vīrabhadrāsana a & b. One can increase the amount of time spent in them, up to 10, 15 or 25 breaths. In the Eastern healing traditions, such as yoga and martial arts, it is said that your life is as long as your legs are strong. These poses increase the strength of the spine, waist and legs, and are helpful for lower back and knee pain. Utkaṭāsana is especially good for lower back pain and core strengthening.
East and West Sides of the Body, and Poses with the Legs Bent at Full Angles
Paścimatānāsana, the western extension pose, and pūrvottānāsana, the eastern extension pose, both strengthen the waist, spine, help increase digestive fire, and strengthen the organs of the digestive system. The entire body from the feet through the top of the head are stretched and energized by these two poses, which are best done in conjunction with each other. It is said that when the digestive fire is strong, and one is able to fully digest the food they eat, leaving no residue of toxins, vibrant health will result.
Ardha baddha padma paścimatānāsana and tiryaṅ mukhaikapāda paścimatānāsana purify the liver and spleen, and are helpful for constipation and abdominal toning. Tiryaṅ mukhaikapāda further is said to be useful for alleviating sciatica, makes the body symmetrical, and is helpful for reducing water retention.
Jānu Śīrṣāsana A, B and C
These three poses together are helpful in addressing diabetes, in conjunction with strict dietary changes. Both appetite and digestive fire can be increased by their practice. These three poses also strengthen the dhātu, or vital essence, and reduce the mental tendency towards kāma, or desire. In the yoga tradition it is said that we lose our vitality primarily through the sense organs; energy drains out from us as our attention moves to the things in the world that we find attractive or enticing, whether it is shopping, sex or media. The root cause of this is one of the inherent tendencies of the mind known as kāma. Kāma draws out our sense of self through the sense organs and causes us to identify with the changing objects of the phenomenal world. As our vital essence and inner sense of self get strengthened, the root of kāma becomes loosened, and impulses are controlled – not through repression, but through the loosening of the knots that bind us to outer objects. Desire is not considered to be inherently bad, it is simply a condition of the mind, and it can be directed inwardly towards knowledge of Self, resulting in freedom, or outwardly towards the bondage of ignorance.
Marīcyāsana A, B, C and D
These four poses have a wide range of benefits as they press and massage the visceral organs in several directions. They are said to be helpful in curing gas, indigestion, constipation, and increase digestive power. Further, they can strengthen the large intestine, spleen liver and gallbladder. For women, they are said to be helpful for menstrual cramps and will also help make the womb strong. The third cakra, called maṇipūra cakra, which is the nerve plexus associated with digestion, identity, power and ego, is said to be purified by the practice of these poses.
Āsanas that Strengthen and Purify the Waist and Lower Organs
Nāvāsana strengthens the colon, spinal column, ribs and girdle of lower abdominal and back muscles. Bhujapīḍāsana does the same, and additionally purifies the esophagus in the variation where one places the chin on the floor. Kūrmāsana purifies the bulbous root plexus where all the nāḍīs are said to emanate from called the kāṇḍasthāna. Further, the heart, lungs, disorders of phlegm, and spinal column are strengthened, and lower belly fat is dissolved. Garbhapiṇḍāsana dissolves lower abdominal fat, purifies the maṇipūra cakra, and is said to ward off diseases of the liver and spleen.
Āsanas that Strengthen the Hips, Waist and Spine
Baddha Koṇāsana is one of the most important poses for maladies that relate to constipation, hemorrhoids, and problems related to the anus. In conjunction with mūla bandha, practicing baddha koṇāsana is said to remove and prevent these problems. Eating clean and pure food, and drinking clean water, is understood to be part and parcel of any protocol to cure maladies related to the digestive system and colon.
Upaviṣṭa and supta koṇāsana are helpful in relieving sciatic pain, and strengthen the spinal column. Supta pādāṅguṣṭhāsana makes the waist and knees strong, and purifies the esophagus and sphincter.
Ubhaya pādāṅguṣṭhāsana and ūrdhva mukha paścimatānāsana strengthen the sphincter muscles, waist, stomach, and lower back. They are also said to begin the process of opening the three knots that bind us to temporal existence, called the granthi traya. The three knots are said to be located in the three bones of the coccyx. The knots are those that bind us to our ephemeral existence, through attachment to reproduction, emotion, and intellect. The svādhiṣṭhāna cakra, located between the genitals and the navel, in the area above the pubic bone, which makes the body light, is also purified.
Setu bandhāsana strengthens the waist, neck, esophagus, heart and stomach. It also purifies the mūlādhāra, or root cakra, at the sphincter, and strengthens the digestive fire.
It is interesting to note that the last poses of the primary sequence begin to address the lower cakras after the physical organs have first been taken into consideration, following the idea that after we address the physical issues at the gross level, we can then begin to develop the ability to examine and work with deeper levels of personality and self identity. The inversions, which follow, are said to further purify the cakras that lie below the waist, through the heat of the digestive fire that has been built up through the practice of the earlier āsanas.
Sālamba sarvāṅgāsana is said to help strengthen a whole host of aspects of the human body, including strengthening the skeletal muscles, heart, lungs, digestive system, blood vessels, and neural networks. The three doṣas, jaṭhara agni, nāḍīs, and viśuddhi cakra (throat plexus associated with expression and language) are purified. It is also helpful in addressing maladies including constipation, indigestion, and asthma. Inversions are not recommended for people suffering from enlargement of the heart or other heart disease.
Halāsana purifies the intestines, and strengthens the waist, throat and neck; karṇapīḍāsana is said to be useful in diseases of the ears; ūrdhva padmāsana strengthens the anterior spinal column, and both the anal and urinary channels; piṇḍāsana massages the lower abdomen, liver, spleen, stomach and spinal column.
The counter poses of matsyāsana and uttāna pādāsana purify the esophagus, anus, liver and spleen, and strengthen the waist and neck.
Śīrṣāsana purifies the nadis related to the brain and the sense organs. Memory power and eye strength are improved, and the heart, mind and intellect will evolve. Bindu, our essence of youthfulness, is stored in the brain, and not drained and burned up in the digestive fire.
The final three poses are preparatory for prāṇāyāma, meditation and contemplation, and as well have associated health benefits. They should be done every day to close one’s practice, even if only a few postures or only Sūrya Namaskāra have been practiced.
Baddha padmāsana and yoga mudrā purify the liver and spleen and straighten the spinal column.
Kevala padmāsana, said to be the most important of all yogāsanas, is said in texts such as the Mahābhārata, Yoga Yājñavalkya and others, to purify all diseases by virtue of cleansing all the nāḍīs. Prāṇāyāma and meditation can be practiced in this pose.
Utplutiḥ, while technically not as āsana, strengthens the waist and opens the granthi traya, while also helping one to gain control of mūla bandha at the sphincter, and uḍḍīyana bandha above the pubic bone at the lower abdomen.
This concludes the āsanas of the primary series, known as Yoga Cikitsā. At the conclusion of the practice, it is important to rest for a few minutes and let the body and mind completely and deeply relax. As mentioned at the introductory paragraph, there are two complementary forces that we work with in life: effort and receptivity. While doing the āsanas we are applying effort, and during the rest at the end we practice receptivity. This is where our awareness again moves inward, and we consciously soak in or assimilate the benefits of our practice. New patterns are formed, and our perspective and perception of ourselves, our relationship to our body, breath, mind, and the world around us, expands.