Like coming home to a home cooked meal.
As I am writing this, I am in India, to practice with an exciting teacher that I am training with for the first time. A lot of new insights, and an amount of assist-attention I haven't received for many years. My fellow practicioners agree: the teacher is kick-ass. She is tweaking my intermediate series and the process is INTENSE. I am sore and actually happily nap in the middle of the day, something I usually never do. Of course, the blazing Sun of India does do its part too. The beatings I receive in the shala every morning make me hunger for that one day this week when I will be reunited, for a day, with my first love - the primary series. This is my love letter to Primary.
I honestly love the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga. It's the one we learn first and, really, for some, it is gives enough to work on your whole life. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is sometimes quoted as saying that the primary series is for everyone, intermediate is for teachers and the series that come from then on are for demonstrations. It is also called Yoga Chikitsa, meaning yoga therapy, and this is exactly what it is: healing, soothing when the intensity subsides,and both physically and mentally detoxifying.
I have always felt that the primary series, also referred to as the first series, is a little bit like a chiropractor of the Ashtanga system. In the beginning, it kind of took me apart and I felt like I was put together anew after that. Because it is the first of six series in the Ashtanga system, many of us do not appreciate Primary for the phenomenal vehicle of healing that it is. It is said to perfect the body for both your general life and for the subsequent series that might (or might not) be taught to you. When you are taught by a good teacher, you will be given an opportunity to work your entire body. Not much is left untouched and unworked once you are done practicing the sequence. Once forward-bending stretches give way to hip-openers, lifts and leaps that come to your door after Navasana, the primary series will present you with positions that will challenge you for years and years (forever?), even after you start practicing latter series. In one of her blogposts, Kino MacGregor, one of the most staggeringly advanced young certified teachers, wrote that practicing led first series with Sharath Jois, every day for almost a week, made her sore and challenged her strength. And she practices the Advanced B, the so called 4th series.
For me, Primary is what I return to when nothing else works. When I come to a new place, either because I travel, or because something has temporarily destabilised the structure of my regular life, I practice the primary series. In its sweaty, spine-elongating, hip-soothing, earthy, grounding manner, it is - and you will forgive me for resorting to a cliché, like coming home, no matter where I am. After injuries, the few I have had, a steady, careful practice of the first series is what got me back to being able to practice as if nothing had happened. It is very therapeutic, more so than any other physical training discipline I know of.
Maybe even more so than the series that follow it, Primary is such a great example of perfect sequencing. If you follow the sequence of positions with patience and trust, under the guidance of a good teacher, I believe that you can work your way back from anything. The Sun Salutation A and B alone are enough for many. If badly injured or lethargic, you may want to do only these, and they will start to fire up your flames until you one day find yourself ready for more. Then there is the standing sequence, giving strength to your legs, teaching you to pull in the thigh bone into your hip, while pushing your foot into the ground. Learn this and you will be able to transfer the technique into many other postures, and use strong legs and bandhas in order to relax your back and lengthen your spine. The standing positions will also start to gently open your hips and chest, rotate your spine and in some positions, like padahastasana and prasaritta padothanasana, even give you a sense of how to use your core and breath in order to balance while inverted.
The so called sitting postures, will first lengthen your spine and backs of your legs, then start opening your chest and rotating you, before plunging into your core to strengthen it, open your hips even further, teach you how to move your weight in order to bend your body backwards in a way that heals and strengthens your body. And so on. The way I see it, it is all there. No matter what else you do in your practice, this is what we return to when other stuff stops working. The therapy series indeed.
I have always been a fan of being good at the fundamentals of what I do. That way, if something that comes later on needs to be tweaked or re-assessed, I will always have the starting point to look back to and reconsider. This is because, in my heart of hearts, I am drawn to being sloppy. So, I hammer in the basics of what I do, and that way, I am never without a good point of reference. This is a good advice for all ashtangis. You will be uncertain of things, you will feel lost and you will doubt. The primary series is so specific and its fires are soothing. If anything else in the Ashtanga method, which is seemingly designed to challenge us and whip up all the primordial crap we carry around,throws you off, knowing your first series and trusting it, will lead you to the path you need to be on. I honestly think this applies no matter which level you practice on. I have seen amazing, advanced teachers hurt, and I have seen how they apply this almost magical method to heal. One of the biggest mistakes a practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga can do is underestimate this place we all start at and look down on it. If you don't get its power, its purpose and the lessons of patience, respect, breath and alignment, you will be reminded. Sooner or later, you will need to loop back and learn the power of the first step. Many of us, perhaps all, have been there. Real practitioners of this method don't care which series you practice. We all come from the same root and when we know it, we see that the starting point sets you up for all that comes after.
So, Primary, my true love, you have been there when I couldn't tie my shoes because my body felt broken. You lifted me from the depths of physical and spiritual unfitness, and led me into the whirls of flaming discipline and an awareness of the comedies of my restless mind. When I get stupid and think all other doors are closed, I know that yours isn't. That is how I remember that the aren't any doors to be closed. First series. I love to love you. Baby.