K.I.S.S. Ashtanga: 3 fundamentals of a basic practice

A full week into my back to basics (or finally to the basics?) Ashtanga practice, and it is both slow going and — dare I (emphasis on I) say it — invigorating.

It has been, as expected, a re-introduction the breath and bandhas. It still hurts. And it is a lesson in humility to discover, really, where my asana practice is on the most physical of levels.

With all the thoughts floating around in my head, confusing me at times, making me forget exactly where I’m at, I’ve narrowed things down to three fundamentals that I’m trying to keep always in mind. (The three usual fundamentals — bandhas, dristi and breath — go without saying, although not always without not doing.) Because I do believe we all are different enough that it can be difficult to universalize suggestions for practice (I’m mulling this over given how it relates to the teaching of Ashtanga), I only offer them up as suggestions, perhaps best for stiff beginners (or their friends who are trying to convince them to give yoga a go).

They are:

Legs straight with feet straight

Because this basic practice also has the basic focus of opening things up, loosening things, fighting the urge to cheat on stretches is at the heart of my intent. Legs must remain straight, even when it means I’m not grabbing ankles or toes, etc. But those straight legs are missing something if the feet cycle. In my case, it is because my internal rotators aren’t as strong as they ought to be. (And it is more the case with my left leg.) Ensuring my feet are turned in a little, thus activating those internal rotator muscles, changes a forward stretch from pulling around my knees to pulling through my hamstring. You know, kind of how it is supposed to work. It also hints at mula bandha.

Arms straight

An obvious corollary to the legs straight, right? But if the arms remain straight, we aren’t talking about somehow stretching the arm equivalent of the hamstrings. It helps with widening the chest and opening up the shoulders, which — surprise! — are another tight trouble area. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be able to drop my shoulder blades. And then, watch out backbends.

Back straight

Moving from back bends… this typically is the counter to the legs straight commandment. It’s most basic import is to fight the tendency, again, to cheat by bending toward the knees to make believe there’s more flexibility than there is. But at a more fundamental level, it acts to get uddiyana bandha involved, on the sly. After all, what keeps the back straight?

So, that’s the state of my practice today. And probably tomorrow. Lots of focus on one word, right?

In other words, K.I.S.S.: Keep It Straight, Stupid.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

9 thoughts on “K.I.S.S. Ashtanga: 3 fundamentals of a basic practice”

  1. There’s certain something to be said for alignment, but what does “straight back” really mean? The back has natural curves, so any emphasis on alignment actually means you’re keeping the lumbar curve in forward folds, etc.

    Anyway, at this last confluence, Tim Miller at his workshop “roots and wings” discussed alignment and he gave demonstrations of the Iyengar downward dog and the Pattabhi Jois downward dog. You seem to working the Iyengar version with straight back – Timji’s point (as I remember it) was that this form of downward dog makes mula bandha less accessible. Working the sit bones together in the forward folds enhance mula bandha but you sacrifice the straight back. He said something along the lines of: in alignment yoga you try to find the backbend in the forward fold, in Ashtanga we try to find the forward fold in the forward fold.

    Something to keep in mind while you get back to the basics…

    1. I’ve taken Tim’s workshop many times. I mean exactly (or as near as exactly) as I wrote: Avoiding the desire to exaggerate the bend in the back to get the head or chin closer to the knee. And to get the bandhas going.

      Richard Freeman also talks about getting the backbend as you raise arms in the sun salutes.

      But this is also part of what I’m trying to avoid (and maybe suggest could work for some people, although as I said, I don’t know there’s as much as one size fits all as we’d like): Not having too many voices in my head. Keeping it simple.


  2. thank you for mentioning “legs straight with feet straight”. since your Back to Basics post i too went back and really started concentrating on letting go of my ego and not worrying about “where i ‘should’ be” (not worrying about how far forward i can bend, but how straight my legs, and especially my feet, need to be). i’ve been practicing ashtanga for about a year and a half now and every pose is still very uncomfortable (and it’s okay with me if it’s always like this), some are downright painful and hurt, but i am learning to stay with that uncomfortableness and breathe into it. lately i’ve been going back and making sure my feet are straight, because i have some badly “knocked-knees” they aren’t usually straight (it’s very rare for them to be) and i’ve been concentrating and focusing on making sure they are. it’s humbling and frustrating (and even more physically uncomfortable), but i’m feeling the tretch where i should and where i need it the most, i can see how having a solid primary series and not cheating myself is going to benefit me more within this practice in the long run, and i wanted to say thanks for another wonderful, insightful post. i do very much enjoy this site you and Bobbie have created.

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