The rigorous and disciplined practice of Ashtanga yoga was first developed in Mysore, India, and introduced to the West in the 1970s by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. The practice consists of six series of Ashtanga yoga poses:
- Primary: known as yoga chikitsa, or yoga therapy, this series of Ashtanga yoga poses centers around forward bends.
- Second/Intermediate: known as nadi shodhana, meaning nerve cleansing, this series focuses primarily on backbends.
- Advanced A, B, C, and D: known as sthira bhaga, or strength and grace, these series emphasize arm-support and arm-balancing postures.
Each series is traditionally practiced six days a week and in a specific order each time. When taught in the original style of Mysore, India, yogis practice at their own pace and are only given a new pose or series when they have mastered the previous poses. For anyone who craves discipline and structure in their practice, Ashtanga yoga poses are a great place to start! Below is your complete guide to the poses of the Ashtanga Primary Series.
A Complete Guide to the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series
The Primary Series – Yoga Chikitsa
For the cleansing and purifying effect it has on the body and mind, the Primary Series is referred to as yoga chikitsa, or yoga therapy. Traditionally taking 90 minutes to complete, the Primary Series is meant to build strength and flexibility in the body, relieve tension in the muscles, and heal and detoxify the body and nervous system. Like all Ashtanga series, the emphasis on linking breath to movement and performing a vinyasa sequence to transition between postures are core features of the practice. The following is the sequence for the Primary Series of Ashtanga yoga poses:
Standing Sequence of Ashtanga Yoga Poses
Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose)
Beginning the standing sequence with Padangusthasana helps prepare the yogi for the forward folds that occur later in the series by stretching the hamstrings and calves and strengthening the thighs. Like all forward bends, this pose has a calming effect on the mind, which helps to relieve stress and anxiety. Additionally, the gentle pressure of the abdomen against the thighs stimulates the liver and kidneys and supports improved digestion.
Padahastasana (Hand Under Foot Pose)
Like its preceding pose, Padahastasana increases flexibility in the hamstrings while engaging the lower back. In this inversion, the yogi also benefits from improved blood circulation to the upper part of the body, providing relief from mental and physical exhaustion. It is also thought to stimulate vata energy in the Ayurvedic tradition, leading to light and airy energy in the body.
Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
Moving into Trikonasana, this pose supports increased strength in the legs, knees, ankles, arms, and chest as you keep the torso lifted against the pull of gravity. Keeping the chest open, you can also experience better breathing as the lungs are able to expand fully. The hips, groin, hamstrings, calves, shoulders, chest, and spine all receive a stretch as well.
Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
Similar to the previous pose, revolved triangle pose strengthens and stretches the shoulders, legs, feet, ankles, abdominals, hips, and spine. With the addition of the twist, the abdominal organs are stimulated, leading to improved digestion. This posture also provides an opportunity to improve balance.
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
This posture begins to test the stamina needed for the rest of the Ashtanga yoga poses of the primary sequence. The emphasis on the lower body strengthens and stretches the legs, knees, groin, waist, and ankles. While the lower body is doing a significant amount of work, the upper body still receives a stretch in the spine and shoulders and an opening of the chest and lungs.
Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)
This challenging standing twist also increases strength and stamina like the pose before it. The addition of the twist adds a new challenge for balance while also stimulating the abdominal organs to improve digestion and aid elimination. Twisting is also thought to help detoxify the body by stimulating fresh blood flow through the internal organs. A modification of this pose is shown in the photo above.
Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C, and D (Wide-Legged Forward Bend Pose)
Like the first posture in the standing sequence, this pose provides the benefits of both forward folds and inversions, such as helping to calm the mind and provide relief from stress and anxiety. Prasarita Padottanasana lengthens and stretches the spinal column and stretches the backs of the legs, helping to relieve mild back pain. A yogi can also find relief from neck and shoulder tension as the head is allowed to relax toward the ground. Four variations of the pose are practiced in this sequence: hands on the ground with elbows pointing back (A), hands placed on the hips and elbows pulled close together (B), hands interlocked behind the back and brought toward the ground (C), holding the big toes, pulling the crown of the head as close to the ground as possible (D).
Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose)
This forward bend provides an additional challenge of balance which helps calm the mind and improve posture. In the full expression of the posture with hands in reverse prayer, the spine, shoulders, and wrists receive a deep stretch. Parsvottanasana also stretches the hips and hamstrings while strengthening the legs.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Another balancing pose in the standing sequence, this posture stretches the back of the legs, opens the hips, and strengthens the legs and ankles. Standing on one leg also improves your sense of balance and challenges your concentration and ability to focus. The extension of the arm also provides an opportunity to open the shoulder.
Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Standing Forward Bend Pose)
This forward bend adds the additional challenge of a deep hip opening and hamstring stretch by folding one leg into lotus position and standing on the other leg. By challenging your balance in this posture, you can strengthen your ability to concentrate. It requires a calm and centered mind to persist through the challenge of this posture, which can support an improved meditation practice.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
One of the most grounding postures of the standing sequence, Utkatasana increases the heart rate and builds heat in the body quickly. This leads to a stimulation of the circulatory and metabolic systems. Additionally, this pose strengthens the ankles, calves, thighs, and spine while stretching the shoulders, shins, and Achilles tendons, which can be therapeutic for flat feet.
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)
Named after a mythological Hindu warrior, Virabhadra, this posture captures fierce intensity and power. This deeply grounding and energizing pose builds focus, power, stability, stamina, balance, and coordination. As it increases circulation throughout the body, all the muscles get warm to help prepare for the upcoming seated sequence of Ashtanga yoga poses.
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II)
Like the previous version of this pose, Virabhadrasana II enhances strength, stability, stamina, and concentration. It strengthens and stretches the legs and ankles as well as the groins, chest lungs, and shoulders. This posture is also believed to be therapeutic for sciatica, flat feet, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Seated Sequence of Ashtanga Yoga Poses
Dandasana (Staff Pose)
Dandasana leads the seated sequence as it is the foundational posture for all seated poses, including twists. This pose strengthens the upper back, chest, and abdomen, and helps prepare the body for deeper poses. Sitting in Dandasana gives you an opportunity to focus on improved posture and alignment, as well as calming and steadying the mind before beginning the rest of the primary sequence.
Paschimottanasana A, B, and C (Intense West Stretch Pose)
For ancient yogis facing the sunrise as they practiced, this forward fold toward the sun would stretch the entire back, or “west” side of the body. These variations all stretch the spine, shoulders, hamstrings, and pelvis while stimulating the liver, kidneys, ovaries, and uterus. The calming effect of these forward bends can help relieve stress and soothe headaches and anxiety. The pose includes three variations, including grabbing the big toes (A), grabbing over the feet (B), and grabbing the sides of the feet (C).
Purvottanasana (Intense East Stretch Pose)
Also known as upward plank or reverse plank, this Ashtanga yoga pose builds strength and flexibility and acts as a counter-pose to the forward folds practiced immediately before. Named for the stretch on the front side of the body, or “east” side, practicing Purvottanasana can challenge and improve balance, calm the mind, increase energy, and reduce fatigue. This front-body opener can also counteract the effects of slouching caused by working at a computer, driving, and other forward-facing actions.
Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (Half-Bound Lotus Forward Bend Pose)
This intense forward bend increases flexibility in the hip and knee joints and stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, and spine. The position of the heel pressing into the abdomen in this pose also benefits the digestive system by stimulating the liver and spleen.
Trianga Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana (Three Parts Forward Bend Pose)
The three parts, or limbs, referred to in this pose are the feet, knees, and buttocks. The translation of mukha (face), eka (one), and pada (leg or foot) corresponds to the face touching the straight leg. This pose improves flexibility in the spine, hamstrings, hips, and knee joint. Believed to also open the manipura (solar plexus) chakra, this pose activates one’s personal power. By tapping into this chakra, the yogi can feel an increased sense of confidence.
Janu Sirsasana A, B, and C (Head-to-Knee Pose)
Janu Sirsasana and its variations help calm the body and mind, helping to relieve stress and anxiety. Each version of the pose deeply stretches the spine, shoulders, hamstrings, and groins while stimulating the liver and kidneys and improving digestion. The pose includes three variations in the Ashtanga practice: the foot of the bent knee is placed against the inner thigh with the heel close to the groin and outer edge of the foot flat on the floor (A), similar foot position to A but sitting on the heel of the bent knee foot (B), and sole of the foot again placed against the inner thigh but the foot pointed downwards with the ball of the foot on the floor (C).
Marichyasana A, B, C, and D (Marichi’s Pose)
This group of Ashtanga yoga poses is dedicated to the sage Marichi, which can be translated from Sanskrit to mean “ray of light.” In Hindu mythology, Marichi symbolizes power, wisdom, and the cosmic force of creation. The A and C versions of the pose have one leg straight on the ground while either folding forward or twisting the torso. The B and D versions include folding the bottom leg on the thigh of the bent leg, and performing the same forward fold or twist with the upper body. These poses all stretch the spine and shoulders, calm the mind and body, and massage the internal organs to improve digestion.
Navasana (Boat Pose)
One of the most well-known core strengthening poses in yoga, this pose also strengthens the hip flexors and spine while developing concentration and stamina. To remain in this balancing pose, one must stay focused, internally aware, and calm. Within the body, this pose is believed to stimulate the kidneys, thyroid, prostate glands, and intestines. As the internal organs are stimulated, digestion also improves.
Bhujapidasana (Shoulder Pressing Pose)
This arm balance strengthens the shoulders, arms, and wrists while stretching the abdomen, thighs, arms, and shoulders. Bhujapidasana also challenges and improves balance and concentration. Practicing this posture is also thought to nourish the thyroid gland, control the heart rate, balance the nervous system, and regulate metabolism.
Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose)
Like a tortoise withdrawing into his shell, this pose allows your mind and senses to turn inward. As the mind quiets in tortoise pose, you prepare yourself for meditation while also relieving stress. Practicing this posture lengthens and releases the spine and helps to relax the neck, head, and shoulders. Additionally, it improves the functioning of the digestive and respiratory systems and refreshes and rejuvenates the body.
Supta Kurmasana (Sleeping Tortoise Pose)
Similar to its preceding pose, this is one of the deepest forward folds of the Primary Series. One of the main benefits of this pose is the increase in blood flow to the heart and lungs. As a result, it is thought to be a beneficial pose for heart disease, asthma, and bronchitis. Supta Kurmasana also opens the hips, pelvis, and lower back while strengthening the outer hips. This posture also provides lengthening and decompression for the spine, helping to relieve tension.
Garbha Pindasana (Embryo in the Womb Pose)
By pressing the heels into the abdomen and applying the gentle pressure of the arms through the legs, the liver and spleen become purified in this posture. Additionally, this posture enhances diaphragmatic breathing and improves the strength of the pelvic organs. As you develop a sense of balance within the pose, it is also believed that the mind and soul become unified.
Kukkutasana (Rooster Pose)
Kukkutasana stretches the arms and spine while strengthening the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and joints. This balancing posture builds stability and can improve your focus. Rooster pose is also thought to activate the muladhara (root) chakra, which provides feelings of security and grounding while also stimulating the digestive system, relieving menstrual discomfort, and reducing hip pain. Shown in the above image is a modification.
Baddha Konasana A and B (Bound Angle Pose)
This hip opener stretches the inner thighs, groin, and knees while helping to relieve symptoms of menopause and menstruation through increased blood flow to the pelvis. Two variations are included in the Ashtanga yoga poses of the primary sequence: back rounded and chin brought to the ground (A) and feet moved forward with forehead resting on the tops of the feet (B).
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Fold Pose)
This pose stretches the hamstrings, calves, spine, pelvis, and groin. It also massages and stimulates the kidneys, which helps improve their ability to prevent waste build-up in the body. Additionally, this pose stimulates the abdominal organs, which helps with digestion and metabolism. Folding forward naturally draws the awareness inward, which calms the mind and provides relief from anxiety and fatigue.
Supta Konasana (Reclining Angle Pose)
Supta Konasana is an inverted restorative pose that stretches the spine, legs, back, arms, thighs, and calves. It stimulates the thyroid gland, helping with metabolic problems, and also calms the mind to relieve stress and anxiety. This posture is thought to activate the vishuddha (throat) chakra, which improves communication and authentic expression.
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose)
Reclining big toe pose stretches the hips, thighs, hamstrings, groins, and calves while strengthening the knees and relieving back pain and menstrual discomfort. Stretching the hamstrings in this pose is a valuable lesson in developing patience, relaxation, and surrender. As with any yoga pose, stretching beyond your limits is not the goal of a healthy practice. This pose requires listening to your body to respect its capabilities in the moment.
Ubhaya Padangusthasana (Double Big Toe Pose)
This challenging posture requires an excellent sense of balance and works on strengthening and stretching the core. The hamstrings, calves, spinal cord, and shoulders all receive a stretch as well. Ubhaya Padangusthasana challenges and improves coordination and concentration as you develop the mental and emotional focus required to hold the pose. This creates a calm and serene mind, and helps reduce stress and anxiety.
Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana (Upward-Facing Intense West Stretch)
Like the early Ashtanga yoga poses in the seated sequence, this posture stretches the “west” side, or back of the body. This more challenging variation of Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) is believed to open the svadhisthana (sacral) chakra. A healthy and balanced sacral chakra is associated with intimacy, positive emotions, passion, creativity, and sensuality.
Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose)
This final pose of the seated sequence strengthens the back muscles, adductors, hamstrings, buttocks, and neck when practiced properly. The positioning of the head in this posture opens the throat, which helps stretch the esophagus to improve swallowing. Additionally, the chest expands to increase the capacity of the lungs. The solar plexus chakra is also stimulated in this pose, which enhances the digestive system.
Finishing Sequence of Ashtanga Yoga Poses
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)
This heart opener expands and opens the chest, lungs, and shoulders. Like all backbends, the stimulating nature of this posture increases energy to relieve stress and fatigue. Most importantly, Urdhva Dhanurasana improves spinal mobility and supports the muscles of the low back while also strengthening the arms, shoulders, wrists, legs, buttocks, abdomen, and stretching the hip flexors and abdomen.
Paschimottanasana (Intense West Stretch Pose)
Also practiced at the beginning of the seated sequence, this forward fold stretches the entire back, or “west” side of the body. After moving through the previous Ashtanga yoga poses of the Primary Series, you should feel increased flexibility in the spine, shoulders, hamstrings, and pelvis while performing this pose again.
Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand Pose)
Considered an important pose in the yoga practice, this inversion moves stagnant blood from the lower regions of the body to be refreshed by the heart. This allows a fresh supply of blood to be pumped through the body and the circulatory system. The brain, eyes, ears, nose, and throat all benefit from this new flow of blood to the head, helping them function better. This pose also improves circulation to the pelvic and abdominal areas.
Halasana (Plow Pose)
Halasana is another inversion that flexes the spinal cord and releases strain in the back, helping to improve posture and reduce pain. The contraction of the abdominal area helps to stimulate the digestive organs, while the inversion helps to calm the brain and reduce stress and fatigue.
Karnapidasana (Ear Pressure Pose)
Ear pressure pose provides a deep spinal flexion and an intense stretch of the hips. In addition, it stretches the neck, shoulders, spine, glutes, and hamstrings. The body’s positioning in this posture also generates an internal massage to help stimulate the abdominal organs. This posture is believed to activate the throat, solar plexus, and sacral chakras, which leads to improved communication, increased confidence, and heightened creativity.
Urdhva Padmasana (Upward Lotus Pose)
This inversion stimulates circulation, allowing fresh blood flow into the head and abdominal organs to improve digestion. Upward lotus also strengthens and develops the deep muscles along the spine, the shoulder girdle, and neck muscles. Urdhva Padmasana is also thought to activate the throat chakra, which in turn stimulates the thyroid gland.
Pindasana (Embryo Pose)
Going deeper than the previous pose, Pindasana provides even more stimulation and strengthening of the abdominal organs, leading to improved digestion. It also stretches and relaxes the whole spine, as well as the neck muscles. This posture activates the throat chakra, including the thyroid gland, and the solar plexus chakra as the abdominals are contracted.
Matsyasana (Fish Pose)
Matsyasana strengthens the muscles of the upper back and back of the neck while stretching the hip flexors, the muscles (intercostals) between the ribs, the abdomen, and the front of the neck. Practicing this posture also relieves tension in the shoulders and neck, helping to improve posture as well as improve respiratory ailments as it promotes better breathing.
Uttana Padasana (Raised Leg Pose)
In the full expression of this pose, the throat chakra is opened as the neck is lengthened. In this position, blood flow is increased to the heart and neck, which is thought to stimulate and energize the body. Tension is relieved in the shoulders, neck, and throat, which can lessen feelings of anxiety and promote feelings of peace and ease.
Sirsasana (Headstand Pose)
Like other inversions, practicing headstands helps energize and revitalize the body as blood flow to the brain, head, and neck region is increased. This is thought to also relieve headaches in addition to combatting fatigue. This posture strengthens the core, shoulders, arms, back, and neck, and is also important for developing better alignment and balance in your yoga practice.
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Following the headstand, coming into the relaxing Balasana pose allows the yogi to reorient and the blood flow to come back to normal. It relaxes the spine, shoulders, and neck from the work in the preceding pose, and gently stretches the lower back, hips, thighs, knees, and ankles. As this pose calms the mind and central nervous system, you can prepare to complete the final finishing postures.
Baddha Padmasana (Bound Lotus Pose)
Starting with Baddha Padmasana, the final Ashtanga yoga poses of the finishing sequence prepare the mind and body for meditation. Baddha Padmasana improves posture and stretches the joints, making them more flexible and able to be still for long periods. This pose helps to achieve physical and mental stability by calming the mind and opening the heart to increase vitality. Shown above is a modified version of this pose.
Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
A traditional meditation pose, lotus helps reduce tension in the muscles, manage blood pressure, and relax the mind. Named after the lotus flower, the position of the legs in this pose is meant to resemble the opening of the petals. This posture strengthens the spine and upper back and stretches the ankles, hips, and knees to allow the practitioner to sit comfortably in meditation for longer periods.
Utplutihih (Scale Pose)
Utplutihih is an arm balance that strengthens the wrists, arms, shoulders, hips, back, and abdomen. In addition, it stretches the arms, thighs, hamstrings, and outer hips. True to its name and resemblance to the scales, this pose creates a sense of balance in the mind and body. As a result, it also helps relieve stress and anxiety.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Though deceptively simple in appearance, Savasana is considered one of the most important and challenging poses in the yoga practice. This well-known final relaxation pose allows the body to process information and acclimate to the work done throughout your physical practice. It is an opportunity to quiet and still the mind and body, withdraw the senses, and prepare for meditation.
Ready to explore this practice further? If you are just starting out with Ashtanga yoga, we highly recommend Laruga Glaser’s Ashtanga Primary Series.