Ashtanga Primary Series 101: A Full Guide

reviewed by Liz Burns 500H RYT
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*Disclaimer* Please note this article mentions Pattabhi Jois who has faced numerous allegations of sexual assault. We stand with the victims and hope that our articles can shed light on the truth.

Ashtanga Yoga and the Primary series, not to be confused with Patanjali’s Eight Limbed system is a popular style of yoga asana which is vigorous and physically demanding.

Attributed to Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga continues to be one of the most influential methods of practice, and it has six full and complex series’ which are worked through systematically.

In this article we’ll unpack:

  • What Is Ashtanga Yoga?
  • Who Was Pattabhi Jois?
  • What is the Ashtanga Primary Series & Its Poses?
woman in bridge pose as part of the ashtanga primary series

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

First, it is important to make the distinction between Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga and Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga.


Patanjali is attributed as the compiler of the Yoga Sutra.

This philosophical manual on yoga was written circa 400CE and continues to be an important and widely read text. It features heavily in yoga teacher training programs and is a must for anyone interested in yoga beyond the poses (asana).

Within the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lays out the system of ashtanga, also known as the eight auxiliaries or, more commonly, the eight limbs of yoga.

They are:

  1. Yama | moral codes (Ahimsa – non-arming, Satya – truthfulness, Asteya – non-stealing, Brahmacharya – celibacy, and Aparigraha – non-greed)
  2. Niyama | self-discipline (Saucha – cleanliness, Santosha, contentment, discipline, Svadhyaya – self-study, Isvara Pranidhana – Surrender to Self)
  3. Asana |posture
  4. Pranayama | breath control
  5. Pratyahara | sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana | concentration
  7. Dhyana | meditation
  8. Samadhi | oneness with the self
person with their hand on their heart

This holistic system is a way of approaching yoga in all aspects of your life. It’s a different approach to Ashtanga Yoga than that of Pattabhi Jois. Let’s take a look at the man behind the primary series.

Pattabhi Jois


It is of the utmost importance to note that while Pattabhi Jois was a regarded teacher and contributor to the yoga world, there are many allegations of sexual abuse against him.

While this has been known within the community for many years, it is only since his death that people have begun to speak out against him individually.

Ashtanga Yoga continues to be a popular style of yoga practiced by many worldwide, but the community has faced much disruption and attack due to Pattabhi Jois’ actions.

Creating Ashtanga

“Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.” – Pattabhi Jois

K. Pattabhi Jois (1915 – 2009) was a student of T. Krishnamacharya, who could be referred to as the father of modern yoga as we know it. 

Pattabhi Jois, along with B.K.S. Iyengar and T.K.V. Desikachar, is heavily responsible for the yoga we now know today. 

While B.K.S. Iyengar’s style was alignment-based and T.K.V. Desikachar’s was therapeutic, Patabbhi Jois led the way in cultivating the first flow-based practice.

ashtanga yogis in side plank outside

Heavily influenced by T. Krishnamacharya’s teachings, Pattabhi Jois created Ashtanga Yoga.

The origins of the style that came about via T. Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois is said to have come from an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta. However, there is no evidence of this manuscript as of yet.

The Style – Ashtanga Yoga

Now that the underlying principles of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga have been outlined, let’s take a look at the modern style of yoga that is Ashtanga Yoga.

This dynamic and flowing style of yoga features sun salutations as a staple. It is a physically demanding style of asana (yoga postures) that is unique in its systematic approach to each of the six series.

Due to its dynamic nature, Ashtanga Yoga is not accessible for all, and it is not for the faint-hearted. Unlike many “drop-in” styles of yoga such as Hatha and Vinyasa, Ashtangis tend to practice six days a week and early in the morning.

woman practicing ashtanga yoga by the harbourside

What are the benefits of Ashtanga Yoga?

Some of the reported benefits include:

  • Increased cardiovascular health
  • Improved flexibility
  • Reduced body fat
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased muscle tone
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Increased focus and concentration

What is Mysore?

Mysore is the style of Ashtanga Yoga practice that is not led.  Often, classes will be led through the Primary series just like other yoga classes, but Mysore is different. 

Mysore requires the practitioner to lead themselves through one of six set sequences without the guidance of the teacher. The sessions are usually around four hours long and students start their practice individually at some point within that time frame.

mysore yoga class

There is no guidance from the teacher on the sequence to the group, as each practitioner will be working at their own pace.

Students start with the Primary Series and receive individual input and adjustments from the teacher who is present throughout the whole session for the students.

Mysore is a little bit like doing your own practice in a room full of other people.

What is the Ashtanga Primary Series?

The Primary Series is the first of six series of postures within the Ashtanga Yoga method.

Each series is to be mastered before moving on to the next.  The teacher tells the student when to move on to the next pose and the next series.

Vinyasas‘ are often completed in-between poses. They include:

The practice of the Ashtanga Primary Series begins with five rounds of Surya Namaskar A and B – also known as sun salutations. This helps to set up the breathing pattern for moving with one breath per pose.

3 women practicing cobra pose in yoga

Surya Namaskar A

This basic sun salutations starts and finishes in mountain pose (tadasana) and moves through

Surya Namaskar B

This develops sun salutation A by adding a few more poses. Again it starts and ends in mountain pose (tadasana) and moves through

man doing chair pose in an ashtanga yoga class
  • chair pose (utkatasana)
  • forward fold (uttanasana)
  • halfway lift (ardha uttanasana)
  • half plank (chaturanga)
  • upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)
  • warrior one (virabhadrasana one)
  • half plank (chaturanga)
  • upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)
  • warrior two (virabhadrasana two)
  • half plank (chaturanga)
  • upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)
  • downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)
  • forward fold (uttanasana)
  • chair pose (utkatasana)

In addition to sun salutation the Primary series includes standing poses and seated poses.

Standing poses

yogi practicing revolved triangle pose

Seated poses

  • Staff pose (dandasana)
  • Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend)
  • Purvottanasana (upward plank pose)
  • Head to knee forward bend (janu sisrsasana)
  • Seated spinal twist (marychasana a, b, c, and d)
  • Boat pose (navasana) five times (with down dog inbetween)
  • Arm pressure pose (Bhujapidasana) – jump back from crow
  • Toirtoise (kurmasana)
  • Reclining tortoise (supta kurmasana)
  • Embryo in the womb (garbha pindasana)
  • Rooster (Kukkutasana)
  • Bound angle (baddha konasana)
  • Vinyasa
  • Wide angle pose (upavista konasana)
  • Reclining angle pose (supta konasana)
  • Reclining bog toe pose A and B ( reclining big toe pose A and B)
  • Both big toes pose (ubhaya padangustasana)
  • Upward facing paschimottansasna (urdhva mukha paschiamottansana)
  • Bridge pose (setu bandhasana)
yoga teacher helping two ashtanga students

Finishing sequence

  • Upward bow (urdvha Dhanurasana) five times
  • Intense stretch (paschimottanasana)
  • Corpse (Savasana)
  • Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana)
  • Plow (Halasana)
  • Ear pressure  (karnapidasana)
  • Upward lotus (urdvha Padmasana)
  • Embryo (pindasana in Sarvangasana)
  • Fish (Matsyasana)
  • Intense stretched feet or legs (uttana Padasana)
  • Headstand (sirsasana) – A for 10 – 50 breaths B for 10 breaths
  • Child’s pose (balasana)

The final poses

  • Bound lotus and bow (baddha Padmasana)
  • Lotus (padmasana)
  • Scales (tolasana)
  • Vinyasa
  • Corpse (savasana)

Key features of the practice

Aside from the actual sequences, there are some key features to practicing Ashtanga Yoga and the Primary series.

This multifaceted approach is said to be beneficial for both physical and mental well-being.

ashtanga yogi jumping back

1. Ujjayi breathing

Ujjayi is a type of breathing practice or pranayama that is performed throughout the practice. 

It is often referred to as victorious breath or ocean breath (because it sounds a little like the ocean hitting the shore). 

This breathing technique is said to be a warming and energizing practice which is used throughout the Primary sequence to sync breath with movement and to count the duration in poses.

2. Routine

Practitioners usually practice six days per week, with Saturday as a rest day.

“New Moon” days are also days of rest and women often choose not to practice when they are menstruating.

3. Bandha

Bandha’s are energetic locks within the subtle body which are used throughout the practice as a way to conserve prana (life force or energy).

They are also thought to support the core.

4. Drishti

Drishti is the focal point at which you look during any given posture. It is said to create focus and concentration. Some practitioners attribute Drishti to aiding a more meditative approach to the practice.

Ashtanga Primary Series Round-Up

The primary series is the only place to start for Ashtanga practitioners and it is a physically demanding and often time-consuming practice.

While it is not suitable for everyone, beginners are welcome.

What next?

Want to find out more about the man behind Ashtanga Yoga? Check out Pattabhi Jois: The Story of Ashtanga Founder and Serial Abuser.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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