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Learn How to Come Into the Backbends from Ashtanga’s Second Series

The Ashtanga approach to yoga, for anyone unfamiliar with it, consists of several different series of poses, each of which contains dozens of poses and builds progressively on the previous series. The primary, or first series, is regarded as a regular practice for most Ashtanga practitioners and traditionally must be mastered before proceeding to the next series.

In what seems an act of quiet rebellion, Los Angeles-based yoga teacher Pranidhi Varshney regularly shares the poses from the second sequence with students before they have “perfected” the preceding poses. She, however, regards it as an extension of the philosophy of yoga. “I experience such benefit in practicing Ashtanga, especially the second series. It would be unfair of me to withhold it from students who haven’t completed the primary series,” explains Varshney. “Who am I to say you should or should not come into a pose? You decide! It’s a conversation, I want students to feel they have agency.”

During each class at her studio in West Los Angeles, Varshney offers variations to make the second series more accessible to students while familiarizing them with how the poses feel. She especially appreciates how this series, when practiced in its entirety, is excellent at balancing the nervous system. As Varshney explains, the first part is opening the chest with backbends (see the sequence that follows), followed by hip openers which bring balance to both sides of the body. The third part is about building strength and, quite literally, creating a sense of balance through a Headstand sequence. “So over the course of the full second series, you really do cultivate a sense of balance,” says Varshney.

“One thing I feel really passionate about is nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) as a complement to the second series, says Varshney. “I find that both are really excellent at balancing. There is neuroscience to support breathing, specifically through the the right and left side, and how it balances the nervous system. The right and left sides have different energetic effects, and if we’re balancing them, we’re balancing our energy.”

Following is her approach to teaching the beginning of the Second Series of Ashtanga Yoga, which is the backbend section. Experience all or part of it for yourself.

See also: A Gentler Approach to Yoga by Pranidhi Varshney

An introduction to the second series in Ashtanga yoga

Prior to practicing this sequence of twists and backbends, take a few rounds of Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A), some standing postures, and gentle twists, suggests Varshney. In Ashtanga, it’s traditional to practice a vinyasa in between poses, which is the sequence of Plank Pose, Chaturanga Dandasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).

Photo: Ty Milford

Pasasana (Rope Pose)

From standing, bring your feet to touch and take a deep squat, keeping your legs together. Bring your right arm to the outside of your left leg and take a deep twist to the left. Lower your right shoulder, bend your right elbow and take your arm around your knees, then reach your hand back toward your right hip. Reach your left hand behind you and grasp your left wrist or fingertips with your right hand. (You can use a strap, scarf, or towel to extend your reach.)

Stay for 5 to 8 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Pasasana (Rope Pose), Prayer Twist Variation

Instead of taking the bind behind your back, you can bring your hands into Prayer Position at your chest. If your heels come off the ground in any variation of Pasasana, rest them on a partially rolled mat or rug.

Stay for 5 to 8 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Photo: Ty Milford

Pasasana (Rope Pose), Wide-Legged Variation

You can instead take your feet into a wide-legged squat and allow your chest to come in between your thighs, which enables you to more easily take the bind as you grasp your left hand or fingertips behind your back and thigh. (You can use a strap, scarf, or towel to extend your reach.) This is helpful for anyone who experiences low-back tightness or for expectant mothers.

Stay for 5 to 8 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Photo: Ty Milford

How to bind your hands in Pasasana

If you are able to reach your hands behind your back, grasp your left wrist with your right hand. When you bind your hands in yoga, grasp the hand that’s wrapped behind your back with your other hand or fingertips. (You can also use a strap, scarf, or towel to extend your reach or simply take your hands into Prayer Position at your chest.)

Photo: Ty Milford

Sit on the ground with your legs straight in front of you. Bend your left knee so the top of your foot is on the mat to the outside of your left hip. Lift your right leg, extend it straight, and clasp the edges of your foot. If your leg is comfortably straight, then fold forward at your hips and bring your chest toward your thigh.

Stay for 5 to 8 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Photo: Ty Milford

Krounchasana (Heron Pose), Variation

As you straighten your leg, if you’re unable to grasp your foot, use a strap, scarf, or towel to extend your reach. If your leg is comfortably straight, then fold forward at your hips and bring your chest toward your thigh.

Stay for 5 to 8 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Photo: Ty Milford

Salabhasana has two phases in the Ashtanga style of yoga. Initially, you come to Plank and then lower yourself to lie face-down on the mat. Rest your arms alongside your body, palms facing up. Place gentle pressure on the tops of your hands and lift your chest and legs off the floor. Keep the back of your neck long. Stay for 5 to 8 breaths.

Photo: Ty Milford

Then, as you keep your chest and legs lifted, slide your hands, palms down, in line with your breastbone. Spread your fingers wide and gently press through your hands to lift your chest. Stay for 5 to 8 breaths.

Photo: Ty Milford

(The traditional version of this pose is Bhekasana, which bends both legs at once and can be quite challenging. Varshney finds this modified version to be much more accessible. Take whichever works for your body.) Remain on your belly. Place your left forearm on the ground horizontally or diagonally in front of you and gently press through your forearm to lift your chest. Bend your right knee, reach back with your right hand, and catch the inside of your right foot. Bend your elbow and rotate your hand, bringing your fingers forward to grasp your toes. Use your hand to press your right foot down toward the mat alongside your hip as much or as little as comfortable. If you feel any pain in your knees, come out of the pose.

Stay for 5 to 8 breaths. Release and switch sides.

Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), Ashtanga-style

From your belly, bend both knees. Lift your head and chest and reach your hands back and catch the outsides of your ankles. Bring your big toes to touch. (In Ashtanga, Dhanurasana is practiced with the feet together and the toes pointed toward the ceiling.) Inhale, press down through your hips and reach your ankles away from you to lift your chest. Stay for 5 to 8 breaths.

In Dhanurasana, yoga students often use the low back to bend rather than the strength of the legs. When you engage your legs and let them do most of the work, your chest lifts and your heart can actually open more.

Photo: Ty Milford

Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), Variation

If you experience low-back tightness or pain, keep your feet hip-width apart in Dhanurasana and flex your feet.

Photo: Ty Milford

Parsva Dhanurasana (Side Bow Pose)

From Dhanurasna, gently roll onto your right side and stay for 5 to 8 breaths. Roll yourself back to center and then onto your left side. Stay for 5 breaths. Come back to center, and release your feet.

Photo: Ty Milford

Come onto your knees with your legs hip-width apart and your hands on your hips. If you experience tightness or pain in your low back, come onto your toes to lift your heels higher. Otherwise, leave the tops of your feet on the mat. Inhale and lift your chest. Exhale and slowly arch your back, reaching back with both hands to try to bring your fingers to your heels. Use the pressure of your hands on your heels to continue to lift your chest and reach your hips forward. Slowly come out the way you came in. If you like, practice the pose again, perhaps keeping the feet on the mat if you lifted the heels the first time.

Stay for 5 to 8 breaths.

Photo: Ty Milford

Lie on your back and place your feet on the mat slightly wider than hip-distance. Reach your arms straight alongside your ears toward the back of the mat, palms facing up, and stretch. Lift your hips off the ground and find strength in your legs. Stay here or, if you feel comfortable taking it further, bring your hands alongside your ears, palms facing down, fingers pointing toward your feet. Press into your hands and lift your head and chest off the mat. Straighten your arms as much as possible and keep gently drawing in of the belly to keep your core engaged.

Stay for 5 to 8 breaths. Tuck your chin and slowly lower yourself to the mat. Pause here.

In Urdhva Dhanurasana, press through your hands and feet, keep your abs gently contracted, and maintain a lift in the pelvic floor.

Photo: Ty Milford

Bring your knees to your chest and rock yourself into a seated position. The second series continues, but to end here, bring the soles of your feet together and pull them toward you as much as is comfortable. Exhale and fold forward only as far as possible and relax into the pose.

Photo: Ty Milford

Feel free to reach your arms out front if that is accessible to you.

Stay for 10 to 15 breaths.

Photo: Ty Milford

How to clasp your feet in Baddha Konasana

Clasp the edges of your feet and pull the arches apart, as if you’re opening the pages of a book.

About our contributor

Pranidhi Varshney is the founder of Yoga Shala West, a community-supported Ashtanga Yoga studio in West Los Angeles. She is also mother to two children who she describes as “courageous and wise little beings.” The thread that runs through all her work is the desire to build community and live from the heart.

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