What is the ashtanga yoga finishing sequence?
To say that the ashtanga yoga sequence is challenging is an understatement and anyone who has practiced it I think will agree. But that’s not because the postures are high in difficulty, it’s challenging because they are practiced in a specific order. The physical practice consists of a set sequence of postures that all start and finish the same way regardless of how long you have been practicing and what series of postures (primary, intermediate, advanced) you are working on.
The finishing sequence is vitally important and has many benefits that go beyond just strength and flexibility. Unfortunately, it is often rushed through or left out altogether which can leave the practitioner ungrounded and unsettled making relaxation less accessible and peaceful. Knowing this it is important to make time for the finishing sequence of postures to ensure the practice is in a balanced approach.
The finishing sequence consists of four parts with 16 postures:
- Salamba Sarvangasana or shoulder stand (translates to all limbs posture)
- Sirsasana or headstand.
- Padmasana or lotus.
Within each of these parts there are several variations of each posture in the sequence. Eg there are 5 shoulder stand variations, with two counter postures, then 2 headstand variations, with one counter pose, and then three lotus variations before relaxation.
Here is a list of the postures in order:
- Salamba sarvangasana
- Urdhva padmasana
- Uttana padasana
- Sirsasana A
- Urdhva dandasana
- Sirsasana B
- Baddha padmasana
- Yoga mudra
There is a correct vinyasa (breath coordinated movement) that links each posture in the sequence seamlessly into a beautiful flowing routine.
When do we do it?
The finishing sequence is traditionally practiced after backbends and completes the physical practice before relaxation. Ideally it should take at least 20 minutes to complete and when practiced on your own (or in the Mysore class) it can take as long as you need it to.
Why do it?
The finishing sequence rounds off the dynamic nature of the practice. The standing, seated and backbending postures all cultivate and rouse energy within the body and so it is important for the practitioner to consolidate and ground that energy before moving out into the world. The poses in the closing sequence of Ashtanga yoga are designed to calm the nervous system, cool the body and return it to balance. The closing sequence, therefore, includes counterposes and inversions.
If I don’t practice the finishing postures and give myself enough time to compete them I notice a significant difference in my nervous system and how I feel throughout the day. For me the practice often feels like I’ve been shaken up like a snow globe and the finishing sequence brings me to a place of stillness allowing the snowflakes within to fall, settle and rearrange themselves into new patterns and possibilities.
Benefits of inversions
Slows the heart rate
When we are inverted, pressure is taken off the heart. With the assistance of gravity, the heart does not have to work as hard to pump blood around the body and the heart rate slows down. Fewer breaths are then needed per minute as a result and according to the ancient yogi’s by slowing down the breath we are able slow down the processes of the mind (the thoughts) leading to a meditative state.
Increase vitality and life force
“According to the the ‘Shastras’ the regular and continued practice of these finishing inversions purify the blood. It is written that the blood absorbs nutrients from the food we eat and after 32 days 1 drop of new blood is created. It then takes 32 drops of blood to make one single drop of Amrtabindu (the vital life force within the body) which is stored in the crown chakra. When we live badly, eat badly, think negative thoughts, perform negative deeds, the store of Amrtabindu is depleted. It begins to travel downward and is consumed by the upward flow of the agni or digestive fire in the belly. When Amrtabindu is lost, life is lost. “ Lino Miele Astanga Yoga
When we are upside down (in shoulder stand and headstand) the Amrtabindu does not leave the crown chakra and is stored for longer, this allowing us to live longer.
Purifies digestive organs
Fire always travels in an upward direction. No matter which way to turn a candle the flame will always burn upward. The digestive fire is called the “Agni” and also always travels upwards so like the candles no matter which way we turn the body the flame always burns upward. Our aim in the practice is to burn through impurities in the body and the blood by stoking the agni. When we invert the body this digestive fire burns upwards towards the digestive organs (intestines, stomach, spleen, liver and pancreas) purifying toxins that may be stored there.
The thyroid is part of the endocrine system that is made up of glands that produce, store and release hormones into the blood stream and resides in the throat. Inversions (in particular the shoulder stand and counter postures for the shoulder stand) stimulate the thyroid gland and in so doing balances and regulates the secretion of hormones.
Benefits of lotus
Padmasana (or lotus) is traditionally done by first placing the right leg then the the left leg on top. Sri K Pattabhi Jois quotes the ‘Shastras’ by saying “Right side first and left leg on top, purifies the liver and spleen.” We are advised to take the right leg first and then the left because the internal body is assymetrical (spleen on the left and liver on the right side of the abdomen).
As we reach around and bind the lotus for baddha padmasana (connect the hands to the feet) it is to close off the circuit of energy within the body and so recycling the energy around the body. As we fold forward the heels lightly press into the lower abdomen thus stimulating digestion.
It is always recommended to learn these postures in person from a teacher who has been practicing for a long time and has a lot of experience. There are a few times when these postures are not suitable and it is always recommended to seek medical advice prior to starting any new physical activity. All of the postures can be modified for any ailment and a good teacher will be able to show you how. This is why it is best to practice with the same teacher who understands you and your body and you can both work together on your practice.
Some of the contraindications for these postures are:
- High blood pressure
- Detached retina
- During menstruation
- Neck or spinal injury
- Knee, hip or ankle injury (for padmasana)
Relaxation…the best bit!
Complete relaxation is important for the assimilation of prana (vital life force) within the body. The practice of ashtanga yoga is to cultivate and store this prana within the body, so that we may lead healthy and vital lives. The physical postures open up the body to be more receptive to the prana in the atmosphere. When we lay down to relax we allow the body to bath in the prana and like a sponge soak it all up into every cell of our being. We must completely let go for this to be able to happen. For every hour of practice we are advised to rest for 10 minutes to fully let go and assimilate the atmospheric prana.
Finishing Sequence workshop
Join Allison, November 18th, 1-3pm for the finishing sequence workshop where we will cover all of the above postures that complete the practice and seal the flow of energy that has been cultivated during the practice, leading you into a deep relaxation. This is your chance to ask questions and get the right alignment and modifications for you and your practice.
This workshop is suitable for all levels as we will slowly learn comfortable and contemplative versions of the shoulderstand, headstand and lotus series for everyone. We will also cover one pranayama (breathing exercise) and the closing mantra.
Astanga Yoga by Lino Miele
Ashtanga Yoga by Gregor Maehle