In search of a balanced practice, and why the Ashtanga Primary series isn't one (for me)

There's a discussion going on over at the Confluence Countdown about "holding students back" in the Ashtanga system. The blogger, Bobbie, makes some very interesting points about the system from a philosophical / psychological perspective, the discussion of which I'll leave to her blog. I'm outta that relationship, remember? ;)

What is interesting to me is the question of whether it's good for students to practice exclusively the primary series for too long. Bobbie and many of the commenters come to the same conclusion that I did, that practicing exclusively the primary series for years on end does not give your body a healthy or balanced practice. And since the system seems to have developed rules over the years about when/how students are "given" (I agree with Bobbie, I also dislike that word!) the next pose or series, e.g. being able to bind in Marichyasana D or being able to stand up from and drop back to Urdvha Dhanurasana, many students find themselves practicing primary for years.  Many, like myself, don't have regular access to a teacher who can "give" them the next pose or teach them 2nd series. Nonetheless, we are told not to do other yoga, to "pick a system and stick with it," that doing other yoga will somehow dilute the transformational power of the practice.

Bobbie and many commenters on the post feel what I felt, deep inside my body, and what led me to "break up" with Ashtanga and start practising other poses - that the primary series is not, IN ITSELF, a balanced practice. And quite possibley it wasn't intended to be that way, but that is another conversation. In any case it's good to hear that many of the senior teachers seem to agree.

Essentially the points made in the post and the comments, which may not be experienced by everyone, but which me and my body agree with wholeheartedly after practicing Primary for 3 years:

[NB: In response to a comment left on the blog, I realised that my original post used language that was a bit too absolute, so I've edited the original wording a bit to emphasise that what I'm talking about is relativity within the sequence. I've also added some more anatomical precision.]
  • Primary has a relatively greater emphasis on forward bending, stretching the muscles of the  back (in particular the erectors spinae and the quadratus lumborum) more often than it strengthens them (one of the best poses for that is shalabasana). In some people, an overemphasis on forward bending can be destabilising for the SI joint. Sciatica or SI pain, anyone?
  • It develops relatively more upper front-body strength (pec minors) without developing the corresponding upper back-body strength (rhomboids and rotator cuffs). My yoga therapy teacher believes that this is why many Ashtangis (and others who practice vinyasa-based yoga) develop shoulder injuries, because those crucial muscles that stabilise the shoulder blades can become relatively weaker on the back than the front. Another effect of this is that the front body, especially the front of the shoulders, while getting very strong, may become tight and "closed", as there are relatively fewer poses to open it up (the best stretches for here are back-bends with the arms extended behind the body, e.g. purvottanasana, ustrasana, shalabasana, dhanurasana).
  • While Primary certainly stretches the hamstrings, it doesn't provide space for deep hip-opening in certain directions. There is a lot of external rotation and flexion of the hip joint, but relatively little extension or internal rotation. The sequence also strengthens the psoas, the quads and the external rotators of the hip (the glutes, the piriformis) relatively more than it stretches them. These muscles are key muscles for postural stability and the health of your spine, and balanced hip-opening (internal and external) is important for maintaining the safety of the knees and the lower back.
Since I stopped practicing Primary about 6 months ago and moved to a more balanced practice, I am feeling my body in a whole new way. Most noticeable is that my back body is much stronger as a result of the targeted postures I have been doing, and this has significantly reduced the shoulder pain I used to often experience (which was also related to my scoliosis). This has also made my posture better and I've made some progress towards reversing the forward-hunch that my shoulders had developed through a combination of too much computer time and too much emphasis on forward-body strengthening (in particular the pec minors). No thanks, kyphosis, not for me!

The moral of the story, for me at least?
  • Listen to your body and think about finding balance in your long-term yoga practice. 
  • If you stretch a muscle, strengthen it. It doesn't have to be the same day, but overall!
  • If you stretch/strengthen somewhere, be sure to also stretch/strengthen its opposite (antagonist).
  • If you feel like your body is imbalanced from a practice you are doing (chronic pain or recurring injuries are a good sign), listen to those feelings and find a teacher or yoga therapist who will help you identify what's going on.
And above all, remember, it's only asana!