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William Robertson’s article on advanced asanas, part 2

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Advanced asanas

This is an amended version of William Robertson’s article, "Are Advanced Asanas Useful or Necessary, and How do they become safely possible? The Nature of a Progressive Hatha Yoga Practice" previously published in DIPIKA, the Journal of the Maida Vale Iyenga Yoga Institute, in July 1996. Part one of the article, which appeared in the previous  issue of Yoga Online, examined the nature of advanced asana practice. In this second part of his article,William compares two of the most popular forms of hatha yoga practiced in the West: Iyengar and Astanga vinyasa in light of his notion of a progressive asana practice.

For a practitioner’s physical asana practice to develop over time, the following elements would seem to be essential: There needs to exist an initial ‘challenge’ involving either external or internal stimulation, and an expectation of growth.
This is followed by subsequent ‘breakthroughs’ as well as a strengthening ‘consolidation’ phase. Then a "plateau" is reached and attained, for whatever length of time, followed by another ‘challenge’ as in the first stage of the cycle.
Presented here are 10 principles that can be utilised to maximise this progress. The ideal is for this particular cyclical form of challenge to be ongoing. Essentially these principles combine attributes of the Iyengar and Astanga Vinyasa methods, and the philosophy of their teacher Krishnamacharya as described by his son Desikichar, developer of the Viniyoga method. Unsurprisingly given their common origin, and each being based upon Patanjali’s Astanga yoga, each aspect exists to varying degrees in each style. I have practiced the first two stronger physical methods independently for periods of years, including directly with Iyengar and Jois, and have completed just three short Viniyoga workshops with Desikachar. It might be useful for me to contrast these styles in a non-sectarian way, and give a personal impression of how each embodies these principles in common practice. This comparison is particularly valuable given the tremendous expansion of astanga vinyasa yoga practice in Western countries. Astanga can be seen to produce a rapid achievement of flexibility and adeptness in its practitioners by following an apparently well rounded and independent practice. It is nevertheless not without its hazards, while its suitability for the majority of initial yoga practitioners in its unmodified form can be seriously questioned.


i. Systematic endeavour

Krishnamacharya’s concept of "vinyasa kramam" or step-by-step development; This involves restraining one’s attempts to go beyond one’s current capabilities e.g. attending classes of an applicable level, following Iyengar’s 300 week (six-year), three-level course; following the systematic working through of the four series of the "Astanga Vinyasa" system.

ii. Methodical alignment and/or sequencing

Following a definite method:. Iyengar practice strongly emphasises accurate alignment and involves a relatively complex range of well-formulated sequencing to enable differing energetic effects. Astanga Vinyasa consists of firmly set sequences with the flow of movement in conjunction with an emphasis on "free breathing", but usually with much less focus on technical alignment.

iii. Enquiry into judicious and appropriate practice

This indicates a choice of poses, their duration and order, and the use of suitable props and supports – according to one’s age, strength, flexibility, stamina, balance, and concentration. It is well-emphasised by Iyengar yoga, whereas within the Astanga Vinyasa method it is not: one does as much as one is ready for of whichever series, in exact order.

iv. Adaptation for therapeutic needs

Iyengar yoga excels at modifications for individual anatomical and physiological differences, injuries, medical problems and physical handicaps, with its medical and functional use of props. In addition every dimension of asana practice is manipulated, including entirely supported versions of even relatively difficult postures (e.g. dwi pada viparita dandasana in a chair or on the wooden frame "backbender"). Pattabhi Jois has recently outlined some of the therapeutic effects of Primary Series postures and more simply recommends longer stays than the usual 5-8 breaths, in the appropriate asanas for certain conditions.

v. Non-attachment to achievement

Patanjali’s concept of "vairagya", could be described here as a detachment from achievement of an asana or its effects, which may prevent the use of force and unnecessary injury. B.K.S. Iyengar in his recent "Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali" gives a good description of this concept. Lack of technical alignment combined with a more vigorous approach and strong manual adjustments means that despite the heat generated in the body during Astanga Vinyasa practice, the more rapid increase in strength and flexibility seems to be accompanied by a higher rate of injuries.

vi. Vigorous and persistent effort

Patanjali’s other recommended essential attribute is "abhyasa" or vigorous and persistent effort. The speed and intensity of Astanga Vinyasa appears to demand this quality ,although the depth of penetration into each asana is perhaps limited by the short stays.

vii. Comprehensiveness

Including a full-range of asanas from each category, toward a well-rounded effect and more harmonious and rapid development is more readily achieved in the Astanga Vinyasa practice. Some very useful postures, such as Supta Virasana with the feet pointing back, Ardha Chandrasana, Urdhva Prasarita Padasana, Swastikasana and Viparita Carini, simply aren’t included in the Astanga Vinyasa series’, (although the latter two are not included in "Light on Yoga" either). Iyengar practitioners need to take much more care to approach each area of practice, although this can be spread out over successive days and particular areas treated in depth. Dona Holleman describes this latter Iyengar approach in her schedules of systematic daily practice.

viii. Increasing independence

The need here is for extending practice beyond the "hand-holding" of initial constant supervision of asana practice via reliance on a group classes. The simplicity of the unvarying sequences of Astanga Vinyasa makes this self-practice more straightforwardly achievable. Amongst Iyengar practitioners there is often a dependence on instructed practice for a long time, even amongst teachers.

ix. Regularity

Ideal practice is certainly on a daily basis, on at least 5-6 days per week. Astanga Vinyasa practice consists of a once daily session each day except traditionally Saturdays, New Moon and Full Moon, and so is readily achievable. With two practices daily, devoted Iyengar practitioners can intersperse more active and more rejuvenating practices (such as supine poses, inversions and pranayama), although many busier practitioners would aim for once daily. Intensive periods of practice in residential or other courses, and studying in Pune or Mysore, can give an experience of what is possible.

x. Pinpointing and then challenging difficult areas

This last principle involves emphasising the personally difficult, within a balanced practice; that which is most essential for maximal growth e.g. weak legwork, stiff shoulders, poor co-ordination, etc. Particular asanas as well as the manner in which they are performed should be selected and emphasised. Initially, the guidance of a more experienced teacher is optimum, as is individually attuned instruction.

To summarise my perceptions of the popular practice of these two in-depth hatha yoga methods which both emphasise development toward the practice of the full range of yogasanas, I would like to suggest that Iyengar yoga particularly excels at numbers 2 to 5. Contrastingly, astanga vinyasa yoga appears to excel at numbers 6 to 8. (Please note that none of this personal analysis is necessarily intended to describe the practice and recommendations of the progenitors of these methods, or their senior practitioners). Utilising whatever style, the last two principles are perhaps the most crucial to systematic progression.


Within the Iyengar method, the main model is the Courses One, Two and Three in "Light on Yoga". The various series of the Astanga Vinyasa method often seem to be organised relatively haphazardly. Further, its early emphasis on difficult Padmasana variations is very hazardous for many Western practitioners, especially with the sometimes overly-vigorous hands-on and full-body-weight adjustments. However, in most Iyengar classes, even in Pune, the opposite tack is unfortunately taken, and students are rarely if ever expected to perform this most elevated of postures, regardless of whether they are naturally able, or have worked hard to develop the capability. Crucially though, Iyengar comments on p. 478 in his Course Three, notes: "Unless you improve these backbending postures (Viparita Chakrasana, Dwipada Viparita Dandasana from Sirsasana, and Kapotasana), you cannot proceed much with the other difficult asanas … I have instructed many people of different ages and some learn quicker than others. But there is no age limit for these asanas". It is important to note that steady, regular practice of Urdhva Dhanurasana, Adho Mukha Vrksasana, Salamba Sirsasana and Supta Virasana to a good standard is required to safely to attempt to master the aforementioned. At this point Iyengar also includes both Urdhva Kukkutasana (lotus arm-balance) and Yoganidrasana (supine with both legs behind head), along with repeating the important poses of Courses One and Two, as gateways to the advanced poses. The most important precursors to these are included in numbers 1 and 5 below.
The standing postures and inversions that make up a majority of these important poses are already appropriately well-emphasised in most Iyengar classes. To develop further, I propose that the following poses require more consistent focus, in light of Mr Iyengar’s suggestions:

  1. Swastikasana (crossed-shin variations with knee and ankle both 90 degrees; leads safely to Padmasana)
  2. Virasana and Supta Virasana
  3. Utkatasana and Malasana, before Standing Poses (part-squatting poses e.g. Virabhadrasana usually require most emphasis)
  4. Suryanamaskar, Navasana (moving repetitions best), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand)
  5. Mayurasana, Bhujasana, Kurmasana
  6. Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (on chair with feet to wall, or tall people on a strong Halasana bench lengthways), Urdhva Dhanurasana leading to Viparita Chakrasana (back-flips)
  7. Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (held position best), before Inversions


All of us, and all things for that matter, are said contain the three qualities or gunas within our make-up – tamas (inert presence), rajas (dynamic activity) and sattva (harmony). The hatha yoga system seems to utilise rajas to obtain sattva, but it is our pre-existing tamasic nature that imagines that hard work and turbulence of rajas might not be necessary! As a friend and sometime student of mine commented, "(most people) just want an easy way out and are stuck with what makes them feel good". She went on to sum up her current experience, and I believe that of many, in this way: "My difficulties and the perception of being stuck in my yoga practice, is reflecting the other areas in my life that I’m experiencing similar blockages and possibly not admitting to. So I feel by committing myself to my practice (as yoga is the one area that seems to have any real point, despite my dissatisfaction!), I am going to learn a lot more about the rest of myself". We need to continue to challenge any limitation in our understanding and performance in ourselves, and if we are teachers, in our students. Then we continue to do full justice to our potential in yoga and in our lives, utilising this wonderful set of gifts.

William Robertson holds an Iyengar Teaching Certificate, is a registered general & psychiatric nurse (NZ), and holds a Diploma in Counselling. His principal teacher is Shandor Remete. William teaches in London and holds retreats throughout the world. For more information see William’s website.