The first series of the Ashtanga yoga system is known as Yoga Chikitsa, which translates as Yoga Therapy. At a time when many try to challenge Ashtanga yoga as too hard or not appropriate for their age or body type, it is important to remember the intended use of the practice of the first series. Taught by skilled instructors, Ashtanga yoga is appropriate for all ages and body types. In fact I would argue that Ashtanga yoga taught in the Mysore style is the most appropriate yoga for all, because students are taught to practice only what they are capable of safely doing. It can begin as gentle as needed and progress as the students are ready. It is not taught to large groups who are lead through a practice together but rather to each student individually in a group setting. Part of the practice for a student is to learn to let go of their ego that constantly cries for more difficult postures that they may not be ready to safely practice. A teacher must also control their ego, for it may want to give students more postures so they keep coming to the class. With egos in check, the practice is safe for all.
The therapy of the Primary Series occurs on many levels. To be certain, correctly practicing asanas will help build strong and flexible bodies. Proper use of breath combined with movement also builds heat to cleanse and purify the body. In addition, most asanas have therapeutic benefits of their own. There is another type of therapy that is also involved in the practice. Once we have gained enough strength and flexibility to practice an asana with ease, we begin to practice bringing the breath under control as we do the asana. This can be much more challenging then practicing the asana alone but is the center of the Ashtanga system. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika the method for stabilizing the mind toward the inner self is hatha yoga. In this case hatha yoga means the process of controlling the prana (breath) through the surya nadi and the chandra nadi. As we steady our breath, we steady our mind. As we practice asana with pranayama, we strengthening our body, calm our mind, and grow healthy in many ways.
We live in a scientific age where we accept only what we can see and prove. The use of yoga postures is being explored as a form of physical therapy to alleviate back pain, correct kyphotic conditions, injury rehabilitation, etc. There are registered yoga therapists conducting studies, publishing papers, and giving lectures at conferences around the country. However, it is worth remembering that yoga is a much larger tradition then the practice of postures. In fact, the path of yoga first set forth thousands of years age by the sage Patanjali in his classic Yoga Sutras was a way to merge the mind with our unchanging nature of pure consciousness (“Yoga chitta vritti nirodhaha”). In other words, we practice yoga to gain control of our minds, and the asana is just a tool. Certainly science is important but when it comes to yoga, we need to apply our own test to its therapeutic benefits. Take up the practice under the guidance of a skilled teacher. Put your ego aside and follow the guidance you are given and practice regularly. If you do this, I am confident that you will fill better and after all, isn’t the ultimate test of therapeutic benefit whether or not it makes you feel better.