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The Secret Asanas: Decoding the Fifth Series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

A good Mysore yoga room smells of sandalwood and sweat. Here, in the heat, practitioners of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga attempt hamstring-defying feats of endurance, strength, and flexibility while trying to let go of any sense of achievement or competitiveness. 

I love the intensity of it. And perhaps because of this, I tend to geek out on the technicals, so bear with me while we dive into one of the great mysteries at the heart of Ashtanga: what is in the fifth series?

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has six series of asanas but the contents of the final two series are a mystery. In fact, the first four series are so increasingly difficult, only a tiny percentage of people ever complete them — even the world’s most experienced Ashtanga teachers rarely get past the Third Series. 

The first four sequences of poses were documented and agreed upon by the majority of the Ashtanga community in the 1990s resulting in a series of books that were signed off by guru Pattabhi Jois. These included Matthew Sweeney’s “Ashtanga Yoga As It Is” and Lino Meile’s “Ashtanga Yoga Book.” (There are a minority of practitioners who adhere to the original sequences learned by Pattabhi Jois’ first western students in the 1970s — I documented these here).

Because so few people ever practiced Fifth or Sixth series, they have never been written down or codified. The two teachers I know who can teach Fifth series have both declined to share its contents because they don’t see it serving much good, and there’s a risk people will try it and injure themselves. 

I understand their concern but as a kind of spiritual journalist I’m compelled to root around in the cupboards of tradition and document its intricacies and foibles. So, here, I’m sharing several sources for the poses of these series. 

These beautiful sketches were shared by Russel Case of the Finding Harmony Podcast (check out our interview with him here). 

“In India, I only ever saw Mark Yao from Malaysia do the fifth series,” Russell said via email. “I’m sure other people in my generation have done it in the room, but Mark is the only name I have heard. I always practiced one row over and behind Mark so I was there when Sharath announced to him to start. Then over the period of two months he was taught these six postures. I would then go home and draw what I had seen him do. The fifth pose was extraordinary. Pattabhi Jois tried to teach him, but it was simply too complicated for Mark to understand his limited English. So Saraswati came over and clearly explained the entire sequence like she had just done it that morning.”

“Notice that in that fifth pose your hands should be underneath the feet in the backbend and almost completely closed. Then the feet come up onto the head and then into the handstand and then swing slowly to a foreword bend,” Russell added.

Interestingly, these first poses concur to a large extent with this following image of Fifth Series (here called by its Sanskrit name: Sthira Bhaga, which means “sublime serenity”), showing Matthew Sweeney doing the poses. I’m not sure where it comes from and who created it.

Finally, by using the internet archive Way Back Machine, we can dig up an old website that claims to have the full list of fifth and sixth series poses by Bill Counter (currently teaching in Sacramento). Bill admits on the website that it’s his best guess at the contents of these advanced sequences.

“We’re interested in comparing lists if you have other versions of these sequences,” Bill says on his old website. “Or getting comments about the order of the poses, vinyasas, etc. if your experience differs from what we have shown here. The research (and the practice, of course) continues. Are you practicing any of these poses? We’d love to add more photos. How about sharing yours?” (Don’t mind if I do, Bill)

Last year, I was at the peak of my Ashtanga practice so far and considered trying the Fifth series for the first time. Aided by teacher Ash Hope in Brisbane, I would meditate for 30 minutes and then balance, sweat, and stretch my way through the Third or Fourth series. After resting in a mildly exhausted puddle, I’d sit in lotus and do an advanced pranayama practice, followed by Japa meditation, and then a final Savasana. 

A niggling knee injury has since put a stop to all this and forced me to put aside any designs I had at practicing Fifth series. It’s fine. The lengths I was going to last year are not hugely sustainable anyway. 

But I’ll always love extremes. But we don’t need the Fifth series to get there, indeed, there are many ways to wander to the precipice, the place where enlightenment and madness converge, hail the Dharma and let reality explode. 

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