Monday, 8 December 2008

When to start Intermediate if your home practice

I'm Sure everyone has different views on this, Swenson's has this to say.

" The general criterion I offer for entering Intermediate series is that one should have sufficient knowledge of the flow of the Primary series so that it is not necessary to refer to any external source, such as a video, book, tape or diagram, to prompt the mind as to which asana is next in the sequence. It is also logical that one should be able to continue through the entire Primary sequence from beginning to end, without stopping.'
Ashtanga yoga: The practice manual p129

I flirted with Intermediate a couple of months ago but decided to stick with Primary a little longer. I wanted to nail my Jump Back as there are less standard Jump Backs in Intermediate and I figured, if I didn't get the kind of jump back I wanted before I started I might never get it.

I also wanted to be able to do Pachimottasana's better. My forward bend had improved but I'd never been able to get my calves to stay on the mat until recently. The improvement in my Supta Kurmasana was the deciding factor. I could now get my leg to stay behind my head and wanted to develop that in all the pada sirasanas. Back Bending was improving and EVERYONE goes on and on about Kapotasana, wanted to get in on that. and thought it would help me with dropping back.

Basically it just seemed right. It certainly wasn't out of boredom, I LOVE Primary series, and of course it still needs work but then wont it always and besides it's not like you stop doing Primary altogether. The plan is to do intermediate five days a week and Primary once a week.

The other factor was time. Moving my practice to after work meant I had more time. A new series takes a lot of working out before you get that flow going and can bring the time down. It's taking me a little over two hours at the moment.

First impressions? I have to say it's exhausting. This surprised me as a couple of times I'd done all Primary and then all of Intermediate as well and was knackered but still walking. Maybe taking it more seriously and trying to do it properly is making the difference. I mean I'm into handstand as you know, and yet the forearm stands are killing me, and how come the Shalabasanas and Dhanurasanas are so dammed hard, my thighs ache to ........ well to wherever aching things ache a lot to when they want to make a big deal out of it aching. Kapotasana.....forgetaba ,and what the hell is Vatayanasana all about?

And the Intermediate Jump Backs / Jump Through? What a mess, one that should keep me and this blog busy for a couple of years. If I spent the last six months working on one style of JB where to begin on the eight or so weird transitions in Intermediate. I mean jumping back from lotus, come on already!

Interesting thing though, Intermediate seems to be more about Jumping Through than Jumping Back. There's the whole jumping into asana which I haven't really touched on yet. If your NOT moving into Intermediate and are afraid this blog will no longer be for you, then I think The whole jumping in and out of asana will be as much for Primary as for Intermediate. Watch John Scott's jumps into asanas in his Primary video or David, Lino or Kino. It improves the flow more makes the practice seamless still. My Intermediate transitions so far this week? Laughable really giggle-able. Thank god I practice at home, how does anyone have the nerve to begin this in a public Shala?


  1. I have just started reading your blog and couldn't help but feel the need to comment.
    Traditionally, you are not even supposed to start any intermediate asanas until you can come up from urdva danurasana. Then and only then you you start to add intermediate to your existing primary. Your teacher would give you each new asana as he saw your progress. YOu would never just start a full intermediate practice right away. There is a logical sequence and reason that must be understood before one goes on to intermediate. Also there are many "gateway" poses in primary and intermediate that need to be there before you go on. In primary it's marichiasana D. And as far as I know in intermediate it's kapotasana ( grabing heels ), and in eka pada the leg must stay behind the head. Anyway, what I'm trying to say in all this is do not be in a rush to go on. Stick with primary as it has all the essentials that you need to eventually have in order for intermediate to not be so difficult. I have been practicing for years and do all of primary and intermediate up to eka pada. I used to be in a rush to move on but am always humbled by this practice, as I see now just how much there still is in primary. Sorry for such a long post but I feel so strongly about this that I had to comment.

  2. Hi Sophia. Thanks you for your comment. I think we are in agreement regarding caution. I originally started adding intermediate to my primary up to kapotasana about six months ago but decided to go back to focusing on primary for the reasons I mention in the original post ie. I wanted to deepen some key asana. I can now bind to the wrist in Mari D and keep my legs behind my head in supta Kurmasana as well as eka pada sirasasana, dwi pada Sirsasana and yoga Nidrasana (which was my profile picture until I changed it to Kapotasana today). As for it being traditional do start intermediate only after coming up from urdva danurasana my understanding is that several of the fixed in stone "traditions" have changed, several times, over the years. Matthew Sweeney has it as traditional in Mysore to begin Intermediate after dropping back into urdva danurasana rather than coming up(see my youTube video....but not the one where i land on my head). But the whole point of using "tradition" in this way is not so much proscriptive as, rather's just how it's done there.....currently. but as i said i'm in agreement with you regarding caution and dont feel in a rush to move on from primary i love Primary and am still getting such a lot out of in. in fact i find i'm getting more and more out of Standing sequence let alone primary. thanks again i really appreciate your concern. Grimmly

  3. Sorry Sophia, but who teached you this????????

    In the "Yoga Mala" published by Patthabi Jois Urdhva dhanurasana is NOT a part of the first series.
    Please go to the original texts. UD was a later addition, whyever.
    (I can imagine why after my visit in Mysore.)

    When fewer people came to Jois, the second series was teached after one months of practicing the first series. Ther were not these restrictions like now.

    In my opinion it is good to start with both series at almost the same time. First series is too much focused on forward bending. My back got weak. Now I have a much more balanced exercise. I practice first series, and second series till ushtrasana most of the time to get reasonable back bending.

  4. And I still want to add something.
    I was in Mysore this year. I am not able to drop down into urdhva dhanurasana, nor am I able to come up from this pose. I was given pashasana there.

  5. "how does anyone have the nerve to begin this in a public Shala?"

    It's not so bad. You just struggle and laugh :-)

  6. Ursula, waiting to stand up from UD is common and it is commonly understood to be the general rule in Mysore. Perhaps your experience was an aberration, perhaps it was an indication of a change. Who can say? In any event, there are many people who take Sophia's view (myself included). It is a reflection both of what we have learned from our teachers and from our own lived experience with this practice. After practicing other ways I found the approach taken by Sophia (which is the same approach taken by my teahcer) works best for me. Others obviously take a different view. To each their own.

  7. Sorry to write this, but what I see is that people hanker for rules, because there is so much insecurity. People do not trust their bodies anymore.

    I do.

    I am 49, it is very good (I feel this) to do ushtrasana and other softer back bendings of the second series. But urdhva dhanurasana (coming up alone) is a bit much. It has to be done almost out of the blue.It takes time to learn this pose. The poses of the second series helped me to improve UD. Why should I not do these softer back bending which are good for the back? Only because there are rules, nobody really knows who invented them. They are irrational.

    Also to you I want to write, read the sources "The yoga mala" by Patthabi Jois. First and second series are described there in greatest details. And no position is left out. But urdhva dhanurasana is not mentioned. I really don't care what some American teachers might create for rules. I listen to my body. My body is the last instance. And second series is good, I should have started earlier.

    I realized that people who should only practice first series, practice secretly (often alone) poses of the second series, and those who do second series, practice secretly poses of the third series. It's better to get help. But help is not available because of these strange rule.

    The farer away one is from India the stricter the rules.

    If this comment sounds a bit unfriendly it is because English is my second language.

  8. This is always such a fraught discussion between those who follow "the system" (as it is in Mysore these days) and those who don't.

    I want to only speak about my own experience, which is that I practice at a traditional shala. For me, this has worked out really well. What I like about learning one pose at time is that I have never been too overwhelmed. I find that all of Intermediate is a really tall order, but because I learnt it one pose at a time, I was much better prepared to do it all when I got to that point that if I had started the full series bang on. And still I struggle!

    The second thing that I really like is that by learning with a teacher that gives you one pose at a time, you learn to do the poses really well because you can't move on until you demonstrate a certain proficiency in your current "stop pose". You do see the difference between the people who practice traditionally and those who don't, in this sense. If you can't do Kapotasana well but still practice all of Intermediate, there is less motivation to work on it. I've seen it often, people who just brush through that pose and move on. I have to admit it suits my perfectionist nature to learn as I do.

    Lastly, just one quick comment about having to stand up from a backbend before starting Intermediate. Ursula, this is not an American rule. Sharath, in his shala, currently applies this rule. Saraswati, who gave you Pasasana, is known to give poses more fluidly than Sharath. It's all good and I admire and respect them both, but I just wanted to clarify your point about it being a random rule. It is not. It is something that yes, wasn't there in the past but maybe, just maybe, Guruji and Sharath changed the system because they thought it would work better. Or maybe they just did it because of the number of students in Mysore. Who knows?

    I, again, admit that I like this rule. I think dropping back and standing up from a backbend develops a certain leg strength and back flexibility that later on is invaluable when trying to learn Kapotasana. But this is only my own opinion, and I only speak about what worked for myself. I used to be more defensive about this discussion, but now for some reason I've relaxed a lot about it and I see that it's all good, and I just have to follow the path that is right for ME.

  9. Exactly you mentioned it: They changed the system because of the number of people that are coming. This has nothing to do with what is reasonable for the body.

    There is also another aspect much neglected: It's age. Perhaps some poses will never be able for me (age 49)like kapotasana. A balanced exercise for me is an exercise with a couple of back bending poses and not only one demanding pose like UD. I know upward facing dog is also back bending, but it is not comparable with ushtrasana and generally spoken the first poses of the second series, which start easy and go deeper with each following pose. Perfect.

    Another aspect is the availability of teachers and not only this. Many teachers are beginners, have never been in Mysore, are mediocre. Teachers who only practice first series cannot teach you second. The guru is in you.

    This morning I was looking for a quote in a book by Yogani "Advanced yoga practices." I didn't find it, but I know the contents. He said: For those who like to progress faster, go ahead, but allow yourself to go back to a level where you feel well. That's something I did. Nowadays I stop at ustrasana, I'm no more attempted to do the entire second series. To stay flexible and aware is for me more important than to follow some rules.

    And: There are other yoga systems. They teach poses from the second series of the Ashtanga series from the very beginning on. What's that then? This does not harm the body.

    Thank you for having shared your view.

    I wish us all that we are not overwhelmed by what we do, nevertheless challenged enough, so that we can progress at our own pace.

    Too long this comment. The end.

  10. Wow! I did not realize there was such a heated discussion on this. Ursula, to answer your question who taught me "this"? I have been taught by authorized teachers who travel to mysore for months at a time every year. They teach in the tradition of Guruji, and now Sharat. What I have come to understand is that there have been many changes over the years but I am quite sure that backbends are given to the student at the teachers discretion. Traditionally in India, yoga has been learned from teacher to student, not from a book or video. It's really not right to decide to give yourself postures. Most authorized techers have been practicing for years and know exactly when their students should receive new postures. Also your "American" teachers comment is also funny because I beleive the American way is to think anyone can just teach themselves this ancient practice. It's really a disrespect to the whole ashtanga system. Again, sorry for such a long post, but this is something I beleive strongly in.

  11. Of course it is my right to do with my body whatever I want. Would you like to forbid me to do ushtrasana, because I cannot come up from UD? You sound rather assertive. I accept your way to approach the series. It's your decision. Please accept also other ways, there many approaches.

    We have one authorized Ashtanga teacher in Germany and we are 80 millions inhabitants. We have in the meantime a lot of people who practice Ashtanga yoga. But not everybody has the chance to go to a teacher. I was several times in America and practiced there. In almost every city is an Ashtanga studio. OK, then it is easy to say learn from a teacher. I see.

    The Mysore style in my opinion teaches you to practice on your own.It prepares you for this. And it teaches you as well to go ahead, trying new poses, of course.

    What about the yoga mala? Have you read it?

    What about those who were teached both series from the beginning on from P.Jois in the earlier times?

    Disrespect is really something else than to do back bending poses of the second series when it feels good for the body.

  12. Yes has got quite heated hasn't it.
    I think that when there's the implication or suggestion that you HAVE to do something THIS way, or that your doing it WRONG, that you SHOULD be doing this or SHOULDN'T be doing that then it's perhaps understandable that feeling can run high.

    It doesn't help that there are so many inconsistencies. Clearly the practise has changed in Mysore over the years. There's the Ashtanga of Yoga mala and the Ashtanga that's being taught in Mysore now and possibly several others in between. Has the practise itself changed or just the way it's being taught in response to the altered teaching demands. It appears to be both. Several early practitioners have different orders of practise which they claim was how it was taught to them.

    Perhaps we can consider as authoritative texts, Yoga Mala, Lino Miele's Authorised book, Sharaths DVD. When we come to authorised teachers we have a problem because they span several decades. How one Authorised teacher teaches the practise isn't necessarily going to be the same as someone else who practised and was Authorised at a different time.

    But then perhaps we also have Ashtanga as a laid out sequence of Asana and as an idea. I thought Ashtaga was 99% practice 1% theory. I thought you were quickly taught the series enabling you to flow through it focusing on the breath, and that understanding, awareness and deepening of the asana developed as you practiced. I found/find this idea appealing. However the reality is that that many of the asanas are challanging and probably dangerous too, you can hurt yourself. You need to respect your body and the practice, what the asana are asking your body to do.

    We have this Nanny state perspective in the west. Must protect everyone at all costs, or is it that everyone is afraid of being sued.

    Do I really have to be told to be cautious about twisting my knees this way and that? Do you not think I listen to my body. (sure there are loads of teachers nodding their heads here).

    It's my body and it's my practice. Mine, not yours, it's no longer even Guruji's or Sharath. Like a book that once written is up to the reader to experience and intepret for him or herself not the author or the university lecturer or Phd student. Show me two practices the same.

    V is in danger of stealing (0v0)'s WISE epitet. I like how you focus on your practice your experience and what works for you personally. I can see the benefit of learning that way. I was a teacher, I've taught first year philosophy at University , I've been a school teacher and i've taught English. I prefered teaching English. I always had Caliban in my mind. "you taught me your language, my profit be that I can curse you in it". Love that. When you teach a language your not teaching someone how to think or what to say but rather facilitating them, your giving them something that they can use.

    Ashtanga practice facilitates

    Ashtanga teachers and students, like English teachers and students, can get so wrapped up in the grammar that they forget to actually use it. I remember giving my high level students a list of sentences and asked them to discuss them for a little while. I left the room, came back ten minutes later to find the list full of crossing outs and "corrections". They were stunned when I told them all the sentences were good English. They protested very strongly until I explained that they were regional English sentences and all consistent usage.......actually they still protested. rules rules rules.

  13. Thank you for your constructive and possitive comment.

  14. Oh V, I wanted to comment on where you said
    "If you can't do Kapotasana well but still practice all of Intermediate, there is less motivation to work on it. I've seen it often, people who just brush through that pose and move on".

    My own experience is of constantly coming back to poses that I'm practicing everyday and in a sense almost rediscovering them. Recently I started being blown away by the Parasita sequence in standing and finding it a revelation, in face the whole of standing. My paschimottanasanas have been mind blowing lately and I love Purvottanasana now where before it almost seemed in the way, JUST a counter pose nothing to take seriously. In fact practicing Intermediate is offering a new awareness of Primary. I practiced it last Sunday after a week of Intermediate and fell in love with it all over again. Don't you find that, doesn't everyone?
    Maybe a problem with the "here's your new pose" method is that you become so fixed on the next new asana. If you just learn the whole series right away you tend to be working on all of them at the same time discovering aspects of them constantly. that's what I'm finding anyway.

  15. Just by doing the same poses in the same order every day, re-discovery is bound to happen. Nobody is that unaware as to completely ignore all their poses except the last one, or at least I would hope so! :-)

    I think there is value in facing a wall (your last pose being the one you can't do or won't get moved past even if you can). When you go through this situation, you have to face many different feelings: frustration, anger, despair, boredom etc. that when you do whatever you want (what "feels good" or what you want to do or what you think you should do) you can skip.

    But then again, that is what has worked for me. So far :-)

  16. For a long time I practiced with authorized teachers, but now practice at home. Matthew Sweeney's book is a good guide for the level of proficiency expected for the various series, and so is Jason Stein's blog, where he wrote a great post about intermeidate several months ago.

    I think that if you can get your wrists in mari D, self-bind in supta K, and drop back, then you're ready to begin intermediate, although some may argue that you should practice primary for at least several months in order for yoga chikitsa to take effect. Even though intermediate is not as strenuous as primary in terms of the number of vinyasas, it requires greater flexibility and can be quite taxing on the nervous system.

    Some authorized/certified teachers are not that rigid about having to stand from a backbend as a prerequisite for second. Your bandhas are certainly strong, and the vinyasas in intermediate are actually easier than the standard jumpbacks in primary.

    As a very rough guideline (best to learn from a qualified teacher but if you can't...) I was taught that if you can self bind in pasasana and balance for five breaths, then you can move on to the krounchasana, where your leg should be straight and the bind should be at your wrists. Shalabhasana and bhekasana are often given together. In the latter pose your fingers should touch your mat. In the dhanurasanas heels should be together throughout all the variations. In ustrasana and laghu vajrasana legs should be parallel. In kapo the standard to to grab your heels, either by yourself or with assistance - again, there's some leeway for those who have difficulty with backbends. Before moving on from supta vajarasana, hoever, even the most lenient teachers would require you to stand from a backbend.

    Bakasana A & B are counterposes, and so are the twists. In LBH the leg should stay behind the head throughout the entire vinyasa. Yoganidrasana and the tittibhasanas are extensions of supta kurmasana, so that should not be too much trouble for you. In pincha most teachers would require the correct exit as a prerequisite for moving on.

    I'm not sure how you can learn karandavasana without a teacher, but most people get to move on once they can bind the lotus by themselves.

    I'm still learning the next several poses so I'm not going to comment on them, but if you choose to learn intermediate by yourself, go slowly, and respect the psychological difficulties of the series. I do agree with V and Sophia that it's best to learn the poses one at a time, and not all at once.

  17. Again, I am amazed at how long this is getting! I just have one more thing to add. Yes, I have read Yoga Mala as well as David Swenson, actually did his teacher training, Lino Miele, John Scott, and many others. What I feel is happening with this discussion and actually all over the West is we are becoming fixated on only the physical. "Listen to your body" and all that. I wonder has anyone studied a translation of the Yoga Sutras? The original writings of Pantanjali. This is actually what Guruji based a lot of his teachings on. It is usually recomended that a serious student of yoga begins some sort of study into the origins and philosophy of yoga. I understand that there are other methods and ways, but when we talking about ashtanga yoga, there should really be very few variations of the method.
    And for the record, I live in Canada, and there are only 7 authorized teachers.

  18. Hi Grimmly
    what an interesting discussion; it is one i have had with many of my teachers and mentors on the ashtanga path. the funny thing is that i probably agree with everyone's point, and i mean everyone. most recently i have started studying the sutras. actually i have spent the entire year every other Sunday up to recently doing so. i don't think it taught me so much about asana practice, but other things. also, we learned from our teacher that it's not only in ashtanga that positions are held back from us. in hatha there is supposedly an inmense amount of asanas, but they are held as a mystery away from most practitioners.

    i have studied with authorized teachers. the most traditional ones get upset with me if i seem to jump poses. i would say i am probably an ashtanga rebel. like Ursula says, those who practice second, are probably secretly practicing third. i am not that secret about it because i wrote about my experiences with it in my blog when i was practicing at home. my teacher is allowing me to do some of third because she wants me to learn them correctly and knows that i will probably do them on my own.

    do i dropback and come to standing in UD yet? no. it astounded Lino, the last time I was in his room. actually, today i found something i printed from a discussion about it that Elise and others were discussing - tips for coming to standing from UD. i think i will renew my interest in attempting this after years of being challenged with it.

    but, like Ursula, i could not live without practicing second series poses. it would totally harm me to do only primary series poses. i sit all day in front of a computer. why would i benefit from more forward bending? upward bow in transitions does not provide enough chest opening to counter all of the forward bending.

    funny, but i was "given" all primary and second from the start by a teacher whose teacher was David Swenson, so that is why i have always practiced second. when i started working with authorized teachers, they took everything away and started adding poses. but then they went to Mysore for three months and we lost track of where we were.

    nowadays i would be shot for my practice. i do beginning and closing sequence as the bread in a sandwich. the middle of the sandwich is a continuous portion of the series. it might be the first half of primary followed by the first three of third series, or it might be the first half of second to supta vajrasana, or it might be from bakasana onward. this works for me as a professional that has to be in an office environment by a certain time. I'm actually looking for work now, but doing so is an occupation. If the architecture market heats up in one of your cities, let me know.

    V. is amazing because she is a professional that is at an office by a certain time and still manages to do all of the poses. what i do seems to work for me.

    sorry for the long post. i respect everyone's opinions on the matter.

  19. "Don't you judge me!"
    Joy's Mum. My name is Earl

  20. Hey Arturo, I'll stand beside you facing the firing squad. Really like how you approach your practice.

  21. "people who should only practice first series, practice secretly (often alone) poses of the second series, and those who do second series, practice secretly poses of the third series"

    That is simply not true. You can't generalize like that.

  22. I had written a comment/an answer to V this afternoon. Was it a bit sarcastic? I guess yes, even though I had deleted a lot of my speech. But somehow I couldn't publish it.
    And it was so good.

    Your comment grimmly is so much more possitive. Thank you.

    I got excited, too when reading all these comments, I could feel the emotions behind it. Isn't this pure energy that we can use for our practices?

    My attitude towards life in general is "be adventurous", "search your limits and go further", "be curious".
    That's also my approach towards yoga.

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. Grimmly and friends,

    The comments section of this blog really inspired me to articulate some of my own conceptions about the ashtanga vinyasa practice, so for that I have to say thank you to everyone.

    I look forward to your next accompanying blog, "STANDING UP FROM BACKBEND." :)


  25. I have practiced Ashtanga at studio for 9 months. I can do marichiasana D since June and standing from dropback since October. However, my teacher hasn't given me the second series.

    Why ????

  26. oh, Anon, I just had to laugh at your post. I love you! I suppose your teacher will give you the poses when you are ready for them. THere are a couple that are more difficult than Marichyasana D. But who cares, I love your comment...
    And people, get a grip. Do your own practice. Stop being such nannies. I have a super duper trad practice, and I'm glad I learned that way. I think it works, for reasons that could never be explained in a blog comment. Enjoy!

  27. I am reading this post too late, but felt that I should clarify something. Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but should also try to understand why something is/was done in the first place. I am from India and I learned Ashtanga from a person who learned it directly from Krinamacharya. I have never even met the 2 popular teachers Pattabhi Jois or BNS Iyengar.

    The idea of teacher giving a new pose to the student started in the old days, because earlier the postures were modified and even omitted based on the student's constitution. This should be decided only by an experienced teacher. If one is following the sequence as it is, I don't see any problem with giving poses to oneself based on each person's ability. With all the talk about the spiritual side of yoga, asana is still a physical practice.

  28. Thank you for commenting AJ and for giving me the excuse to revisit these comments. Thank you too Shamwari and Jason, seem to have missed your comments coming in, sorry. Think it turned into 'Standing up from backbends' for a while back there.



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from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included. "So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta