Starting Third Series (Again) – Reflections on an 11 year relationship.
I first began to practice the third series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system in early 2005, shortly after relocating to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory of Northern Canada. I had learned the primary and intermediate series from Mark Darby in Montreal the year before, and following a period of travel and then settling in a very remote and isolated corner of the world, I was far away from anyone who could offer me guidance in my Ashtanga practice. I’ve always enjoyed self practice, and having had four years of experience in the Iyengar yoga system (including being trained as an Iyengar teacher) before starting Ashtanga practice with Darby, I was happy and confident to be isolated and on my own with this new system of practice.
I arrived in the Yukon in September 2004 and settled in for my first winter in the north, with eighteen plus hours of darkness per day and temperatures as low as -40 degrees celsius. I spent the winter house-sitting for a friend of a friend who lived a few kilometers north of town. My only transportation was my feet, and I would take a bi-weekly trek into town to teach a yoga class, purchase some supplies, and then trudge back up the long hill through the snow and biting cold wind. I had no internet connection and had little else to do besides walk the dog in the forest around the house, read books, cook food, and focus on my daily practices of Ashtanga yoga, pranayama and Vipassana meditation. It was a special time and I have fond memories of that winter, in spite of its hardships.
Though I had only been practicing primary and intermediate series for a little over a year, and they certainly both needed more work, I grew curious about the third series. I had already experienced a significant amount of structural transformation from primary and intermediate series, and now that those changes seemed like they were starting to settle and take root in my body and being, I grew eager for more intensity and change.
Matthew Sweeney’s first edition of his Aṣṭāṅga Yoga As It Is book was the only publicly available resource for the advanced series at that time, so I ordered it, and a few weeks later it arrived in my frozen mailbox, all the way from Australia in the other corner of the world.
With enthusiasm and vitality, I immediately began to experiment with the postures of third series at the end of my intermediate series practice each morning. I would add several postures of the third series each week and I quickly bit off more than my body and nervous system could effectively digest. Within two months, I had taught myself all of the postures of third series, and practiced it four days per week.
The structural changes and discomfort which I experienced over that winter can only be described as “extreme” and “intense”. My upper body responded with massive shifts, and my rib cage and shoulder girdle literally changed shape from the inside out. I felt things move that just shouldn’t move in a human body. I can still vividly remember a two week period, where every time I moved from upward dog to downward dog, the entire right side of my rib cage would slide out of its articulation with some other set of bones. This particular sensation was not painful, but it was almost sickening to feel a part of my body that should not really move actually slide out of place and then return back again. I kept practicing and eventually this effect stopped happening.
I would use my pranayama and meditation practices later in the day to “recover” from the overwhelming intensity of the effects of a hastily learned third series on my body and nerves. It was fortunate that I didn’t have much else to do in my life at that time, because it would have been challenging to remain functional within a relationship or to do any more than the minimal amount of teaching work that I was doing at the time.
I discovered another important principle during these months, which is that daily, long term Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practice is not necessarily compatible with other forms of body work. I had met someone in Whitehorse who was a beginning Ashtanga practitioner and a Rolfer. I had experienced the 10 session series of Rolfing about five years earlier, and held this practice in high regard. This Rolfer and I agreed to do an exchange, where I would give her a private Ashtanga class in exchange for a Rolfing session once per week.
In the first Rolfing session, I described to her what I was doing in my practice and the tension and discomfort that I was experiencing in my upper body, due to all the shifting and changing. I also described the very strange and disturbing sensation of the right side of my rib cage literally sliding out of its usual articulation with some of the other bones. She had me lay face down on the table and said “Let’s see what is happening.” She started by feeling my rib cage, applying gentle pressure, and suddenly my rib cage did the sliding thing. She gave a little yell, and literally reeled back several steps. “Oh my God!”, she exclaimed. “What was that?”
I laughed and said, “That is what I was describing. I was hoping you could tell me what it is.”
“Wow, are you okay? I don’t even want to touch you now.” Was her response.
I convinced her that the rib cage sliding actually did not hurt at all, and that I wanted her to see what she could do. With some trepidation, she started again. By the end of the one hour session, I felt great relief. The tension in my upper body seemed to have completely vanished and I felt an immense sense of freedom. She told me that she felt my energy was expanding outwards uncontrollably, and that she had attempted to instil a sense of “the container”. I thanked her profusely and we agreed to meet again the next week.
Within a few days, the pain and tension in my upper body had all returned. The following week, the Rolfer released the tension again. This cycle repeated itself a few times. Eventually, I realized what was happening. Third series was asking my body to change. Because I had learned the series so quickly, the changes were dramatic, and they were very destabilising. The pain and tension were a result of the body attempting to accommodate all of the rapid and dramatic structural changes. The Rolfer was doing her best to stabilise my body again, which would always release the pain and tension. However, by stabilising my body, she was bringing it back towards its old structure – the one that third series was attempting to change. So, there was a tug of war going on. Third series was asking my body to do one thing, and the Rolfer was asking my body to do something else.
Once I realized this, I explained it to her and told her that I needed to just trust my practice and to allow all of the effects of the practice to work themselves through my body without any other intervention. Fortunately, my 29 year old body was strong and forgiving, and my faith in the method of practice and in myself saw me through. A few months later I came out the other side with a somewhat stable third series practice and third series body.
Around the same time that I felt my body begin to stabilise, the daylight began to rapidly increase and the weather slowly followed the lead of the change in daylight and began to warm up. I then experienced my first spring and summer in the north, culminating in a complete absence of darkness during the peak months, and I began to enjoy the fruits of my long and difficult winter of self directed transformation. I felt like I had a new body – and in many ways, I did. I felt straighter, taller, and more naturally in tune with the field of gravity. In particular, I noticed much more ease in my seated meditation practice, which I did for two hours a day. It became effortless to hold my spine in alignment with gravity and to keep my shoulders and chest open and relaxed in relation to the spine for the entire period of sitting.
I diligently practiced the third series as my main practice (4 days per week) for the following three years, all without consulting a teacher. By this time, I had established my own yoga school in the Yukon and began to feel a calling to go back out into the wider world – Yukoners often refer to anywhere that is not in the Yukon as “the outside” – and connect to the greater global Ashtanga community.
When I was living in Montreal, a few trusted people recommended Richard Freeman to me, and this had stuck in the back of my mind. I now felt a strong calling to go and see Richard, and I applied for his month long teacher intensive in Boulder, Colorado. I was accepted, and went to practice there in 2007.
At that point, I probably I had a fairly respectable looking third series practice, by anyone’s standards. However, I was not entirely familiar with the standard pedagogical methods of the Ashtanga community, and wondered what the reaction/reception would be when I wandered into a new place and rolled out a self-taught third series. I did mention in my application for the course how I had learned my practice, including that I had taught myself third series.
The Mysore style classes at Richard’s studio were not very traditional. Though practitioners were expected to follow the traditional series, not everyone did, and I never saw anyone being told which postures to practice or not to practice. People came in and practiced whatever they felt like practicing, and this was generally accepted by the teachers. It was a comfortable situation for me to walk into at that stage of my own practice journey.
I practiced primary, and then intermediate series in my first two days at the studio. Having not been questioned by any of the teachers, I decided to try third series the next day, which happened to be a Mysore class that Richard was teaching. Richard took a significant amount of interest in what I was doing, gave me a few corrections on vinyasa and alignment, and basically gave my third series practice his approval. I continued to work on third series under the guidance of Richard and the other teachers at his studio for the remainder of my time there.
I thoroughly enjoyed the month that I spent in Boulder, and subsequently returned two more times in the following year to participate in Richard’s “advanced intensive” courses. I enjoyed practicing amongst other like minded individuals again, and Richard seemed to attract the types of practitioners to whom I could relate and connect. Richard himself is a very inspiring practitioner and teacher.
As enjoyable as my time there was, I don’t think I learned very much about my asana practice, or how to use the Mysore method of practice appropriately as either a student or a teacher. It felt nice to receive verification that I had basically taught myself third series correctly, and for the strong points in my practice to be acknowledged. I also appreciated that the alignment principles which I had come to understand through my own practice were in line with what Richard was teaching. Richard’s eloquent verbalization of the alignment principles helped to crystallize my intuitive understanding of bandha. However, by not being given any restrictions or pressure around the limitations in my practice, or my method of learning it, there was very little stimulation for evolution and transformation in my practice.
At this stage, in 2007, I also felt drawn to go and practice at the KPJAYI. I had actually been to the old AYRI in Laxmipuram in 2000 when I was still a student of Iyengar yoga. I met SKPJ, who allowed me to watch a Mysore style class. I was unimpressed with what I saw at that time, and hadn’t felt any desire to return, even after I adopted the Ashtanga practice in 2003. Now, I had regained my interest and was starting to consider another visit to Mysore. When I mentioned this to a fellow student at Richard’s course, she mentioned to me that if I was travelling to India, I should go and practice with Rolf Naujokat in Goa. She felt that Rolf and I would get along very well. This recommendation resonated strongly with me, and I made plans to go and practice with Rolf in Goa that same year.
When I arrived at Rolf’s shala in Goa on my first day, he informed me that I should practice “only primary, and no adjustments”. I enjoyed practicing primary series in the energy of the room very much, and Rolf came over to help me with catching my legs in the final backbend. He then asked me about my regular practice. I told him I was starting fourth series. “Oh, great!”, he exclaimed. “Who taught you all those postures?”
I was unsure how to answer his question. I knew it would likely not go over well if I told him I had taught myself third series. Things here felt a little more strict and controlled than they did at Richard’s studio. “Richard Freeman taught me”, I lied.
“Oh, Richard taught you all those postures? Great! Tomorrow practice intermediate, and then let’s see.”
In my intermediate series practice the following day, Rolf and his wife Marci noticed several weak spots, including dwi pada sirsasana and karandavasana, as well as a few other things. They both adjusted me quite strongly in several postures and gave me a particularly hard time. The next day, Rolf asked me to practice intermediate series for the remainder of the week. The strong adjustments continued, and Marci was particularly aggressive towards me. She kept asking me questions about my practice in a way that felt like an interrogation.
It was an intense experience, and very different from the easy going and positive energy I had felt at Richard’s studio. On one hand, I felt a strong focus and increased depth in my intermediate series practice, due to the adjustments and strong pressure they were putting on me. At the same time, I felt intimidated and picked on by their comments and questionings. The combination of the intensity of the asana practice and the relations with them brought me to my edge – that place where real self-encountering occurs.
On the third or fourth day of practice, as we were preparing for the opening prayer, Rolf called me into a separate room. With kind, but firm energy, he asked for more details about how I had learned the third series. He specifically asked if Richard had taught me the postures “one by one”. I told him the truth, which was that I had basically taught myself third series and that Richard had then helped me with it and approved of it. Rolf’s response was very clear: “No, no, no. This is not the correct method as I learned it. You need to learn each posture one by one from a qualified teacher. This is how my teacher taught me.” He also pointed out the three or four places in my intermediate series that needed improving. He told me that they wanted me to practice only intermediate series with them, and that if I didn’t like it, they would be happy to give me a refund and I could go somewhere else.
My answer was also clear. “I’d like to practice with you,” I said. “I really enjoy being here and will practice whatever you feel is appropriate.”
Rolf’s eyes lit up. “Good!” he exclaimed. “We also like you very much. You have very focused energy. We are only a little bit mean to you because we like you and you have the capability to improve your asanas.”
Once that was cleared up, practicing with Rolf and Marci became a little smoother. On one hand, I was disappointed to have an entire series taken away from me, but on the other hand, I could feel much more depth developing in my practice of intermediate series. It was quite an epiphany in terms of my understanding of how this method of teaching works most effectively. By being shown where my limitations were, and being forced to stop and encounter them, I was required to put my attention, awareness and effort in the places I had previously avoided or glossed over. This pressure was the stimulus for evolution and transformation in my practice and in myself.
After about a month, I had improved my intermediate series to the degree that Rolf had wanted to see. He congratulated me each time I attained the form that he wanted to see in dwi pada, karandavasana and tic tocs. One morning, as we entered my second month of practice, he told me: “Now your intermediate is very strong, much better. Now we start third series. Today, you try visvamitrasana after headstands”.
I was still not overly familiar with the “correct method” of being given postures one by one, so I assumed that his instruction meant that I should just start practicing all of my third series postures. At the end of intermediate, I began practicing third series, and was on the third or fourth posture when Rolf looked over and exclaimed “No!, I told you visvamitrasana, not all those other ones!” He told me to go back and redo visvamitrasana. After watching me practice it, he said “Very good, now do backbending and next week vasisthasana”.
I was again disappointed to find that starting third series with Rolf did not mean I could just go ahead and do my third series practice, but that it meant practicing ONE posture from third series and then waiting again. However, in the subsequent days, I noticed that I was really focusing on visvamitrasana, and attempting to make it as perfect as I could. There was a new found feeling of stability and depth in the posture.
Rolf then began a trend which would continue for the subsequent seven years that I would practice with him. Every Monday, he would give me one new posture. Each time I practiced that new posture, it was in some ways like experiencing it for the first time. After having focused on deepening the posture which preceded it for a week, and then placing all my awareness and attention on practicing that one new posture as well as I could for the following week, the result was a significant deepening of my entire third series practice.
At the end of that first trip in Goa, Rolf had taught me up to urdhva kukkutasana C. On my final day, as we said goodbye, he told me “Now you know how it works here with me. If anyone says they did third series in Goa with Rolf, they will have a really strong practice.” I assured him that I enjoyed it very much and would be back the next season. I had lost all interest in going to the KPJAYI. I knew that Rolf was my teacher.
Going back home, I immediately returned to my old routine of practicing primary and intermediate series once per week each, and third series on the other four days of the week. It was interesting to note that the postures of third series which I had relearned with Rolf that year felt much better and more stable than the rest of the series.
Over the following two winters, in trips of three or four months each time, I completed the third series with Rolf. Each time I returned to Goa, I would drop my usual full third series practice and pick up where I had left off the previous season with Rolf. The routine did not change. Every Monday I would get the next posture. I never asked, and he never forgot. Once I had reached viparita salabhasana, he split my practice so that I was only practicing third series each day, without intermediate series as a warm up. Once I had completed the third series with him, he told me: “Next year, same procedure for fourth series. If you can do them, I will teach each posture one by one. If you can’t do them, then you have to wait.”
I had never practiced fourth series before, so the subsequent four years became the first time that my personal practice at home actually matched the practice I was doing in Goa with Rolf. Due to the years of preparation I had done, I could do most of the fourth series postures on my first try when Rolf gave them to me; however, there were a few postures which were difficult, and he had me stop on those postures for periods ranging from several weeks to several months. After four more seasons, in trips of four or five months each, I completed the fourth series with Rolf. I then had a personal practice of primary, intermediate and third series one day per week each, and fourth series three days per week.
Rolf’s teaching method changed quite a bit between my first season with him in 2007 and my final season with him in 2014. Over the years, he grew to accept and assimilate Marci’s ideas of how to modify some of the postures and the changes she made to the Ashtanga system itself. By the end of my seven year period of learning with Rolf, none of the other students were being taught the traditional postures in the traditional way, and Rolf and Marci had developed their own unique interpretation of the Ashtanga system.
With me, however, Rolf maintained the same traditional method that he had learned himself from SKPJ for all seven years that I practiced with him. I feel extremely fortunate to have learned the entirety of both the advanced series from Rolf in this way, and I believe he enjoyed teaching me as much as I enjoyed learning from him.
My understanding of how the Mysore method of practice works most effectively was shaped during this formative period of learning with Rolf. Several important aspects of the pedagogy of this method became clear to me, especially during the first few seasons that I practiced with Rolf.
There are practitioners who have enough motivation, strength, and understanding of the practice and of their own bodies and nervous systems to teach themselves new postures. One can even teach oneself an entire advanced series, as I did. I don’t necessarily feel that this is a bad thing to do, especially if there are no qualified teachers available to learn from.
However, self-teaching can result in more mistakes, creating unnecessary pain and discomfort. This is especially true for an immature practitioner, as I was when I taught myself third series in my first winter in the Yukon. I taught myself third series far too quickly. I was enthusiastic, and underestimated the deep reaching structural effects that daily practice of this series would have on my body.
An experienced and mature teacher who understands how the series works on the human body would never allow a student to move through the series so quickly, even if the student could do all of the postures. When Rolf taught me fourth series, he sometimes slowed the pace down even more, sometimes waiting two weeks before giving me the next posture. “You do that one fine,” he once said, after not giving me the next posture in the series one week. “But we’ll just wait another week so you have more time to digest it.”
This concept of “digesting” postures is an important one. The first few times one performs a new posture, its effects on the body are more superficial. One can often feel new areas of the body and nerves being affected by the posture, but this just an initial taste. It is a first meeting and exchange between the body and the energetic and structural dynamics of the posture. The body does not yet feel the need to integrate those elements deeper into its permanent structural framework.
Over the subsequent weeks, as the posture is repeated each day, the effects of the posture work their way much deeper into the body and nerves. The body starts to understand that this posture and its effects are now part of its movement repertoire, and the body must then shift its structure accordingly in order to accommodate these new patterns. The tensegrity patterns of the entire body need to change, and the fascia and bones themselves sometimes have to change their position in relation to each other during this process. These deeper effects will not play out until the posture has been repeated numerous times – usually for several weeks or months – on a daily basis.
We can think of the body as a very complex hierarchy of systems. There is a dynamic arrangement and communication between the musculoskeletal, nervous, breathing, digestive, immune, endocrine, and other systems. Within each of these systems, there are also subsystems which are interacting and coordinating with each other. Within each subsystem, there are further levels of sub-subsystems, etc. We can make the picture even more complex by also adding in the “non-physical” components of a being, such as emotions, thoughts, beliefs, etc. These also organize themselves into patterns which also influence the physical systems. These systems and elements of the being all communicate and coordinate with each other in an ongoing dynamic exchange, making compensations and compromises so that the being as a whole always maintains the optimal level of functionality and ability to maintain itself as a discrete entity in the world.
The habitual behaviors in which an organism engages in its relationships with the world will also influence how the different systems and subsystems of the organism functionally arrange themselves. A person who has spent fifteen years climbing mountains on a regular basis will have a very different type of inner balance and stability which defines their “self” than a person who has spent fifteen years living in a city and working at an office every day.
If the office worker suddenly decides one day to climb Mt. Everest, and attempts to do so, all of the systems of his body would have to very quickly find novel ways to try to support this new and extreme behavior of the organism. Almost certainly, it would be too overwhelming, and the result would likely be severe physical and mental debility or death.
However, if the office worker started by taking a few short hikes on the weekends, progressed to some easy multi-day backpacking trips, eventually moving on to hiking up hills and smaller mountains, and so on, it is quite possible that this person could eventually climb Mt. Everest in a way that would actually benefit their overall being. By giving the systems of the body time to calibrate and adjust to the smaller and more graduated behavioural changes over a period of years, these activities can be successfully integrated into that person’s being, and the final step to actually climbing Mt. Everest could then also be safely incorporated into that person’s being.
Similarly, if the long term mountain climber and adventurer suddenly quit all forms of this type of activity, moved to the city and took up a job as an office worker, this person, too, would likely experience overwhelming changes within his physical and mental being. All of his physical and mental systems would have to rearrange themselves drastically to accommodate the extreme change in lifestyle and sensory experience, and he would also likely experience physical and mental unwellness due to this sudden and extreme change in behavior.
The asanas we practice also affect the way our systems and subsystems arrange themselves and relate to each other. It should be clear from the analogy above that smaller steps in learning new asanas is going to be much smoother for the body to digest and integrate in a healthy and balanced way than suddenly adding a large number of difficult and advanced asanas.
Rolf also told me that SKPJ once said that you need to perform a posture 1000 times in order to master it. My interpretation of this statement is that this is how long it takes for the body to fully digest and completely assimilate a posture into its permanent structural and movement repertoire. If one practices a posture five to six days per week, this adds up to about three and a half years to get 1000 repetitions of that posture. If we think about our practice, the postures which we have been practicing daily for over three and a half years do tend to feel very natural and innate, while the ones we find difficult are usually those that we have learned more recently.
The process of complete digestion cannot be rushed. Attempting to learn too many new postures too quickly will overwhelm the body, and it will not be able to digest and incorporate them effectively. The result will be structural chaos and instability, which comes along with quite a bit of pain and discomfort, as I experienced in that winter in the Yukon. A strong person may be able to persevere and come out the other side with benefit, but it seems reasonable that we should try to avoid unnecessary pain and discomfort.
One more analogy would be to compare the human body to an ecosystem. Ecosystems are also composed of many interacting subsystems in a complex pattern of arrangements. Any change in one part of the ecosystem will affect the balance of the system as a whole. Furthermore, these resulting changes in the ecosystem will not necessarily be immediately apparent. For example, if we add a new species to an ecosystem, the immediate effect on the ecosystem as a whole might seem minimal. After some weeks or months, however, we may notice that other species which were already present in that ecosystem have begun to either decline or thrive, due to the addition of the new species. If we then observe the ecosystem after and even longer period, say months or years, we may find that there are secondary and tertiary effects, as the species which began to thrive or decline will then affect other species and elements in the system which are dependent on them, and so forth. It may take years before the ecosystem reaches its final state of equilibrium to accommodate the cascade of effects resulting from the addition of one new species.
A healthy ecosystem will likely be able to integrate the addition of one new species (or environmental condition, etc) with minimal chaos. As it “digests” the new component, gradual changes will characterize the process of integration. Over months and years, the ecosystem will rearrange itself and a new balance will be struck. The ecosystem has been altered, but it was able to function relatively well, as a whole, during this integration period.
Now, imagine if we suddenly added five or ten new species or environmental conditions all at once. The result would likely be much more dramatic and probably much more detrimental to the basic functionality of the ecosystem as a whole. While the system would eventually find a new balance over time, the process would not be gentle, and we would likely witness great chaos and suffering in the ecosystem while the very complex set of new dynamics attempt to sort themselves out.
Again, the analogy to adding asanas to our daily practice should be clear. I feel that all of the preceding discussion lends itself to support the idea that it is ideal for us to learn each new posture one by one from a qualified teacher. A qualified teacher is one who has already learned and digested the postures and series that we are working on, and they therefore understand, through their own experience, how these postures work on the systems of the human body, both in the short term and longer term. They can then give us appropriate guidance as to when to wait and “digest” versus when to move forward and add new postures.
There are some “older generation” Ashtanga teachers who are very lenient in giving out postures. Even if a student has not effectively integrated the preceding postures in the series, these teachers will continue to add on more postures to a student’s practice, seemingly indiscriminately. Some of these teachers were taught this way by SKPJ in the early days, and claim that this is the “original” way of teaching this method.
SKPJ refined his methods quite a bit over the years that he taught. One of the most notable aspects of this refinement was that he slowed down the pace at which he taught postures to students, and that he demanded increasing perfection in the asanas before moving students on in the series. Sharath has continued with this trend even more. Some of the older teachers will claim that this was simply a way to manage and deal with the rapidly increasing numbers of students. I suspect it is more likely that SKPJ and Sharath witnessed the negative and detrimental effects that learning the series too quickly had on some of those first students, and realized that learning the series more slowly was more appropriate. The term “research” in the old AYRI name was quite appropriate, I think.
If a practitioner is self-taught, or has learned a particular series from one of the more lenient teachers (both cases apply to me in my first five years of practice), I think it is very healthy and beneficial to practice with a teacher who has stricter standards and is not afraid to stop students in the places they still need to work. As I described in my experience with Rolf (and later with Sharath), being stopped provided the stimulus for more transformation and development to happen in my practice. Stopping students creates an awareness and a healthy pressure which stimulates more focus and energy to flow into the weakest areas of practice. It is a psychological “trick”, but it is a very important part of the method. I have experienced the benefits of this myself as a student, and by applying it as a teacher I have also witnessed its effectiveness.
Being asked to “master” each particular posture before moving on in the series develops patience and self-encountering. We all have postures and movements we dislike and instinctively try to avoid. It requires great effort and attention to consciously go against our instincts and encounter these experiences every single morning. This is the field where authentic and deep personal transformation occurs. If we are required to “master” a particular aspect of a posture or vinyasa before we are given the next posture, then we have no choice but to apply the attention, awareness and effort necessary to make that happen. This is often where we truly encounter the most stuck areas of our bodies and beings, and it is how the practice changes us as people. Time and time again, I have noticed in myself and in my students, that if we are not required to master something before moving onwards in the series, then we will never bother to maintain the level of effort and attention necessary to create that mastery. Once we have been moved on past a posture, it naturally loses importance and prominence in our awareness.
Another important reason for “mastering” a posture before learning the next one is for physical integrity and safety. Each posture (or set of postures) in the system serves as a preparation for something more difficult which is to come later. If we don’t fully develop and integrate the movement patterns which are required with the current postures, then when we come to more difficult postures which are based on those same movement patterns, we will be in trouble.
One early example of this comes in the marichasana series. Many newer practitioners struggle with binding in these four postures, especially in marichasana D. Some practitioners will require months or even years of persistent work to successfully bind in all four postures. I have noticed that many teachers are lenient, and eventually move students on in the series before they can successfully bind in all four marichasanas.
Without developing the ability to bind in all of the marichasanas, supta kurmasana and garbha pindasana will be impossible in most cases, as these two postures rely on the movement patterns developed in the marichasanas. Students who are still struggling with the marichasanas and then move on and also begin to struggle with supta kurmasana and garbha pindasana end up putting too much pressure on their bodies.
Struggling with marichasana D alone might be a sustainable degree of challenge for the body to go through each day. If the student stops there and finishes the practice, the body will eventually develop the movement patterns necessary to bind in marichasana D, without experiencing too much discomfort or excessive pressure. However, if the student attempts to practice marichasana D, along with several other postures further along in the series which also require deep movement of both the hip and rotator cuff, then it often ends up being too much struggle for the body to go through each day. The result can be a lot of pain and a significant increase in the risk of injury.
Over my years of teaching, I have noticed that the students who have been taught all of primary series very quickly, and yet are still struggling with many of the postures in the series, are invariably the ones who report having knee, hamstring and shoulder injuries in their first six months of practice. These students are often grateful when I scale their practice back to half of primary series or less.
In 2013, I came across an article which inspired me to go to the KPJAYI and practice with Sharath Jois. This inspiration stuck with me, so in 2014 I applied and was accepted. Six months after completing the fourth series with Rolf I found myself in Mysore where I was required to drop my advanced practice and start again from the beginning. In 2007, when I began practice with Rolf, I had to drop one full series from my personal practice. In 2014, when I began practice with Sharath, I had to drop three full series from my personal practice. Fortunately, I understood that this is required of everyone on their first trip to Mysore, so I was prepared to do this.
I enjoyed refocusing on primary series, and then on intermediate series with Sharath. I did experience some frustration and self-encountering, but overall it was a very beneficial process for me, and it strengthened and verified my understanding of the system which I have expounded on in this article.
I detailed my experiences of my first three months of practice with Sharath in two articles:
Returning home after this first trip with Sharath in early 2015, I was faced with a rather large gulf between the practice which I had been doing with Sharath in Mysore (at that time up to dwi pada sirsasana) compared to my previous personal practice which I had learned from Rolf over seven years.
After my first trip with Rolf in 2007, I quickly returned to my old personal practice; but this time I felt in no hurry to immediately return to my previous personal practice of the advanced series. I had enjoyed returning to intermediate series and refocusing on the postures which could be deepened, and it had been many years since I had practiced intermediate series daily. I also knew that I would continue to practice intermediate with Sharath again the following year. This time, going back home, I initially maintained a daily practice of intermediate series only for several months.
After a few months at home, I began to miss the practice of the two advanced series, and felt a natural desire to add them back into my practice. This presented a dilemma: It had now been about six months since I had dropped the two advanced series (at the beginning of my trip to Mysore). It seemed like it would be a bit much to just jump back into full advanced practice after a six month gap of not practicing these two series. I realized that adding the advanced postures back gradually would likely be a healthier and smoother process. I also felt like I still wanted to maintain a daily practice of intermediate series until my subsequent trip with Sharath, which was only a few more months away.
My solution was to start gradually adding third or fourth series postures to the end of intermediate series four days per week in my daily practice. On two of the days, I would add third series postures to the end of intermediate and on the other two days, I would add fourth series postures to the end of intermediate.
I added between one and three advanced postures on most of the days that I practiced like this. The first day of practicing each new advanced posture (after a gap of six months of non-practice) usually felt a little shaky, yet it was also very interesting to see how familiar they felt in my body. By the second or third repetition of the new postures, they felt completely stable, and in many cases they felt even deeper than they had been before my trip to Mysore with Sharath. Dropping those advanced postures for six months and refocusing on the basics had not diminished my ability to practice them – in many cases it actually improved my ability to practice them. This was a very interesting result to observe!
I treated the experiment as if I was practicing the advanced postures for the first time. I only added new postures from third or fourth series if the ones I had already added felt completely stable and open, and the practice as a whole felt stable and nourishing. Because I already had a ten year relationship with third series, it all came back very quickly. I was able to add two to three postures from this series just about every time I did the practice, and it was not very long before I was practicing two full series – all of intermediate and all of third – on the two days per week that I did this practice.
Fourth series took a bit longer. I had only completed the fourth series a little over one year earlier, and my relationship with it was far less stable than my relationship with third series. My body had not fully digested fourth series before I went to Sharath for the first time. The first part of the series (which I had a longer relationship with – up to five years), came back more quickly than the second half. There were several points in the adding back of fourth series where I did stop myself and waited for a few days or weeks, when the overall effect of the series on my body and nerves seemed to require a little more time to stabilise. It was several weeks or a month after I completed third series that I also completed all of the fourth series and was practicing the full intermediate and full fourth series two days per week.
In the beginning of this process, I was unsure if practicing two full series per day would be sustainable for me, especially when followed by three or four hours of teaching each day. But by adding the advanced series back gradually, it turned out to be fine. It felt very stable and very strengthening. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Soon enough, it was time to return to Mysore, and drop the advanced series yet again. There was more work to do in intermediate with Sharath in my second trip, and I detailed that experience here:
Returning home after my second trip in Mysore (which was just two and a half months before the time of writing this), I was faced with a similar situation as I had been in the previous year. This time, the situation was complicated by the fact that I had been injured in Mysore, and was still in quite a bit of pain. I was still unable to practice a few of the postures in intermediate series due to the injury, so adding back the advanced series was not even a consideration at this stage.
It took about two months at home to reach the point where I was practicing full intermediate without needing to modify anything, and for the pain from the injury to have completely dissipated. At this point it had once again been nearly six months since I had dropped the advanced series from my practice, and so I again began the same procedure off gradually adding back third or fourth to the end of intermediate, four days per week.
This process began three weeks ago, and I am now up to seven or eight postures from each of third and fourth series at the time of writing this article. Once again, I am treating it as if I am practicing them for the first time. The injury I sustained in Mysore had quite a deep effect on my body. Though I am no longer experiencing pain, I do still feel structural effects, and a lot has changed in my body as a result. Because of this, I feel like I am experiencing the effects of third and fourth series in yet another unique way. I am witnessing their effects on the body from a new perspective – perhaps from a healing one.
Three weeks ago, when I decided to start adding the advanced series back, I was unsure if I was ready. Though I was pain free in my intermediate series practice, I felt quite tired, heavy and stiff overall. It seemed counterintuitive to start making my practice longer and more intense in this situation. Yet, something told me to try, and so I did. In the first week, I added just two or three postures of each advanced series. It was amazing to feel the overall shift in the energy and the experience of my entire practice. Adding these new postures created a significant sense of space in my pelvic area and injected a new flow of vitality into my body and my practice. It felt like everything came back to life. It is clear that I made the right decision. I look forward to continuing the process over the next couple of months.
The pictures which I have included in this blog post are from my third series practice at home in Bali, about two weeks ago in April 2016. They are taken at around 4 am, after having completed all of intermediate series as a warm up. They represent the third time that I had practiced these postures, after nearly a six month gap of not practicing them. The pictures are not staged. They are a candid capture of moments in my regular flowing practice. As I practice in a room with relatively low light, I did increase the overall brightness of the pictures using windows photo gallery. Otherwise, they are completed unedited.
I initially intended to post these pictures on my Spacious Yoga facebook page, with a few paragraphs about my relationship with third series, and a brief description of the benefits that can come from dropping parts of our practice and then starting again later. As I began writing, I realized that I had much more to say than could fit into a few paragraphs. The result is this lengthy article.
Iain runs Ashtanga Immersion Courses in Bali you check them out here:
Visit Iain’s Website:
Here is the interview I did with Iain where we talk a lot about using the breath effectively:
Here are some articles of Iain’s that I have also posted here:
- Why I don’t chant (6) June 21, 2015 I don’t think I love God more than I love music. Why would a European sitting there, who doesn’t know the difference between Krishna and Rama, listen to this music for two hours? Why are instrumental concerts so popular? Do we know if the performer is playing a kriti in Kannada or Telugu, or if ...
- Iain Grysak Interview (0) July 12, 2014 While in Bali I have been taking the opportunity to catch up with some of the teachers that can give us insights into the Ashtanga practice. In this interview I talk to Iain Grysak about the breath. We all know that we should use an Ujjayi breath throughout the practice but are you truly connecting ...
- You Stop There: Lessons from Sharath Jois and Reflections on the Mysore Method (2) January 25, 2015 I recently returned from my first three month trip to practice with Sharath Jois in Mysore. I am not a newcomer to the Ashtanga system – I completed the 4th series with my previous teacher Rolf Naujokat earlier in 2014, and have maintained a daily Ashtanga practice for nearly 12 years. I knew that when ...
- Thoughts on Deepening an Authentic Yoga Practice (0) April 17, 2015 Authentic yoga practice is an exploration in relationship. One who is practicing yoga as sadhana (rather than yoga as entertainment) has a relationship with their teacher, a relationship with the practice method or tradition, and most importantly a relationship with the self. Ultimately, the real work of yoga is to deepen and strengthen these relationships. A ...
- A New Chapter: Reflections From Mysore 6 Weeks In (3) November 22, 2014 I don’t often publicly express opinions or viewpoints until I have fully digested and integrated the experiences that lead to their formation. I realize that this has become increasingly rare in today’s world of social media where we can impulsively broadcast all of our experiences and opinions instantly. It is not uncommon for photos, quotations ...
- Why I don’t Chant, Part 2: Tradition and Self Authority (2) June 21, 2015 Last week I published an article titled “Why I don’t Chant”, in which I explained some of the reasons that I don’t use the Ashtanga opening and closing mantras in my classes or in my personal practice. As expected, I received mixed feedback on the article. Some people expressed that it resonated with them deeply, while ...
- You Stop There, Part II – Reflections on my second trip in Mysore with Sharath Jois (0) May 26, 2016 I recently completed my second three month trip practicing with Sharath Jois at the KPJAYI in Mysore. Last year I wrote two blog posts about my first trip, “A New Chapter” and “You Stop There”. These articles expressed my perspective of the experience of starting over as a beginner with Sharath, after having had a daily ...
- Becoming Animal: Using Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Meditation as Embodiment Practices for the Cultivation of Organic Intelligence (0) August 30, 2016 A practitioner in my Mysore program recently asked me: “If one side of a posture is more open than the other, and I feel like I can keep going deeper in the more open side, should I hold back to try to even it out with the less open side?” My response drew from what I ...