Second Series, Sequencing, and the Intelligence of Ashtanga

I’m deep in preparing for teaching my fall writing class. Although it’s hot here in Los Angeles, I’m in an autumn frame of mind. I’ve had some time to soak up all that I learned in my two weeks with Tim Miller in his Second Series Teacher Training, posted about it a few times, and I’m thinking it’s time to wrap it up.

Guruji in samastitihi, where it all began/begins.

Steve’s latest post has given me a nice spur to get me started. He spent a week with Tim while I was there, and took Tim’s “Ashtanga Improvisation” class—something that I suspect triggered some of his “should I try other forms of yoga” post. I’ll see if I can weave that into my final thoughts.

One of the things that the training brought home to me is something that Tim touched on a number of times: The intelligence of Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois’ designing. Tim was careful, as we moved through the sequence, to touch on the relationship each pose of second series has with the poses around it, and to stress where the “emphasis” of the pose is; this allows you to, so to speak, keep your eye on the ball while you practice. You know what you’re supposed to be gaining from the pose, and where it’s taking you next.

Because it’s a requirement of this training that you’ve been through Tim’s First Series Teacher Training, there’s a real sense that you’re building on prior knowledge. There was some review, but only by way of context for new information. We were reminded (chastised? good naturedly, of course) a number of times if things got too rudimentary: “This is second series, for God’s sake. You should know this.” Overall, this gave the training a feeling of deeper understanding.

The context was larger—bigger—than the first series training. “In first series, you find prana,” he said, “The emphasis is on the parasympathetic response of the nerves. Relax and release. In second, you learn move it. It’s about the sympathetic, fight-or-flight response. Third demands that you learn to control it, manage it. Third series grants you a stillness of mind. Sthira.”

Not until Third? Really? Yes. We always spoke in the sense of the overall design of Ashtanga, its largest possible scope: All eight limbs are there. “The longer I practice,” Tim said, “the more amazed I am at just how smart it all is.”

Which brings me back to Steve’s flirtation with “other yogas” and Tim’s improv class. At one point, a fellow trainee asked about sequencing. If you’re not a yoga teacher, this may strike you as a jargon word, and it is: This is simply the term for the way hatha teachers (that is, those who teach non-prescribed asana orders of yoga, which is to say  most of them) must compose their own series of poses for every class. It’s something that’s hard to appreciate unless you’ve been in a bad or boring flow class—it’s something of a fine art.

Tim responded to the question in great detail. Part of the intelligence of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system, Tim claims, is its comprehensiveness. You can’t avoid poses you don’t like or aren’t good at, and there’s a strong tendency for inexperienced teachers to choose poses they can do, and avoid those they can’t (this is built into the teaching-by-demonstrating model) thus stunting both their own growth and their students’. Tim recommended mastering through at least second and even better third series before presuming to construct a sequence. Sequencing requires understanding of a huge number of poses, and their relationship to each other. By the time you’re finished with third, he said, you have a great range of strength, flexibility, and internal awareness. And you understand attraction and avoidance in yourself. At that point, you are experienced enough to design for others.

Obviously, this is not something that’s happening in yoga in America today. And, had this ideal been followed, it’s certainly something that would have controlled the growth of yoga overall. Steve’s amazement at Tim’s ability to string together a seemingly-random set of poses on the fly is, in this sense, not all that surprising. Tim’s understanding of each pose called out by his students is deep, and allows him to select and arrange so that the improvisation tells a story, like all good improvisation. That might be a hard thing to find outside of Tim Miller’s shala.

“The entire rationale for the practice is demonstrated in the action of suryanamaskara A: Up and out, down and in, building our awareness of the subtle body, where we can experience ourselves as also made of energy, not just gross matter.” Tim said this at the start of our training. If it’s true, as we’re so often told by teachers that are wise in the practice—like the Confluence teachers—that there really is no such thing as advancing, only practice, then that is all we can do. As Tim said many times, “Give it your best shot, and let it go.”

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

7 thoughts on “Second Series, Sequencing, and the Intelligence of Ashtanga”

  1. Can I just say that not all ‘hatha teachers’ teach classes with their own sequencing? I’m a Sivananda-trained classical hatha teacher, and was taught to follow a rigid progression of exercises and postures. Though slight variation is acceptable, if you take a Sivananda class anywhere in the world, it will be virtually the same.

    But I’ve recently started practicing Ashtanga, because, though the spiritual teachings are the same, I did need a different approach to my asana practice. I value the static progression of postures. It allows me to understand the practice on a much deeper level and to grow in a more… multidimensional way, both mentally, physically and spiritually. Of course, I’m nowhere near completing the primary series. Yet.

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