Surviving Second Series, or at least half of it

The final day of Tim Miller’s weekend workshop in Los Angeles was split between an introduction to Second Series and an introduction to pranayama.

I managed not to bring anything on which to take notes, so I don’t have the usual play-by-play. Instead, it will just be a few highlights.

The main thing was that Second Series practice. Yes, we just went to Ardha Matsyendrasana, but that still involves a lot of back bending and cleansing of the energy body.

It was, without a doubt, my most successful foray into those poses. Why? Practice.

I’ve been playing around with some of these poses while practicing at home, seeking a little more openness in backbend and a little more balance to my practice (and body) overall. And while practice may not make perfect in the case of Ashtanga, it does make better.

And here we move toward the point of Bobbie’s recent post about students being held back.

I think I’m clearly getting benefit from the occasional addition of these poses. (Tim told me my practice had gotten lighter, mostly in reference to jump backs and throughs, but still: progress!) At one point during the weekend, Tim noted that muscles strengthen when we contract them; First Series mostly is about contracting the front of the body, of course. What gets lost is strengthening the back of the body, including all the muscles of the back. The muscles that help us stand up straight and avoid back pain.

You know, muscles that help support us every day. Some kind of important ones.

So that felt like a bit of a nod toward the Nancy Gilgoff position of not holding people forever at First Series. Does that mean I asked Tim if I could practice these poses? No. And that may say more about the regiment of the practice than anything. (I think if I was able to practice with him regularly, the dynamic here would be different.)

I think this topic segues into one story Tim told. He’s been coming to LA to teach for decades, including a lot of trips to YogaWorks when Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty owned it. It sounds like Chuck and Maty ran a pretty tight Ashtanga ship. People did their practices and didn’t go “off script” much. Tim would come into town, feel as though there weren’t enough smiles, that there wasn’t enough levity to the practice, and offer variations and fun embellishments.

Then he’d get out of town and swear the students to secrecy about where they’d  learned their new tricks.

The lesson? A little fun in the practice is OK (and is probably missing from too many people’s practices), and I suspect if that means mixing things up occasionally — while being smart and mindful and not putting yourself at any serious risk — then that’s OK, too. But you should return to the fundamentals. After all, Tim and others have improv classes and do teach these introduction to Second Series classes. But they mostly stick to what’s worked all these years.

One last thing to note: I’ve heard there are just a few spots left open for the 2013 Confluence. If you’re hemming and hawing, you may just run out of time.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

11 thoughts on “Surviving Second Series, or at least half of it”

  1. I agree about the levity of the practice. Strict practice has its pro but sometimes it’s nice to deviate just a little bit to customize the practice to your need. And why not for fun.. so serious all the time, I can’t find that sukha..

  2. I agree about the levity of the practice. Strict practice is great but sometimes deviating just a little bit to customize the practice to our needs is nice. Yea, why not for fun, so serious all the time I can’t find that Sukha //note to self.. I tense too much during practice (:

  3. Actually the characterization of Chuck and Maty is a bit off base. I practiced with them many times when they still owned yoga works. Maty especially modifies poses a lot. Uses props (blocks and belts a lot — especially in backbending) — think an iyengar pracctice in an ashtanga context.
    They were strict in the sense of not allowing people to move on when they really shouldn’t, but it wasn’t a fixed rule. Chuck has said, for example, that he stops folks when they hit the wall in 3 or so poses, especially if they are consecutive. Also – they did not allow people in second to drop first too soon. Often first poses would not begin to go until after karandavasana.
    — Regarding humor – I found quite a lot in both Chuck’s and Maty’s room.
    That being said — The implicit assertion that you need second series to really do some back bending is missing the enormous amount of back-bending you can do in all those up-dogs in first. If done correctly — that’s a lot. If you ever did/do a led first with Maty — You will discover just how much work that can be . . .

    1. I don’t think Tim was implying that students didn’t have the flexibility (so to speak) to use props, etc. It was more that the practice was done in such a serious way, without a sense of levity. That’s Tim’s perspective. I wasn’t around, so I don’t know. I will say my experience of LA Ashtangis is that there may be a lack of levity to them.

      On the up dog point, it’s something that’s been talked about here. It’s something I’ve often argued, but having seen the difference with Bobbie’s back once she was doing more Second vs. First, I think there’s no replacing the backbends in Second. It’s probably a matter of having to use the muscles in the back more as opposed to the pushing up (and using arms so much, even the pecs) of up dog. Maybe if someone could focus on pulling into up dog with the lower back, that would work… (I’m guessing?)


  4. There might be some confusion here: It’s one thing to go freestyle now and then, and quite another to believe that a pick-your-own approach substitutes for practice. Freestyle informs the practice, just like dancing, gymnastics, bench pressing or snowboarding might. Do your practice in the morning and then, by all means, have some fun later during the day. So, if I get to do a few unorthodox moves during one of Tim’s workshops, I’ll simply have fun with it, and worry about the pure gospel later, if at all. What saddens me, however, is when he replaces traditional Mysore style practice with one of his impro classes, like the series had gotten stale for him already a while ago. Now, those intro to second series classes are a different story: seems to me very much like some quick and easy helicopter skiing fix for anyone who can stand, if only barely, on a pair of skis. Tempting, exciting and rewarded with instant physical gratification. Never mind the mountain is being raped in the process. Still, it’s probably fine, as long as they don’t mistake the one for sadhana and the other for mountaineering. Maybe we’re just lucky that those who could do so have yet to start corrupting us with intro to advanced courses. The real thing is to climb that mountain, and enjoy it – not to be dropped on top of it. Accordingly, the series are taught Mysore style (or in private class), based on individual teacher-student interaction, one asana at a time. As far as the traditional Ashtanga method goes, that’s all there is to it, and it’s all that’s needed.

    1. As a student of Tim’s, I hope you’ll forgive the push back. I think Tim knows as well as anyone how to transmit the benefits of Ashtanga to his students. But I’m not one to question him. I’d also argue that Tim’s classes are almost always an a$$ kicker at a level far deeper than the physical, so it isn’t instant gratification. It might be an occasionally smart way to get you to see God, as is the Ashtanga goal, however fleetingly. Or, if you will, Sadhana. That’s based purely on my experience (and the experience of other Tim students I know. But we’re Tim students for a reason).

      The question that your comment raises in my mind is: What do you mean by “the traditional Ashtanga method”? Is it how Nancy Gilgoff was taught? Is it what’s in Yoga Mala (I hope, so no more back bends!)? Is it the teaching Guruji did of the girl who was (I think) paralyzed — or with a similar physical challenge that puts my stiffness to shame? Is it how Guruji was first taught? Do any of us know what’s “all that’s needed?”


      1. Luckily, the ants ate the yoga korunta, sparing us the need to engage in too many scholastic debates. The summary on gives a good working definition of the traditional method as of 2012. Teaching of a sequence, asana by asana respecting the specifics of the individual student is one key element. Another is that it is not necessary to go through an entire series for a practice to be complete. So it’s just silly to do ten asanas from second series in order to eventually do the one in primary we can’t yet do, or won’t ever do in this lifetime. As Tim puts it: the best practice for urdhva dhanurasana is urdhva dhanurasana. Or, one of my favorites: The impossible becomes possible, and the possible eventually easy. Just as long as we embrace the concept of dirgha kala all is fine.

      2. There is some irony to the idea of the traditional practice of of 2012, though, right? I miss when “Research” was front and center part of the Ashtanga system. I still believe that informed things a ton — including having some flexibility to “research” what was best for an individual student. (That research being done by a teacher and student together.)


  5. One follow-on note. If you ever get to do the backbends (at the end of first) with Maty — You won’t feel any need to add the back-bending series of second.

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