The Evolving Role of First Series

Steve and I have attended a fair amount of workshops and talks with senior instructors over the years. We share a background in scholarship, so Ashtanga history gets our interest. One aspect of the early days in Mysore, India that’s always both freaked me out and intrigued me is that, before Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’s room was packed, before the mobs started showing up at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Center’s doors, students that moved into the Second and Third series (and beyond–it went by different names then than its present form), they did all the poses they’d been given, all the way through, every time.

It’s something of a mystery in Ashtanga that sometimes simple ideas can take years to sink in. This is one of those things that has just sunk in.

I remember Annie Pace talking about this, back when I was still stagnated at kapotasana. They used to do the equivalent of First, Second, and Third series, every day. Didn’t that take forever? I asked. As you get more “polished,” she said, you move more efficiently. If you’re finishing each series that way—only about three hours. Every day.

What? said my brain, and shut down. Something like a white noise-like hiss followed. I could not process that.

"Glad Day" by Blake
“Glad Day” by Blake

Long story, but frequent readers of this blog know that I spent a solid number of years only practicing First. I was slow to gain strength, was out for six months with shoulder surgery (not yoga related, but yoga-revealed, you might say), moved, and lost my access to my shala, etc. All this amounted to years doing just First, and then more years doing First and Second up to kapo. That, I thought, was it.

When Maria Zavala began teaching me the Second Series asanas, and Tim Miller told me to come to his Second Series teacher training (“You come!” he said), big things happened, and I was freed from nearly 20 years of debilitating back pain. That was a little over a year ago now.

Yoga Chikitsa, First Series is called—“yoga therapy.” Indeed it was. But I had clearly reached its limit, and when I was finally able to stand up straight for the first time in years, you could say I got a little resentful that I hadn’t found this magic years before. I developed a kind of love/hate relationship with First.

It was, once again, Maria Zavala who started to work this free, release me from it. Talking with her not too long ago, she mentioned that there are First Series things that only First Series can do, and her Second Series practice is better for it.

This is true, I thought, and found myself saying, What if you just did First and Second together?

So, today, I did.

I realized, as a result, that our relationship to the series changes over time. I’m watching Steve return to basic First Series practices. His whole attitude toward the practice is evolving as a result. It seems natural that I would come back around to seeing the therapy in First differently, through the lens of Second—also known as nadi shodhana, “nerve [channel] cleansing.”

“If the doors of perception were cleansed,” wrote William Blake, “every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

The cavern of the brow over the eye, that is—the body. I’m stepping out.

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

7 thoughts on “The Evolving Role of First Series”

  1. From what I have read and viewed via youtube videos the practice of Ashtanga has changed over the years. When people used to study with Krishnamacharya he would tailor the practice to the students needs. As time progressed and students learned all the poses you could change up your practice to suit your daily needs. It seems to me that Patthabi Jois has done this through the years from first contact until his passing. In the book Guruji there is a lot of talk about the difference between the local peoples practice and the Westerner’s practice. Because Patthabi Jois was Krishnamacharya’s long time student I’m sure he employed the same attitude. The early students progressed quickly and the practice itself seemed to go through a rapid transition. It’s always interesting reading about the practice from Manju’s point of view which is very different from the rigidity I often read about. I guess as the practice becomes more and more shalasized it becomes more and more rigid. Anyways my point is that I guess the practiced progressed so fast because many of the first contact Westerners already had a pretty high level of physical ability and Patthabi Jois gave them as much as they could handle and that kept going until today. This evolution i suspect is the direct result of Krishnamacharya’s influence but the difference would be instead of evolution being individual the standards of today have been set by a few (namely the early first contact that could handle a lot more than the average beginner). It seemed to be a lot looser (from my arm chair historian perspective) in the beginning than it is now.

    1. I forgot to mention that when I went to the Chuck Miller workshop he talked about this quite extensively and how some of the postures are quite advanced for a beginner or 1st series like Supta Kurmasana. His take was maybe some of the tougher postures were to keep us humble?

    2. “It is unfortunate but not at all surprising in this age of obsession with the body that there is an equal obsession with mastering asanas or sequences of asanas. Although highly effective in motivating us to practice, this bodily obsession can be a poison to spiritual practice, and has led us to admire physical strength and beauty while missing the purpose and hence correct method of practice. Mastery over sequences of asanas has little to do with progress on the path of yoga. “~ Guy Donahaye

  2. I’ll just point out that Nancy Gilgoff did not have a high level of ability, and still advanced. I think it was mostly the small number of practitioners, and time in abundance. Tim talks about epic-long practices, just him and Guruji, finishing full of release, gratitude and tears. As a writing teacher, I once had a class of only five students, and I took them all the way though the course they were in, plus the next two in the sequence, in the same amount of time.

    Actually, practicing this way produces the opposite effect of asana-fixation, so maybe that’s part of why Guruji had his early students doing it. You don’t have time or energy to freak out over a hard pose, and focus improves–poses are in a much larger context, and the body falls away. This is what I’m attempting to suggest. Which, according to my teacher, is the whole point of the practice.


    1. Yes i remember reading NG was weak and sick I think and Guruji had to physically move her through the jump backs and through Maybe not being athletic to begin with you come to the practice looser more bendy? I don’t know maybe people that practiced with Guruji advanced more quickly. I also read somewhere that originally the practice was done with full vinyasa back to standing and more than 5 breaths which according to another website and practitioner says it takes about 31/2 hours to complete primary series 90 minutes just for surya namaskar. Very interesting stuff thanks

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