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.

Posted by Bobbie

Finding Second in First, Part Second

When we last left First Series, I was mulling over the foundation work that it gives you for the Second Series poses. One of the many amazing things about the Ashtanga sequence is the variety and range it asks of the body, and how over time you gain a kind of knowledge, a new awareness of connections. I like to think this means I’ve become less attached to each pose; the kapotasana drama is gone, now that I can see it in its full context, for instance. (Links to First and Second for reference.)

But before I continue, I’d like to emphasize the very different purposes of First and Second. “Nadi shodhana”—“nerve cleansing” is the name of Second. “Yoga chikitsa” is what we call First: “yoga therapy.” While First will encourage health and endurance, the viyasas and asanas of Second are deeper and subtle in their effects. I’m just beginning to understand the ways the two knit together. It’s not as…well, gross as this makes it sounds.

In any case, to continue:

Paschimatanasana B—I suppose you could say that all the forward folds of First are preparing you for the extreme forward folds of Second. But eleven years of forward folds were hard on me, and my hamstrings found their limit pretty early on. When Tim and Maria Zavala freed me to complete second, I learned many things about First, some surprising. I learned that if I rotated my shoulders down in paschimatanasna B, I could open up the space in between my shoulder blades if I also used the bind to pull. This helped me in kapotasana, but also to get the correct shoulder rotation (external) in pinch mayurasana, vatayanasana, gomukhasana B, and backbends.

Purvotanasana—Is of course a way to learn to actively curve the lumbar and cervical vertebrae, so a great help in shalabhasana, bhekasana, and dhanurasana and—most especially for me—parsva dhanurasana. Actively resisting the floor in purvotanasana involves a kind of equal yet opposite movement when you’re pulling on your ankles and resisting with the legs. The strength will also helpful for that upward lift you need in mayurasana.

Ardha baddha padma paschimottanasana—Like the standing version, of great help in vatayanasana. But the more comfortable you are in half-lotus, the more comfortable you will be doing one leg at a time in karandavasana.

Trianga mukhaikapda paschimottanasana—The pose with the name you can dance to will help you with both krounchasana and bhekasana. That dynamic knee/hip relationship is a tough one, and the source of many Ashtanga injuries. Using this pose to help develop internal rotation of the hip (as opposed to the knee!) will, in Patanjali’s words, help you avoid “future suffering.” Trianga is also of use in bharadvajasana and supta urdhva pada vajrasana where the leg is in the exact same fold.

Janu Sirshasana—In all the “janus,” I appreciate the lateral stretch. Very useful in eka and dwi pada, but also in tittibasana B.

Marishasana B—Dropping the knee down in half-lotus is a lesson for vatayanasana.

Marishasana C—The bind will teach you the correct shoulder rotation for the bind in pashasana. The twist in the upper torso and drishti is essentially the same, and feels familiar. Also true in:

Marishasana D—Many lessons here for Second, but you get them rather simultaneously in D: shoulder rotation for binding in pashasana and the hip opening needed for vatayanasana. There’s also a balance lesson in D: maintaining the center while in awkward positions, something that happens often in Second.

Navasana—This may sound nuts, but I think the internal leg rotation and stress on bandha relationships here helped me build strength for laghuvajrasana.

Lolasana—Added bonus: The pick up between navasanas will help you build strength for the pick up after eka pada and dwi pada sirsanana B.

Bujapidasana—Very useful for tittibhasana A, as well at the transitions, making the entrance and exit seem familiar and secure.

Kurmasana—If it hadn’t been for my long and frustrating struggle with this pose, and for all the squashing I received from my teachers, I certainly would not feel as comfortable as I do now in eka pada and dwi pada, as well as the tittibasana series. Learning to situate and actually use the leg and hip actively in this pose was very therapeutic for me.

Supta kurmasana—Hello, dwi pada sirsasana and yoginidrasana. I know there’s some discussion over whether or not you should pause and sit up, and put yourself into supta. I’m in the very fervent yes, you should try camp, because that’s exactly what you do in dwi pada. Also, the bind helps to make tittibhasana B and C seem less…weird.

Ubhaya padangusthasana A and B—Both assist with supta urdhva pada vajrasana because of the swing up into the pose, holding balance.

In the closing sequence, urdhva padmasana gives you the opportunity to learn to fold into lotus without using your hands. Years ago, there was a sub in my regular led First class who taught us this skill. I don’t remember her name, but I am eternally grateful: Although the balance is totally different, it made karandavasana possible.

Pindasana—Feeling my heels planted firmly in my hips in this pose also made folding into karandavasana possible, and helped with supta urdhva pada vajrasana.

Sirsasana—Of course, it may seem obvious that headstand will prepare you for headstand. But the longer you remain in sirsasana in the closing sequence, the better. There are seven headstands at the end of Second, and you need the neck strength, but also the security of your balance. Tim often adds “urdhvasirsasana—pushing the arms into the floor so firmly, the head comes off the floor—this was very helpful to me when the time came to combine the seven headstands with the movement involved in a vinyasa count. And ardha sirsasana helped build strength for the transitions between the seven.

Baddha padmasana—Getting comfortable with the bind here will help you in supta vajrasna, as will the ability to hold that bind into yogamudra.

So there it is. All this being said, the relationship between these two series, I believe, is not linear. It’s dynamic, and First can be found in Second just as well.

Posted by Bobbie






Filed under ‘Things I Wish I’d Known’: Finding the Second in First

During a recent shall we say “work slow down” with practice, I lost some strength and I lost some nerve. As I previously observed, with my keen grasp of the obvious, Ashtanga is hard. (I hear David Swenson’s voice in my head sometimes, doing his fantastic Guruji imitation: “Yo-GA is HARD!”) So as I began to get back to a regular routine, I took refuge in First Series.*

This is because I’m relatively new to Second Series. Long story. But in any case, I’m still summoning courage for the Big Players in Second, and spent a few weeks telling myself I wasn’t ready to get back to it yet. “Avoidance is not the answer,” says Tim Miller. Nonetheless, I avoided. While I was avoiding, I learned a few things about the way First prepares you for Second. I filed them away as I practiced, and I thought I’d pass them along.

Steve will laugh at me for the suggestion that Second is there. “I’ll never do Second,” he’ll say—not unlike myself a few years ago. But that doesn’t mean that the benefits of Second are not in these poses, and I very much wish I’d known it when I was only doing the Primary.

I’m sure some of you will think this is obvious; but it was a fascinating discovery to me, and enriched First even more—just when I thought that wasn’t possible. So, without further ado, here’s a list of where I found the seeds of Second in First. I’ll be breaking this into two parts, standing and seated. For those of you a little rusty with the Sanskrit, or unfamiliar with the poses, here’s chart of First, and another of Second, thanks to the continuously useful website of Ernst Bisaev.

Suryanamaskara A—The way you do urdva muka savasana can make all the difference in all of the backbends in second—it’s here that you have a chance to awaken all the muscles of the back part of the spine, shoulder blades, and ribs. Also, the focus you put on the tops of your feet (extending, stretching, and rolling over them in transition) will help you open your ankles for bekhasana, ustrasana, laghuvajrasana, and kapotasana. In all of those poses (except bekhasana, which also opens the ankle), open ankles mean more shin on the floor, more grounding and stability.

Suryanamaskara B—In that crouch into utkatasana, you will be opening your Achilles tendons for pashasana. The same is true for the hip flexor, if you’re very aware of flexing and reaching as you step back—a la ajanyeasana.

Parivritta Trikonasana—You’ll need more room in that IT band and lateral muscles when you go to put your foot behind your head in eka pada sirsasana, dwi pada, and yoganidrasana. But you’ll also get a chance to prepare in ardha matsyendrasana, which means in a way you’re preparing now, in parivritta trikonasana.

Utthita Parsvakonasana—This one may be totally idiosyncratic to me, but I’m grateful to this pose in dwi pada. I frequently feel a lateral stretch that extends all the way across my low back, especially when adjusted—the source of much healing. Also, it’s given me more mobility in parighasana.

Parivritta parsvakonasana—Hello, pashasana! Once you can keep that shinbone vertical and still get the back of the shoulder on the outside of the knee, you can feel how this pose will help you later.

Prasarita padottanasana A-D—I’m very grateful to Tim’s stress of the head making contact with the floor, or until the floor, a block. And I’m also grateful that I learned to use the floor with my head, to push. This helped to strengthen my neck for the seven headstands that end Second. Your hands are actually in the same position in prasarita A as in mukta hasta sirsasana A.

Words to live by while practicing.
Words to live by while practicing.

Now, here’s where the wonderful research at Tim Miller’s shala has been of great benefit to me. Those of you who have practiced in Tim’s Mysore classes know that he allows his students to integrate hanumanasana and samakonasana into the practice after prasarita padottanasana. Neither of these are Second Series poses, but they have helped me a great deal in both First and Second, as well as therapeutically. I have a lot of trouble with the sacrum/hip relationship (I suffered from chronic bursitis in both hips for four years before Ashtanga), and integrating samakonasana and hanumanasana has helped with a wide range of poses, including unexpected things, like the tittibasana sequence.

If you are unfamiliar with it, Tim follows a logical breath sequence, samakonasana, hanumanasana right, samakonasana, hanumanasana left, samakonasana one more time, then standing. Fly, monkey, fly!

Parsvottanasana—The squared hip and forward leg stretch have helped me keep my torso stable in eka and dwi pada. And don’t forget that bonus IT band action.

Ardha badda padmotanasana—The dynamics of this pose are different from the seated version, and will serve you well in vatayanasana, especially its entrance and exit, but also in the transition from right to left, when you must fold into ardha badda from down dog. This is really true if you’ve learned to push your heel into the hip for a bonus lock.

Utkatasana—Once again, here’s your chance to find pashasana. But I’ve also discovered that the required drop and spread of the shoulder blades here and in virbhadrasana A help prepare for the shoulder rotation awareness required in kapotasana.

The “up” exit from utkatasana is interpreted a variety of ways, but in Tim Miller’s class it’s bakasana for the inhale, then shooting back for the exhale. It should be no shock that this will prepare you for…bakasana.

(Tim also teaches an eka pada bakasana exit from virbhadrasana B—that’s a Third Series pose. And while we may be getting ahead of ourselves, I always do this transition because my sacrum releases—a great relief!)

Part 2 tomorrow!

Posted by Bobbie

* I’d like to dodge the whole “First vs. Primary” name controversy if possible, but I will say that I prefer the number choice, simply because they’re more ambiguous, less hierarchical. Others may dislike them for the same reason.

Breathless Ashtanga or, you’re probably doing it wrong

This is one of those posts done from atop my high horse.

Of course, my high horse in this area is pretty darn short — but in this rare instance, that’s precisely what (I think) gives me the authority to wax all high and mighty.

I see a lot of Ashtangis (and there’s another problem, I realize, I shouldn’t see anybody during practice) who motor their way through many of the standing poses in First. There’s a casualness to these poses or, even, a seeming rush to get on to … something. Later poses, I guess. Yes, I’m probably looking at you, Second Series practitioners.

What I figure they’re missing is all the benefits from First.

Kapotasana, via

Now, I’ll take a quick step back and openly admit that my practice is far from perfect — it may be farther from perfect than any of the people I’m critiquing. But the result of that is this: I get something out of every pose in the First Series and the Finishing Poses. It might be the stretch (and strain) to reach my toes; it might be that extra bit of twist; it might be a little more openness in my shoulders from Urdva Dhanurasana. It’s certainly — these days — the strength of trying to pull back without brushing the floor.

I can imagine if you’re really flexible, Utthita Trikonasana maybe just seems like a bother. After all, down the road a piece is Kapotasana and more.  I understand the desire to get there.

The reason I react is pretty simple: I doubt I’m ever going to get there. And I see people who can really reach the full expression of some of these “simpler” poses — but they don’t. They move into it, take a few breaths and move on.

I’d kill to be able to do that. (Kill in the sense of Arjuna’s doing his duty, you understand.)

But, believe it or not, this isn’t meant to be just about me and my Ashtanga frustrations. (That could be a whole other blog.) It’s a reminder that all of the poses have value. And that value isn’t just the burning of bad fat that seems to be the benefit from most of First Series.

There’s that breath thing. If you’re zipping through poses or not being — I hate to use the word — mindful, you’re missing what’s the real point of the practice. Don’t take my word for it.

Take David Swenson’s:

Somehow we each have a deep inherent knowledge that if we control our breath we may control our mind. There is a yogic saying that states: “The mind is more difficult to control than the wind but if we are able to control our breath we may control our mind.” Yoga is built upon this simple concept. When controlling the breath the yoga practitioner feels a deep state of calm and an evenness of the mind. This is due to the regulated focus upon the breath during practice. This information that I have provided may not be scientific but I believe it to be true and I also believe that if you were to approach other practitioners of yoga they would also agree.

Or Richard Freeman’s:

Linking movements done on the breath set up a distinct sensation pattern in the nervous system which allows the following movement and breath to go to their full extension.

We’ve all heard an admonition to “breathe deep” in the Mysore room, right? We all know that the fundamental purpose of Ashtanga is that pesky Ujjayi breath (with even peskier mula bandha a close second).

It’s an easy thing to forget, though. So think of this as just a long-winded way to say, “Ujjayi!”

(I am curious if my sense that people are trying to get to the poses that “matter” is right. Is it?)

Posted by Steve

On Saturday, Swenson starts First Series teacher training

This time next week, there is going to be a tired group of Ashtangis wishing they had the strength to make it out to the bars on Austin’s Sixth Street.

But I’m thinking they will be heading to their hotel rooms and barely watching TV.

Despite that, we’ll all be jealous. They will be a few days into teacher training with David Swenson.

Like with Tim Miller’s trainings, Swenson’s seems clearly designated as not being some kind of certification. That’s out of Mysore, of course, with all the politics of that involved.

But it surely doesn’t mean that a week with Swenson wouldn’t deepen one’s practice immensely. Here’s a little description of Swenson’s program from his website:

It is NOT a certification course. Participants will receive a Certificate of Completion at the end of the course but NOT a Teaching Certification. Participants will gain great insights and depth of knowledge as to how to share the practice of Ashtanga Yoga with all levels of students. The information contained in this course is invaluable and will be beneficial to those already teaching as well as to students wishing only to attend to deepen their personal practice.This course will cover the teaching techniques of the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga. The participants will learn safe and effective hands-on adjustment techniques through partner work for all of the asanas, practicalities of conducting a class and yoga theory. This is a deep immersion into the details underlying the practice and teaching of Ashtanga Yoga. One need not be a teacher to attend or even desire to be a teacher. Many students have attended this course to merely enhance their personal practice. Those that do wish to teach however will find a wealth of invaluable tools to share with their students.

When I went to Tulum this past winter with Tim, my intent was “to merely enhance” my practice. It worked — wonders. And I only can imagine a week with Swenson would do the same.

Although, I’d likely be extremely weighed down by all the Mexican food I’d be sneaking. For my money, Texas Mexican food is the best you can find in the U.S. Puts my SoCal version to shame, which is painful — and depressing — to admit. I’m still on a quest to find some here that matches even the basic breakfast burrito you find in restaurants that occupy old Taco Bell buildings.

(That means, I’m open to suggestions for anyone in the greater Los Angeles area.)

A link to Swenson’s training page is here.

Posted by Steve

Should Ashtanga keep changing and adapting?

During Sunday’s Moon Day, I did something unusual.

I practiced.

Normally, I’m more than happy to veg on a Moon Day and to thank my lucky stars/Gurus that I get the day off. But I’d missed a few days the previous week, and there was an Intro to Ashtanga class I could make. So I thought, “Why not?”

Urdhva Dhanurasana. Photo via Yoga Journal

It was the right decision, for a number of reasons. A central one was the opportunity to practice a few Second Series back bends before my Urdhva Dhanurasana. You know the ones: Salabhasana and Dhanurasana. (Forget that crazy Urdva part!)

Both felt terrific, and in Dhanurasana especially, I could feel some too-neglected muscles in my lower back at work. And my Urdhva Dhanurasanas after were better; even my sadly tight shoulders felt relatively, for me, open.

It made for a wonderful practice, but it also served as a reminder of one of the main “knocks” on Ashtanga — that its sequence of poses can be unbalanced.

This “charge” against Ashtanga is really only true for people, like me, who are slow to progress. If  you were one of the initial Westerners to practice with Guruji, changes are you were bendy and strong and that Guruji moved you through the first two or three series relatively quickly. In that case, the practice was plenty balanced — not to mention plenty hard.

But we’re not all David Williams.

But, even if you are, in recent years — and, I think, certainly now — there has been far less quick progression through the series if you are working with a teacher who keeps to the Ashtanga tradition.

OK, so here’s the moment where I, still a fairly new practitioner and not very advanced in the asanas, meekly raise my hand and ask: “Is this a problem? Do changes need to be made so the practice best serves its students?”

I only can judge by my own body — and I’d be open to hearing counter arguments — but additional preparations for back bends always seem like a blessing. Would I love to jump through to my stomach after Setu Bandasana and do Salabhasana during my Mysore practice? Yeah, I would. (And no, this is not an end-around on getting a “Second Series practice.” I know that’s well off in the distance.) I think it would help, much as doing Ubhaya Padanustasana has helped open my hamstrings and thus helped much of my practice.

But I respect the practice, and so it isn’t something I’m going to do except on those rare occasions when I’m essentially in an improv class. I can’t help but wonder, though, if adding in “research” poses as a part of each individual’s practice wouldn’t improve the practice. Certainly, the Mysore environment seems designed just for such individualized sequences.

Now, this probably is already happening in some places and with some teachers more than others. And I’ll be interested to see how the five Confluence teachers approach the issue.

But we all know that the tradition that broadly guides the practice makes little, if any, room for such alterations. It may even be getting more stringent and systematized, not less — just how much that follows Guruji’s thinking, I am far from expert enough to answer. It is plain that Ashtanga did evolve from the early and mid-70s through at least the 1980s, if not later. One only need look at Guruji’s Yoga Mala to find a practice different from the one now being taught.

Perhaps a little more change wouldn’t be a bad thing if it served the students more.

The question I’m asking, I guess, is whether that change should be something along the lines of: Without fundamentally changing the essential sequence of poses, shouldn’t teachers be able to make informed decisions about what’s best for their students and adapt accordingly?

And I know the first argument to that point: Don’t those adaptations risk changing the practice so it isn’t Ashtanga any longer?

To which, I wonder: Is Ashtanga really meant to be that regimented?

Posted by Steve

Rethinking not taking the Intro to Second class?

I just got an email from the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence confirming my registration (again, thankfully). More interestingly, it also added this:

Backbending on the Current of Breath taught by Richard Freeman on Saturday, March 3 from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm is a few over capacity. If you are interested in switching to Intro to the Second Series taught by Nancy and assisted by Tim Miller, please let us know.

You probably received this as well. Any thought on what it means?

My first thought is that it suggests those coming are overwhelmingly First Series practitioners and are a bit leery of diving into the advanced asanas. (I’ve done some intro to Second Series classes with Tim, and it isn’t too terrifying. Just sort of.) It may also be that Freeman arguably is the biggest name at the Confluence, thanks to his books. (I’m sure plenty of you would argue with that; I might even do so.)

Or, perhaps, it is simply that a lot of us are focused on improving our backbends.

Would you be willing to switch that class?

Posted by Steve