Intro to Second Series is hard

We thought we had a great idea.

On Sunday morning, it quickly became clear our plan was flawed. Getting all our last-minute stuff — Blendtech for green smoothies, our own coffee maker just in case — together was taking longer than expected. And then there was practice. And the later it got, the worse traffic between Los Angeles and Encinitas was getting.

What is on Tim Miller’s schedule…?

Intro to Second Series, with our friend Holly Gastil. At 4 p.m. Perfect! A nice way to ease our way into the weeks, an opportunity to go over to the shala before the 6 a.m. Monday morning pranayama.

Yeah, one flaw: Holly doesn’t mess around.

If you check the schedule, her class is on the books for 90 minutes. Not true. She always goes a full two hours. And although it more or less stops at Ardha Matsyendrasana, she adds a few more plus includes a whole ton of research / prep poses.

So it was no cake walk. Holly didn’t even bring cake.

We’ve spent a few weeks with Holly in Mt. Shasta and usually run into her when we come down to practice. But it was the first time taking one of her classes. Not surprisingly, she totally knows her stuff. And like all of the teachers at Tim’s I’ve encountered, she has a light and funny presence that almost — almost — makes up for the pain and anguish.

Here’s an example of her know-how. I explained my back had been hurting and when we got to backbends, she suggested something that no one — not a soul — during seven or eight years of yoga had ever suggested. Go up to the wall (that sounds familiar, I’m sure) and spread my hands out to the width of the mat and turn my hands so the fingers are pointed away from each other (also you can think of it as parallel to the floor boards or wall).


Arms way straighter as I pushed up into a backbend.

That was just the first day.

We are back, by the way, from the first morning pranayama and first Mysore class, which was packed. (Also, Tim’s full pranayama is kind of hard, too.) Maybe it was that packed after the first Confluence, but I’m not sure. It was jammed. With lots of people saying, “Hi,” and lots of half-surprised “oh you’re taking the training.”

And Tim being Tim through it all.

Now, if the sun would just come out and a few waves roll in, today might be perfect.

Posted by Steve

Doing all of Ashtanga’s First and Second — with a little mod here and there

I used to love — looooove — Sunday moon days.

A great day to sleep in. More time to do something fun: a museum, the beach, a nice lunch, maybe a rigorous hike if I was feeling in the athletic mood.

Now, I hate them. Sunday is too good a day to get in a full, lengthy, intensive Ashtanga practice. Other days in the week just can’t compete.

(I’m 100% sure this change in heart came with my home practice. A big benefit of paying to go to a Mysore space is you’re paying and therefore need to ring all your money’s worth.)

So this past Sunday wasn’t a day of rest in our house. Just the opposite. It turned out to be an opportunity for me to do all of First and Second for the first time.

With a few modifications here and there because stiff.

It happened because Bobbie was going to do both, and so she said, essentially: “Why don’t you do them, too?”

Why didn’t I come up with a good response?

Here are a few impressions and takeaways. Keep in mind, I’ve been doing some parts of Second for a while (frequently after all of First) but some of the poses late in Second aren’t ones I’ve done outside, maybe, of an improv class here or there:

  • The overriding one is how the different twists — Bharadvajasana and Ardha Matsyendrasana, Parighasana and Supta Urdhva Pada Vajrasana — fit into the series. We’ve talked — lots of people talk — about the intelligence of the Ashtanga sequence, and I’ve always seen the focus as being on the balance of it — mainly folding forwarding and bending back. But it’s these pauses to adjust the body via these twists, I think (as of today, but thinking subject to change), that really is a key to why it all works. I’m not experienced enough to say why, exactly. It might just be the nature of the pause I mentioned already; it might be the change in direction. I’m trying to think how the twists in First work, as well — and how all of them, in their place, function collectively.
  • Hey, yeah, Karandavasana is tough. Who knew? (Oh, right: Everyone.)
  • Modifications can be worthwhile, and that might be the biggest argument against keeping students from advancing there is. There was some muscle exertion and mental focus to be found in playing with Tittibhasana and working toward Eka Pada Shirshasana that differed from other poses. Same for a pose like Parighasana. Maybe it is the experience of the pose that is worth giving students access to, at least occasionally.
  • One thing I do think is a bit missing is good stretches of the quads in fairly safe, controlled ways. The Virabhadrasanas get them a little, but for me to move right into Tiryam Muhka Eka Pada Paschimottanasana or Bhekasana can be a little sketchy. But it’s also my knees I’m thinking about. But I miss a nice deep stretch of the quads.
  • Bobbie’s written — I can’t find where — about how Second Series helped her back problems due to the extreme forward folds (Yoga Nidrasana, say) mixed with the back bends (something even like Mayurasana, not just the Kapos of the series). I understand better what she’s talking about but I’m tempted to think that there’s something in the combo of the twists with the strengthening from poses like Gomukhasana and the Shirshasana sequence that might be playing a role.

That’s the Uddiyana Bandha reaction. Also, I’m definitely sore in different ways: more in the shoulders, perhaps an unexpected amount in the hamstrings and some hard to identify parts of my back.

Posted by Steve

Guest post: Practicing across from your teacher, who happens to be Tim Miller

After Bobbie and I got back from our trip down San Diego way for Tim Miller’s workshop, we saw that we’d missed — by a day — seeing our friend and frequent Ashtanga teacher, Maria Zavala. There she was (well, on Facebook), talking about being at Tim’s for his Sunday morning Second Series Led class.

There were a few gems in what she said, and so we asked — insisted really — that Maria send us something about it. She did.

Photo of Maria by Michelle Haymoz, from

Before jumping in though, I’d encourage you to find our more about Maria at her website. And for our extra cool readers who live near West Hollywood, she’s now teaching Ashtanga from Monday through Friday (a mix of Mysore and Led) at the Yogaworks on North Fairfax.

Here’s what Maria sent:


This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to practice with my teacher. Since moving to Los Angeles almost six years ago, it has been quite a challenge to get to Encinitas to practice with Tim Miller, so those rare moments are truly treasured. Going to his Shala is like going home to where one grew up, filled with the comfort of familiar faces, welcoming smiles, and warm hugs. I am missed there as I miss Tim and the community he has built in his 30-plus years of teaching.

I clearly remember the day I asked him if I could attend his Second Series class back in 2003. I had been practicing with him for almost two years and was up to Eka Pada Sirsasana (one leg behind head pose). I had been struggling with this posture for more than a year, and it didn’t seem to be improving much. Sunday morning, all the great memories of practicing in Tim’s room came flooding back to me in his opening remark before class, “Let’s take the scenic route since most of us here today are over 40.” I quickly realized I was one of those people now. Yikes! The thing is, he has always taught Second this way. Scenic route means that “research postures” are incorporated into the practice before some of the most challenging poses in the Series — the places where most people can use any extra help they can get. Research happens before Kapotasana, the deepest backbend in the series, and before the “leg behind head series” as I like to think of those three postures smack in the middle of the practice that a lot of students can spend many years on, including myself.

Tim’s way of teaching Second is his and not traditional. He explains this in length during the Teacher Trainings so that students truly understand why he teaches this way. It’s always made sense to me. He found a way to keep a challenging practice safe and accessible for everyone. I teach it the same way, in Mysore class to the students who need it. I used the “research postures” for many years before letting them go, though on occasion, I will incorporate them when I feel they are needed. Intelligent discernment for longevity in practice.

This past Sunday I was reminded of how wonderful and special of a teacher Tim is. There’s his dry sense of humor, especially, sprinkled throughout class. Like when he asked, “Why? Do you have a doctor’s note?” to a student who wanted to skip Karandavasana (forearm balance, legs in lotus, lower to arms and back up again).

I practiced across from him, as he does the practice on this day with his students. After having spent the day before in my car driving to Encinitas, my body was feeling a bit stiff; I was thankful we were taking the “scenic route” through Second.

It’s pretty inspiring practicing with Tim, as he is a testament that one can do this intense vigorous practice our entire lives safely. He may use a prop here and there, but he can still bust out Second beautifully. I noticed that he did a quick Kapotasana (can you blame him), then adjusted students. He altogether skips Dwi Pada Sirsasana (I so wish I could also skip that posture). So he came over to adjust me in it. As he approached me, I heard the all-familiar, drawn out, “Hmmmmmmmm” as he adjusted me. It’s my least favorite and most challenging posture in the series for me, and though I’ve been practicing Second for more than 10 years, this pose doesn’t get any easier or better. I’m fine with that. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, as Tim had told me many years earlier, “ I don’t think you are anatomically correct for this pose.”  At the time he made the remark, I was initially horrified, then realized he was right.

I was  also avoiding practicing Second or skipping practice altogether because I did not like the posture I was on at the time — Eka Pada Sirsasana. His remark made me realize that avoiding practice or Second wasn’t helping. He was actually being honest, and at the same time, letting me know that “avoiding was not the answer,” another favorite phrase of his. Tim has always given me light, but effective adjustments in these postures (he has compassion), as he did on this day, thankfully. The love Tim has for the practice and for his students can be felt and seen even in the comical faces he sometimes makes when he’s looking down at you, about to adjust you in a challenging posture that you know is nowhere near what the pose should look like, or on this particular day, as he stood across from me, the furrowed, raised eyebrows and wide eyes, right before diving into Uttanasana (standing forward bend), after having done nine backbends.

It’s a special, intimate relationship one builds with an Ashtanga teacher. There is a lot to be said for spending two hours a day, six days a week with one teacher. You learn the system the old school way, just by being in the energy of your teacher. Almost by osmosis. I’m ever so grateful to have Tim as my teacher. Through his stern, yet loving discipline, he taught me so much about the practice. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today if it weren’t for him.


That pretty well sums up Timji and his love of the practice. (Oh, and his Ram Navami-focused blog post is here.)

Posted by Steve

The Nadis and Your Gut Feeling

koshas1During his discussions of the effects of a Second Series practice, and in his workshop discussions of the “subtle body,” Tim Miller is fond of pointing out that we’re not talking about something that exists in the empirical world. “If I cut you open,” he says, “and dissect you, will I be able to find your nadis? No.”

The Second Series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is named “nadi shodhana”—often translated as “nerve cleansing.” The “nerves” we’re talking about, though, are the invisible channels that are part of the body of prana, one of the five koshas. The nadis channel prana in that particular body. So the purpose of the Second Series of Ashtanga is to clear these channels in order to make prana flow more freely, and so in turn to allow the practitioner a way to access the less. . .gross aspects of yoga practice.

Gross. I mean, of course, “physical.” Tim’s way of explaining the intersections of the nadis up the central channel—the chakras—often involve very physical explanations, stories, in fact. Such as the journey of Ram down the nerve channel to rescue Sita and return to a state of unity in the seventh chakra, sahasrara, that resides just above the physical head. It’s wonderful to hear this story—the story of the Ramayana—retold as the story of the quest for unity in individual, in the self. He expands and elaborates: It’s also the desire for Siva to be united with the creative force, Shakti. Stasis and energy in balance. A great story.

The first chakra is, of course, muladhara, the root. Way down there. And so by extension, Sita’s journey involves traveling through some nether regions of the gut.

So my ears perked up when, listening to National Public Radio last week, I heard that scientist have found evidence that the microbes in our gut talk to our brain and can drastically effect how we think, even our sense of well-being.

Bet you didn’t see that coming. Gross!

But yes, that’s what they’ve found. I’ve been around long enough to remember when you first started hearing talk of what are now known as “probiotics.” The newer round of research in this area has discovered that microbes found in the human gut can be sorted into kinds, can indicate the kind of diet a person eats, can cure diseases in the form of a microbe transplant (yes, exactly what you’re thinking it might involve), and that our microbes communicate with our brains. From the NPR story:

I’m always by profession a skeptic,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But I do believe that our gut microbes affect what goes on in our brains.

They’re calling this interior, invisible landscape “the human microbiome.” The study found that mice that were fed probiotics got, well, happier. Which led them to wonder, how were the microbes communicating with the brain?

A big nerve known as the vagus nerve, which runs all the way from the brain to the abdomen, was a prime suspect. And when researchers in Ireland cut the vagus nerve in mice, they no longer saw the brain respond to changes in the gut.

The vagus nerve is the highway of communication between what’s going on in the gut and what’s going on in the brain,” says John Cryan of the University College Cork in Ireland, who has collaborated with Collins.

Gut microbes may also communicate with the brain in other ways, scientists say, by modulating the immune system or by producing their own versions of neurotransmitters.

So all this got me wondering about the kinds of stories we tell about the practice, mystic, poetic, and scientific. And of the journey that begins with the physical practice of vinyasa, which leads to diet changes and to a sense of well-being and thoughtfulness—and, yes, to an awareness of prana and its journey up the sushumna nadi, and how the practice can make the ways straight.

Posted by Bobbie

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.

The mystery of back pain

First, a little background:

I’ve been in chronic back pain since 1994. The cause of the pain is a prematurely degenerating spinal column: The whole thing, from cervical to lumbar, and including the sacrum and hip joints. Falling apart. “You have the spine of a 60-year-old,” I was told when I 30.

For the past 12 years of that pain, I’ve been practicing Ashtanga. For all of those 12 years, the degeneration has slowed, but continued (my doctor sends me in for MRI updates every now and then). Ashtanga did not made the pain go away, but it has 1) made me feel more in control of it, in a sort of defiant “I refuse to surrender” 2) given me enough strength to lead a normal life. As far as that second item goes, while there are things I can’t do, I don’t spend time prostrated on my sofa, unable to walk from excruciating pain, like I was doing before I began practicing.

Then, last summer, I started to get the idea in my head that I’d like to do Tim Miller’s Second Series Teacher Training, even though I’d been stopped at kaptasana for nearly five years. So I asked him if it would be okay if I came anyway. “I think you need someone to kick your ass,” he said, giving a little kick of his foot to illustrate, “You should come.” So Maria Zavala took me under her wing to get me ready, and taught me second series. From the day my “training for the training” started, to the day Tim’s training ended, the back pain…Well, the back pain virtually disappeared.

 What I'm trying to avoid. Via
What I’m trying to avoid. Via

I’ve been practicing second (start to finish) for some months now, and always I ask myself, not to be ungrateful but out of curiosity: Why?

It makes no sense, does it? There’s the mudpuddle that is my kapo, often called “the deepest backbend in yoga.” There are extreme twists. My feet go behind my head. Heck, they cross behind my head. Then, there’s the ridiculous moment when I go for a stroll totally folded in half. Some arm balancing. Some mysterious wrapping of legs and arms. Headstands that look like you’re directing an airplane in for a landing, only upside down. Why would these moves make my back pain disappear?

Here is the theory my doctor came up with: For someone with degeneration in the spine, what I’m doing is the total package for spinal range of motion–extremes of back bending, extremes of forward folding (you can’t get much more forward than your knees behind your shoulders). Because these things come quickly after each other, it’s forcing space in my spine, even where the disc is gone (L4/L5–a pivot point).

Also, a number of the poses in second create strength in the muscles that offer support for the spine. And others demand strength in the muscles in the front of the torso. When Maria was adjusting me yesterday in dwipada sirsasana, I could feel the muscles across my mid back and all around my lumbar vertebra broaden–an odd feeling. And bonus: The action of holding my feet behind my head is creating neck strength, supporting my degenerating cervical vertebra.

Now, as I grow older, friends and family are catching up to me–their backs are aging, and naturally I get asked for advice. I never know quite what to say. “Change your life” is never welcome advice, but it’s exactly what the surgeon said to me when I was considering spinal fusion 12 years ago. It was the advice that sent me to Ashtanga. Most chose surgery or injections–it seems easier than years of practice.

I don’t know if this blessed relief will continue. But while it lasts, I practice. And while I practice, I’m usually laughing.

Posted by Bobbie

Second Series and the Subtle Body: Tim Miller’s Teacher Training

I’m looking through my notes from the first day of our training, trying to catch all of you loyal readers up. Now that Steve’s back at the ranch, holding down the fort, winning the bread, etc., I’ll retrace some of our steps.

Tim began by addressing the koshas. These are the “sheaths” (the meaning of the word kosha) covering the atman. That’s right: You’ve got more than one body.

These koshas have become of particular interest to me. Since Tim gave me his approval to come to his training, I’ve been practicing all of Second Series, start to finish. Maria Zavala has taken me though the practice pose by pose, patiently and generously helping me learn the sequence. She took me all the way through the first day I practiced with her, and since then—about two months now—I’ve been pain free.

I’ll repeat this for emphasis: Pain free, after eighteen years of virtually constant back pain.

Needless to say, I’ve been looking for an explanation for this sudden and unexpected absence of pain, as well as for other unusual side effects that have gone along with practicing second in its entirety–things like increased energy, a sense of lightness, and increasing physical awareness. There are other, more mysterious things. I seem to heal faster, recover faster, and my breath has improved. I’m running hotter, but don’t feel hot. That sort of freaky stuff.

The first day of our training offered some insights as to the value of a second series practice. “In first series,” Tim said, “you get into the body. In second series you blast off.”

So, to relate this to the koshas, the sheaths: The first kosha is anandamayakosha—the material body, the thing that eats. The second is pranamayakosha—as the name implies, the first layer of the subtle body, it’s the energy body.

Tim told us that our practice is, to some extent, an elaborate teaching tool to get us to the subtle body, and beyond, to atman. We are, shall we say, “challenged” when it comes to understanding ourselves this way. We over identify with the physical body. Second Series, he says, is designed to allow ourselves to experience our selves as more than this. Instead of identifying with what amounts to “thought forms” and patterns, we can learn, through Second Series, to identify with the essential self.

This resonates strongly with me, with the poet in me, with the lover of William Blake, who believed in the power of the imaginative body, in its literal existence, and the ways the imagination can make reality.

I had been hearing for most of my adult life—dating back to long before I practiced yoga, to when I read its philosophy—that asana was designed to prepare you to sit for long periods of time in meditation. This never quite made sense to me, until now. I was thinking it meant “prepare the body.” While that’s certainly true, it also means, “prepare the mind.” My sudden and unexpected liberation from chronic pain has also freed a lot of energy—subtle energy—and prepared me for the journey to come.

And left me with a deep and abiding gratitude toward my teachers, Tim and Maria, who have freed me from pain.

Posted by Bobbie

Intermediate as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Intermediate has been much on my mind lately, so I’ve been tooling around the interweb for information. I came across this recently (April) posted video of the entire 1993 Yoga Works video of Guruji peacefully teaching some amazing students.

And by “amazing” we mean: Tim Miller, Chuck Miller, Richard Freeman, Eddie Stern, Maty Ezraty and Karen Haberman. A few things to note: Not a lot of sweating the small stuff (although there is a lot of sweating), but Guruji does make some small verbal corrections here and there (oh the shame!). I also watched with headphones–I recommend that. Guruji makes these small little, “hrm” and “humm” and “humrph” noises that are pretty funny to hear. Stay for the last word–it’s worth it. Also: there is a complete absence of drama. Don’t blink or you’ll miss kapotasana–it’s only five breaths long, like all poses. And each practitioner seems to handle poses in very different ways, mentally. You can sense it, really, more than see it. An excellent thing. Hard to believe it has so few views, so I figured it was a must-share.

Posted by Bobbie