Why follow the phases of the moon?

What does that mean?  Follow the phases of the moon?  Aren’t we a little too sophisticated and scientific these days for “following the moon?”  Sounds like something one of our ancestors might have done.  But there is a very good reason to follow the phases of the moon.

What do you do on Moon Days?  Nothing!  You take rest.  No asana, no pranayama, no meditation.  Just chill out.

Ashtanga is unique among other systems of yoga in that practitioners observe Moon Days.  Moon Days are days when the moon is either completely full or completely dark (also called a New Moon).  On Moon Days, Ashtangis are supposed to not practice any of the Series, for reasons I will explain later.  Typically, there are two Moon Days every month, one for the full moon and one for the new moon.  When you have two full moon in one month, which occasionally happens, then it is called a Blue Moon (hence the meaning of the phrase, “Once in a blue moon,” to indicate rare occurences).

Now, Ashtanga is also unique among other systems of yoga in that practitioners are encouraged, if not enjoined, to practice thsaturn-gode series every day, and take rest on Saturdays.

[A brief digression on Saturdays:  I know that the “tradition” has changed recently in Mysore, so now the rest day is Sundays.  I’ve been practicing for about 15 years, so it is hard for me to change that long of a pattern in my nervous system.  Also, Saturdays are associated with the planet Saturn, the god of limitation and restriction, duty and discipline.  Saturn is cold, dry, and harsh.  I like to start my practice on Sundays (the day of the Sun, giver of all life) and end my practice on Fridays (the day of Venus, the godddess of love and relationship).  It just feels better.

Plus, I have always associated Saturday with rest in general, and morning relaxation (Saturday morning cartoons, anyone?!?)]

Back to the topic:  Moon Days and Ashtanga.

So, Ashtangis typically practice six days a week.  They take Saturdays (or Sundays) off from practice.  This can be a grueling, if not unrealistic, routine for many, if not most, practitioners.  It can also deter many people from starting an Ashtanga practice.  But more on that later.

Enter the Moon Days.  With the Moon Days, you get two additional days off each month from practice (unless it so happens that the Moon day fall on a Saturday).  Some months, it might be a Wednesday; other months, like this one, it is a Friday. It helps to break up the regularity and routine of a practice, and it also teaches you, more importantly, how to detach from your practice.  As we know, Ashtangis love to practice.  And learning the series can become obsessive, almost compulsive.

What is the yogic explanation of moon days?  The idea is that the body is affected by the phases of the moon.  During a full moon, the body is more watery, the mind is more aggressive and assertive, and we may tend to be more headstrong and quick to act.  There is plenty of folklore among people about more murders, more emergencies, more ER visits occurring during a full moon than during other days.  During a New Moon, the body is drier, the mind is more lethargic and unfocused, and we may tend to be more depressed and unmotivated.  Of the two, it is generally more important to not practice on New Moon Days, as the combination of dry joints and aggressive movements may not be favorable.

Take that explanation as you like.

More importantly, though, is the concept behind the Moon Days, and this is the central thread running through this post: the idea of following cycles in our lives.  The Moon goes through visible phases every month.  Let’s say our observation of the Moon begins on a New Moon.  The moon will be completely dark.  Every day, the moon becomes more visible, sliver by sliver of light, until 14 days later, the moon is completely full.  Then the moon begins to wane once again, becoming less fuller day by day, until 14 days later, the moon is once again completely dark, hence new.

Now, we often think that our practice of Ashtanga is linear and progressive.  I start with learning Surya A and B, then the standing postures, etc, etc.  Every day, I add on one more posture, and my practice gets a little longer.  I keep making progress each day, and it will never end.

But the truth is, progress is not linear.  Life is not linear. Some days you are less energetic than others, and it feels better to do a shorter practice or to just take a walk.  You may occasionally strain a muscle or become ill with the flu, and you cannot practice all of Primary or Intermediate.  Or you are traveling across continents, and you cannot find a space to unroll your mat.  In other words, your life is constantly shifting and changing, and your body is also constantly changing.  As you grow older, your practice also changes.  If you have surgery, your body changes, hence your practice will change. If you become pregnant,  your practice will change because your body has changed.  After you give birth, your body will be different than it was before you became pregnant.guruji-book

So it is a myth that the Series will always be the same, regardless of conditions and circumstances.  And, as you can read in the book of interviews called Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students, the Ashtanga Series have changed and evolved over the years.  There is no original, true Primary Series, or Intermediate, or Advanced A or B, (C, or D, for that matter).  Guruji was constantly evolving and experimenting with the Series. Read Mark Darby’s interview where he says that the Advanced Series were changed depending on your strengths.

After all, he called his center the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, with a subtle emphasis on Research.

So…I encourage you to do the following in your practice:

  1. Keep a Moon Journal:  Take a note of when the full moon and the new moon are each month.  Three days before the official Moon Day, observe how you feel, how you are reacting to others, how others are interacting with you, how your practice feels, how your body feels.  Just make a quick note each day.  Then, after 5 or 6 months, review the journal to see if you can see any patterns.  Don’t get caught up in assuming that a Full Moon will be characterized by more aggressive actions, or that a New Moon will be more depressing and down (although they might!).  Look for the subtleties.
  2. Adjust your practice according to the phases of the moon:  Just as the moon waxes from New to Full and wanes from Full to New, so experiment with the same pattern in your practice.  From the New to the Full Moon, focus on adding on new postures (if applicable), on challenging your strength and flexibility.  Focus on building your practice, on experimenting with new techniques, new subroutines, new approaches.  It is a period of accretion.  From the Full Moon to the New Moon, focus on consolidating your practice.  That is, focus on refining your alignment in postures, on smoothing out your vinyasas.  Clean up your practice from all extraneous movements.  Learn how to hold back slightly when holding a posture, so you are not pushing to 100% within the stretch.  Focus more on the breath and the shape of the posture, rather than your willful imposition of where you should be within the posture.  In other words, focus on refining your practice as you move towards the New Moon.
  3. Practice the Chandra Krama (Modvmsmoonsequence500on Sequence) once a week.  The Moon Sequence is an alternative vinyasa sequence designed by Matthew Sweeney, meant to address the same focal points of Primary Series (forward bends, twists and core strength), while also placing less strain on the shoulders, wrists and lower back. I am teaching a Moon Workshop at Washington Yoga Center in April.  Or if you are a regular Mysore student at Yoga District, we can discuss integrating Moon Sequence into your weekly practice.

So, take rest today.  Today is a New Moon.  New Moons are associated with starting new projects, planting seeds, and for reflecting upon one’s path.  Take what you have learned in this post and reflect upon your own practice.

As always, I appreciate your feedback in the comments below.  If you find this to be valuable, please share my website with your friends and fellow Ashtangis!

 

 

 

 

 

Roguish Musings #5

Hello everyone!

Here is your weekly shot of “Roguish Musings,” a list of what I’m reading, contemplating, or practicing.

Book I’m reading:

 Mastery by Robert Greene.  I’m a big fan of his work on power, persuasion and war.  This book serves as the capstone to his quadrology.  Here’s the description: “Each one of us has within us the potential to be a Master. Learn the secrets of the field you have chosen, submit to a rigorous apprenticeship, absorb the hidden knowledge possessed by those with years of experience, surge past competitors to surpass them in brilliance, and explode established patterns from within. Study the behaviors of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci and the nine contemporary Masters interviewed for this book. The bestseller author of The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene has spent a liftime studying the laws of power. Now, he shares the secret path to greatness. With this seminal text as a guide, readers will learn how to unlock the passion within and become masters.”

What I’m practicing:

Playing the long game in my professional life.  I’m taking the eagle-eye perspective on what I want do for the next ten years.  I cannot keep teaching tons of classes each week, without some sort of larger project in my life.  This website is a part of that project:  getting some exposure of my work, engaging with students, teachers and other like-minded individuals, and sharpening my writing skills.  I’m also shifting more towards work with branding, consulting and marketing.

Something I am doing

I’m getting ready to move next week.  I’m throwing out a bunch of old papers, books, clothes, and other human detritus.  It feels remarkably amazing to just get rid of things that have accumulated. It feels like I am cresting more space in my life.  James Altucher wrote a great article on living a minimalist life.  The New York Times did an interesting critique of minimalism.  Enjoy the dialectic!  

New blog post on experimenting with your practice:

http://bit.ly/2jEIHpQ

Quote I’m pondering:

“A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish.” -Epictetus, Discourses, 2.6.25

Ashtanga Yoga Research…or how to put the R back in AYRI

A distinguishing feature of the Ashtanga system is that the postures are arranged into “set” sequences. “Set” means that the postures have been organized into a particular order, to be followed in a methodical, linear fashion. Each series could be compared to a piece of classical music.  You recognize “Moonlight Sonata,” because the notes are arranged in a particular order, played on a piano, at a particular tempo. Similarly, you would recognize Primary Series as distinct from Intermediate, and so on, because the postures are arranged in a particular order, with a particular flow.

The sequential practice of the postures aids memorization of the sequence and, on a certain level, promotes measurement of results from the practice.  And Ashtangis love to practice.  Practice is the central ingredient of Ashtanga Yoga.  You have to get on your mat every day (or at least three times a week).  You have to spend time learning the names of the postures, the synchronization of movement and breathing, and the overall flow of the sequences.  You cannot simply read a book and learn the series.  You cannot watch a video and get better.  You cannot practice once a week and expect to master any of the series.

You have to practice.  And you have to practice regularly in order to become more limber, to become calmer, and to still the mind.  This applies to not only the postures, but any sort of meditation, thought exercise, emotional discipline, or any other art.  You have to put in time.

If you want to learn to play chess, what do you do?  You play chess.  A lot.

If you want to learn how to cook Indian food, what do you do?  You cook Indian food.  A lot.

Watching a video of a chess master can give you some insights into playing.  But you won’t become a better player.

Reading a book on Indian food may give you context for the cuisine, but your stomach will remain empty and your palate undeveloped.

With yoga, you have to play. You have to develop your palate.

What makes you want to put in time?  Love, which is based on interest. When you are interested in something or someone, you focus on it easily, eagerly, without any sense of time passing.

Now, one of the appealing features of Ashtanga is that it is a set sequence.  You can memorize the sequence.  You can make the practice your own.  You can depend less on the teacher for guidance and develop a strong sense of self-acceptance and self-reliance.  You learn the choreography and then your relationship to the sequence, and to the teacher, changes.  Now you get less verbal instructions and more physical adjustments.  You  can stop having to think, “what comes next?” and observe, “what is happening in this posture?  What is my breathing like?”

In short, you can stop thinking so much, and instead you can focus on doing and being.  You can play, you can cook, you can taste the practice.  You can start to see the nuances of the Series and to see the interconnections.

So, this week, I experimented in how I practiced the sequences.  I practice Primary, Intermediate and Advanced A, so I have a wide range of postures to choose from.  (If you have only practiced Primary Series for years, then please see my post on why you should practice some Intermediate postures regularly.  I also plan on doing a post on the different sub sequences everyone should be doing at some point to taste Intermediate or Advanced A).  I’ve been practicing for about 15 years, and I’ve focused on Ashtanga (and Iyengar) with a select few teachers.  I’ve dug my heels in.  So I want to share some of my homework and some of my insights, take them for what they are worth.

I think that some postures from Intermediate and Advanced A should be taught to students when they have shown the following:

  • dedication to learning the Series for at least a year or more
  • honesty with oneself about one’s strengths and weaknesses
  • sincere interest to master the Series, in whatever form possible
  • patience with the process
  • working with one teacher for a long period of time

Because as you practice more of the postures, you begin to see the relationships between postures, whether they are in Primary, Intermediate or Advanced.  You see how one posture prepare you for a posture later on in the series. For instance, Ardha baddha padma Paschimottanasana in Primary helps to prepare you for Bharadvajasana in Intermediate (specifically the lotus bond).  Or how Bhujapidasana in Primary prepares you for Bakasana in Intermediate.  Or how Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana in the standing sequences prepares you for the first posture of Advanced A, Vasisthasana.

The interconnections are endless.

Now, to provide some context.  The traditional way of practicing Ashtanga is to practice the postures in the order as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the guru of Ashtanga Yoga.

You always start with Surya Namaskara A and B.  3 to 5 rounds of each Salutation.

Then you do the Standing Sequence.  If you are practicing Primary Series, then you practice all of the Standing postures. If you are practicing a complete Intermediate series, then you go up to Parsvakonasana, and then move to the first posture of Intermediate, Pashasana (Noose Posture).  If you are practicing Advanced A, then you also do the same standing postures as you would for Intermediate, although a little practiced variation is to omit the standing postures totally and simply go from Surya Namaskara to the Advanced A postures.  There is a certain benefit to this, in the sense that your practice is shorter, sharper and generally more energetic, because you have pruned 20 to 30 minutes off your practice.

Once you finish whichever series you are practicing, you always end with backbends, followed by paschimottanasana, and then the Finishing Series.  The Finishing Series consists of Shoulderstand and its variations, Headstand and its variations, and the final three lotus postures.  Followed by taking rest.

So that is the broad, traditional context of Ashtanga.

Now, once you know the notes (the individual postures),  you can focus on playing the music for its feeling-tone, for its artistic flow.  So the prerequisite to playing with the sequences is that you have put in some time with each sequence (or sub sequence) to not have to think about it so much.  Instead, you know which sections you will want to practice and then you combine as you like.

What you will find below are some of my practice notes on how I have combined the series in different ways.  The art of improvising in the series depends on prior practice of the individual sequences, so please take the time to learn the sequences first and then to improvize.  As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

One variation that Manju Jois taught us at the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence last year in San Diego, was to do Primary Series up to Navasana, and then to move into Intermediate, going up to Pincha Mayurasana.  I call this one the Fire Peacock (because the mid point is the always pleasant Navasana, and the end position is Peacock’s tail pose)

For those of you interested in the specific sequence, here you go (and you can use Matthew Sweeney’s book, Ashtanga Yoga As It Is, for a visual reference):

  • Paschimottanasana
  • Purvottanasana
  • Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana
  • Tirianga Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana
  • Janu Sirsasana A, B, C
  • Marichyasana A, B, C, D
  • Navasana….then going to Intermediate
  • Pashasana
  • Krounchasana
  • Salabhasana A, B
  • Dhanurasana
  • Parsva dhanurasana
  • Ustrasana
  • Laghu Vajrasana
  • Kapotasana A, B
  • Supta Vajrasana
  • Bakasana A, B
  • Bharadvajasana
  • Ardha matsyendrasana
  • Eka pada sirsasana
  • Dwi Pada Sirsasana
  • Yoga nidrasana
  • Tittibhasana A, B, C
  • Pincha Mayurasana

On Wednesday, I practiced half Intermediate and half Advanced A.  I call this one Heavenly Pigeon, based on the last postures of each subsequence (Karandavasana=himalayan goose, and Rajakapotasana, the king pigeon)

  • Pashasana
  • Krounchasana
  • Salabhasana A, B
  • Dhanurasana
  • Parsva dhanurasana
  • Ustrasana
  • Laghu Vajrasana
  • Kapotasana A, B
  • Supta Vajrasana
  • Bakasana A, B
  • Bharadvajasana
  • Ardha matsyendrasana
  • Eka pada sirsasana
  • Dwi Pada Sirsasana
  • Yoga nidrasana
  • Tittibhasana A, B, C
  • Pincha Mayurasana
  • Karandavasana (the halfway point in Intermediate)…then onto Advanced A
  • Viparita Dandasana
  • Eka pada Viparita Dandasana
  • Viparita Salabhasana
  • Hanumanasana
  • Supta trivikramasana
  • Dighasana A, B, C
  • Trivikramasana
  • Natarajasana
  • Rajakapotasana
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana

In the past, I have also experimented with the latter half of Primary and the first part of Advanced A.  I nicknamed it in my journals, “Bridging the Divine Stream,” for the last postures of each sequence (Setubandhasana (bridge), and Purna Matsyendrasana (full lord of the fishes) :

  • Navasana
  • Bhujapidasana
  • Kurmasana
  • Supta Kurmasana
  • Garbha pindasana
  • Baddha Konasana
  • Upavistha konasana
  • Supta konasana
  • Supta padangusthasana
  • Ubhaya padangusthasana
  • Urdhva mukha paschimottanasana
  • Setu bandhasana (some days)…then onto Advanced A
  • Vasisthasana
  • Vishwamitrasana
  • Kashyapasana
  • Chakorasana
  • Bhairavasana
  • Skandasana
  • Durvasasana
  • Urdhva kukkutasana A, B, C
  • Galavasana
  • Eka pada bakasana A, B
  • Koundiyasana A, B
  • Ashtavakrasana A, B
  • Purva matsyendrasana

So…you might look at all of these sequences and say, “Who cares? I only practice Primary Series, a little of Intermediate.  I’ll never be able to practice any of these other postures.”

Well, I’ve experimented with ways to insert Intermediate or Advanced postures into the Primary Series and Intermediate series without deviating from the standard path too much.  These are all derived from what older Ashtanga teachers have told me about the very first few years when they were learning Ashtanga under Pattabhi’s guidance.

I’ve imagined myself like the jazz man who takes a familiar tune and puts a different twist on it.  You can still see it is the same tune, just a little bit off, a little bit unbalanced, a little bit embellished or elaborated.

So here are some suggestions to you, if you are yearning to learn which postures or subsequences you can insert into the Primary Series.

  1. Insert Eka Pada Sirsasana before Kurmasana.  It will do wonders for being able to place your feet behind your head in Supta K.
  2. Insert Vasisthasana, Vishvamitrasana, and Kashyapasana before Supta Kurmasana.  Same as above, plus  you build strength through the side balances! (credit goes to Tim Miller)
  3. Hold Bakasana after Bhujapidasana for 5 breaths.  Or put Bakasana after Utkatasana in the Standing Poses (heresy, I know).
  4. Do Samakonasana and Hanumanasana after Prasarita Padottanasana D.  (Standard in Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Jazz classes)
  5. Do handstand after Prasarita Padottanasana D. (Credit to Matthew Sweeney)
  6. Lift up into handstand in between each navasana (credit to Richard Freeman and Brad Ramsey for this info.  I affectionately call it ‘the Gates of Fire.”)
  7. Do Ashtavakrasana after Marichyasana A.
  8. Do Nakrasana (crocodile posture) after every chakrasana you do.  (Credit to David Swenson)

I will be compiling a list of subsequences to start playing with the postures from Intermediate and Advanced A.  I will publish those in the next few weeks.  Until then, I hope that you have found something interesting in these notes on practice, and more importantly, I hope that you are inspired to dig into Ashtanga more deeply with me at Yoga District.

Why you should stop taking led classes and start a morning Mysore practice 

I like to practice yoga at my own pace. I like holding some postures longer than others.  I like repeating a posture that I am struggling with (mulabandhasana, anyone?).  I like slowing my breath down.
When I take someone else’s class, I have to practice according to the teacher’s pace.  I may only get a few breaths in every posture, especially if my breathing pace is slower than the teacher’s directions.  I may have to breath faster to keep up.

In short, I end up in the passenger seat of my practice, instead of the driver’s seat.

I like being in the driver’s seat.

When I practice in a Mysore format, I like the silence, the quiet determination of each student as they work through the series.  I like the unspoken camaraderie of practicing in a group at the early hours of the morning.  When I practice in the morning, I know that I will have gotten my practice in.  I will have accomplished something that day, something for my own sanity, my own peace of mind, my own health.  No one is going to interrupt my practice with a meeting, a phone call, or a project.

This is the same reason I love writing morning journals.  It is time for myself, to get myself settled mentally and prepared for what the day will bring.  No one can predict what the day will bring.  Most of the things that happen to us are beyond our control.  

But, if I make the commitment to practice in the morning, I will have exercised my choice and my discipline.  And as retired Navy SEAL and author Jocko Wilink says, “Discipline equals freedom.”

When I practice in the morning, I’ll have taken care of my own health first so that I can take care of others.  I can be a Jedi Knight, learning how to increase kindness, mindfulness, and compassion when interacting with others.

I can learn to feel the Force when I practice in Mysore.  I get to unlearn all of the things that hold me back.

You will never progress as far in a led class as you will in self-practice.  Why?  Because you are not in control of your time, you are not in control of how much of the sequence you are doing, and despite what some teachers may say, you are never going to get any truly individualzed attention from the teacher.  I’ve taught for over 17 years.  The most progress I’ve seen in a student’s practice (and in my own) is in a self-practice format, practicing at least three to five times a week.

In self-practice, the student takes control of her own practice and makes it her own.  She’s not doing someone else’s practice, even if it is someone else’s sequence.  She’s doing her own yoga.

So I challenge you to try the morning mysore program I teach at Yoga District.  If you say you learned about it thru this blog, I will comp your first class.

Stay grounded, stay committed.  

Make progress one millimeter, one breath, at a time.

May the Force be with you.

Wednesday January 11, 2017: Full Moon

Today is a full moon.  In Ashtanga yoga, we do not practice on days when the moon is completely full or completely new. This has to do with the effects of the moon on the human body and psyche.  

The usual line of thought is that, during a full moon, we are more aggresssive,  more assertive, more headstrong, and more energized.  It is generally held that ERs, maternity wards, and insane asylums (no relation between the three!) experience greater activity than normal during a full moon.  On a personal level, as I have observed the lunar cycles syncing up with my own life for many years, I can tend to be more energized and pushy during the full moon.  I sleep more fitfully, and have strange dreams.  I also may work on harder postures in a more sustained manner (longer holds, more repetitions, or repeating karandavasana). 

Although the full moon is generally associated with a more dynamic and assertive energy, it can also be associated with a feeling of exhaustion and enervation due to hard work.  Therefore, it is equally important during this time to take rest, to relax and to remain grounded whenever we feel the headstrong urge to push forward on some project.  Can you find the dark side of the full moon?

So, in short, take rest tomorrow!  See you in practice on Thursday.

Why you should practice some Intermediate poses (even if you haven’t finished Primary Series)

Everyone who practices Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga knows that you must first learn all of Primary Series before you even begin to think of practicing any Intermediate Series.  Otherwise, you know what will happen.

Your head will pop off, your prana will leak all over the place, and your tombstone, if you even deserve one, will simply read, “She skipped ahead.” Pure and simple.  I’ve seen it happen. 😉

All kidding aside, I do want to make an important point about how Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is currently practiced, and why it needs to be a bit more flexible in its approach.

But first, some background.

I love Ashtanga.  I’ve practiced it for over 15 years, since 2002.  I started my practice in a very traditional format.  An Ashtanga teacher was leading a Mysore group out of a small dance studio in Kentucky.  My first class consisted of learning the Sun Salutations, forms A and B, and then repeating them about ten times each.  The teacher then taught me the final three postures (yoga mudra, padmasana, and utplutith) and then had me take rest.  I then spent the rest of class watching students go through the rest of practice (it was a Sunday, so I had some extra time).  I then went back each Sunday to learn the series, one posture at a time.  On the other days, I practiced what I had learned at home, because I was just out of college and still broke.  I learned the entire Primary Series in about nine months.

When I moved to DC, I continued my practice at a local Ashtanga studio.  Actually it was the only Ashtanga studio in the entire DC area for years, until more studios started opening up.  So I kept up with my practice, and started learning Intermediate Series, in the traditional format: adding on postures to the full Primary Serie until I arrived at Karandavasana and then splitting.

My progress was not linear, though.  I spent two years learning Intermediate because of a minor surgery and because of a few overuse injuries (shoulders, ribs, wrists).  Before I got to karandavasana,  my practice was very long and very tiring.  It took me about two and half hours to get through it all.  And by the end, I was exhausted.  And I had to go to university and study chemistry!

Getting past karandavasana and being able to drop all of Primary was almost religious in the feeling of relief I experienced.  Finally, I would have more energy!  So I practiced in a very traditional format for a few more years, practicing Intermediate four or five days a week, then Primary once a week.

By the time i had met Matthew Sweeney in 2012, I had been teaching myself portions of Advanced A with the help of a fellow Ashtangi.  Matthew had designed several Vinyasa sequences to the imbalances in the Ashtanga system.  You can read about his sequences here, and you can see his article on the evolution of Ashtanga as a practice here.

So when I met Matthew, he taught me the Moon Sequence, a Vinyasa sequence that emphasizes left-side first, alternative salutes, and the same thematic focus of Primary Series (forward bending, twisting, and core strength).  I loved the variety and the chance to practice something different.  After all, Ashtangis only practice Ashtanga!  Nothing else.  Especially not Bikram!

Having studied with Matthew for 5 years now and following his guidance on my personal and professional practice, I have been maintaining Primary, Intermediate, and Advanced A, in addition to the Moon and the Lion Sequences (and their variations).  And I have found that I am happier, less injured, more flexible (physically and mentally), and more ready to adapt to changes in my environment and my body.

Which brings me back to the title of this blog: why you need to practice some Intermediate, even if you haven’t completed Primary.

The thing is that most people who practice Ashtanga will only be taught Primary Series, which means they will get really good at seated forward bends, some twists, and then they will struggle with opening their hips without damaging their knees, putting their feet behind their head without cracking a collarbone, and trying to stand up from a backbend without hitting their heads.  I know: the above just makes you want to go out and practice, right?

The truth is that only practicing Primary ever, five to six days a week, is imbalanced.  It leads to overuse injuries, lower back pain, hamstring issues, and…boredom and fatigue.  A lot of teachers who have been practicing the series for years and who are now in their fifties and sixties have attested to this.  Some of the first Westerners who learned the series back in the seventies, were learning Primary in a month, Intermediate in one to two months, and if the ability and desire were there, then Advanced Series.  When they learned both Primary and Intermediate, then they would practice Primary one day, then Intermediate the next.

So what are the benefits of practicing Intermediate?  More backbends, more twists, some more accessible foot behind the head postures, and some really good arm balances (well, aside from karandavasana!).  The first eleven postures of Intermediate are simple, accessible and help to prepare for urdhva dhanurasana (and they prime the body for dropbacks so your body feels like rubber).

So which postures from Intermediate should you learn?

  1. Salabhasana A (locust pose)
  2. Dhanurasana (bow pose)
  3. Ustrasana (camel pose)

How should you practice them?  Twice each, before urdhva dhanurasana.

When should you start practicing them?  Once you start learning the floor Primary postures.

Why should you make this a regular practice to add on to your Primary?  To balance out all of the static forward bending with some static backbends.  And to save your back.

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