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?
- Salabhasana A (locust pose)
- Dhanurasana (bow pose)
- 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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