When is the right time to add Intermediate Poses?

I was recently asked by a student, “When is the right time to add Intermediate Poses to the Primary Series?”

I said, “Today.  When you finish Primary Series, before you go to Finishing Poses, let’s stop and teach you some Intermediate Poses.”

She was excited to hear that she would be able to add some Intermediate Postures, even though she was still practicing only up to Kurmasana in Primary Series.

So, when she finished Kurmasana, I taught her the following three postures:

  1. Salabhasana A (Locust Pose)
  2. Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
  3. Ustrasana (Camel Pose), hands on the hips

I told her to do each pose twice, and then to move onto the rest of her practice, which consisted of the Finishing Poses (Upward Facing Bow and its variations; paschimottanasana; and inversions).

Many students practicing Primary Series only feel that Intermediate Series is something they have to earn.  They have to get all the way to the end of Primary Series before they can even think about doing some fundamental and accessible backbends common to most other forms of yoga.  It always struck me as a bit unreasonable that teachers would hold students back from these beautiful postures, in strict adherence to the current Mysore method of only moving forward in the series when you can do the previous posture(s) competently.  Read about the history of practicing Ashtanga in the 1970s and you will see that the series were taught much more loosely and more liberally for a long time, and that the only thing holding students back from practicing more was stamina – the ability to do work for a long period of time without experiencing undue exhaustion.

When I started working with my teacher, Matthew Sweeney, in 2012, he showed us the importance of adding those three Intermediate Postures to a regular Primary Series practice.  Why?  First, the three backbends strengthen the back, open the shoulders and make the hips more limber in more advanced backbends.  Second, because it counteracts all of the forward bending that Primary Series is (no, Upward Facing Dog, done dozens of times in Primary Series does not constitute a balanced approach to backbending).

I would add a third reason why you should practice some Intermediate Postures even if you are still doing Primary Series only: because life is too short to only practice Primary Series.  Variety is the spice of life.  Ashtanga can be contradictory when you read about the ideal level of practice (all 6 series every week, one series for each day, with an seventh day for rest) and the reality of how most people practice (3 to 6 days a week, often only practicing Primary Series if they practice less than 4 days a week).  The three Intermediate Postures I listed above are common to most every other form of yoga practiced by non-Ashtangis: Bikram Yoga, Iyengar, Sivananda, Jivamukti.  It seems too rigid to limit Ashtanga students to Primary Series only until they’ve earned the right to practice Intermediate Series by being able to do all of Primary Series and stand up from a backbend three times without assistance (yeah that’s totally Primary).

So open up your mind.  If you practice Ashtanga regularly, add Locust, Bow and Camel to your sequence before you do Upward Bow.  See what happens.