Student, teacher, owner

First, be a student for 10 years before you consider becoming a teacher.  Practice regularly.  Read the classic books.  Study a traditional form (my top recommendations are Ashtanga and Iyengar).  Stick to one or two teachers for a few years – if not longer – at a time.

Second, teach for 10 years before you consider opening a yoga studio.  Become remarkable at teaching students.  Figure out what makes your approach unique.  Why should a student practice with you?  Also, observe how studios operate.  Work for other studios.  See how they do things.  What do they do well, where do they underperform.  Study the mechanics of the business of yoga.

Third, operate a studio for 5 years before you consider starting a teacher training program.  Why?  80% of small businesses fail within the first two years.  You will spend the first two years keeping your overhead low.  Which means teaching a lot of classes.  Developing a teacher training takes a lot of time to write manuals, to design modules, to build up enough customers who want to learn how you do things.

 

Next week’s post will be about pitfalls of operating a yoga studio.  A cautionary tale.

Stay tuned.

 

Questioning the Mysore style

My mantra for the last few years has been: “Coffee, yoga, hustle.”  When I took up teaching Mysore classes (first from 2015 to 2016, then a two-month break while my yoga studio business collapsed, before taking it back up from 2016 to 2017), it became, “Coffee, teach, yoga, hustle.”  I had been practicing Ashtanga for 15 years, and I wanted a more personalized setting in which to share with my students the Series, techniques, and insights I’ve had about yoga.  It seemed that I had to take the plunge and start teaching Mysore, 5 to 6 days a week (moon days off!), early mornings from 5:45am to 7:45am, and start living that “Mysore teacher lifestyle.”

You know?  The lifestyle where you wake up every morning around 4:30am, jump start the system with the strongest coffee you can find (7-Eleven coffee is not sufficient!), and then head to the studio to “hold the space” and teach for 2 hours before doing your own practice.  (Note: the younger crowd of authorized and certified teachers make it a badge of honor that they practice before they teach, waking up super early and practicing at 4am, a time of day that routinely gets described as ‘ungodly.’  I don’t have kids, but if I did, I wouldn’t want to have to go to bed before they do.)  Then…well, what exactly do you do after that schedule?  9 to 5 jobs are out of the question.  So…it has to be more teaching!

What did I realize after 9 months of teaching in two different programs?  I was feeling exhausted, irritable.  I got into the habit of 12 to 14 hour work days.  My creativity dropped dead.  My relationships suffered.  I had the general feeling of being trapped in a very demanding, brutal schedule, being underpaid and overworked.

I loved my students who were showing up every (or every other) morning.  I admired their dedication and their sincerity.  They were eager to learn the Series, to refine their practice, to explore alternative vinyasa sequence from Vinyasa Krama.  I was eager to see their practice grow.  This was more emotionally satisfying than the financial concerns.

But at the end of the day, even yoga teachers have bills to pay.

I got burned out.  I had to stop teaching Mysore style.

Now, for those of you who don’t know what Mysore style is, permit me a moment to explain.   Mysore-style yoga is the way in which Ashtanga Yoga has been traditionally taught, and I would hazard to say that it is considered the most authentic way to learn Ashtanga yoga.  Students practice set sequences, at their own pace, in a group setting.  The teacher supervises the class, offering practice advice and physical adjustments where needed.  Class is held usually in the mornings, although some studios are offering late morning, afternoon, and evening Mysore classes.  Classes are held Monday through Saturdays (although it used to be Sundays through Fridays) with Sundays off.

How is it to teach Mysore?  My experience has been the following:

  • a lot of observation of people’s practices
  • some verbal cuing or instruction
  • moderate levels of physical adjustments
  • some falling asleep while watching =-)

It takes a certain rhythm between observing, teaching, and adjusting.  Everyone has their own unique way of balancing it.  I tend to be more observer than adjuster.  Some teachers I know or have taken class with are more adjuster than observer.

The Mysore method is practical.  Students learn set sequences, so it is like teaching people how to play familiar pieces of music.  Everyone knows the tune, now we just need to look at the sheet music.  Students learn the Ashtanga Primary Series first, then progress to Intermediate Series once they can satisfy the following two conditions:

  1. Perform all of Primary Series, with competence in most, if not all, of the postures
  2. Stand up from Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow) 3 times by themselves

This post is not going to be the place where I go into the progression method of Mysore-style class.

If I had to practice yoga in only one way, it would be in the Mysore format.  I love the feeling of practicing first thing in the morning.  Mornings truly are sacred for me.  I know that I will not be called into a meeting, have to answer emails, or any other tasks to handle.  I can focus on my practice, get level-headed and calm for the day, and then head off to tackle the day’s tasks.

If I had to teach yoga in only one way, it would be in the Mysore format, for a brief period of time.

Here are some of the problems with the Mysore-style format, as it is currently designed:

  1. Early morning hours: some people just don’t want to practice that early in the morning.  I do, and many of my students want to as well, but it is a hard sell to the rest of the yoga community when you say that the only time to learn Ashtanga is in the early morning.  Also, the most financial rewarding classes are in the evenings, so…see point 3.  But first please read point 2 =-)
  2. Six days a week: for the teacher, this is the most brutal aspect of the format.  Teaching Ashtanga in the Mysore format requires a certain knowledge and commitment to the tradition and to its method.  It cannot be taught in a weekend teacher training, or a year-long training.  It takes years of being a student in this method before you can learn how to teach it.  So, as the Mysore teacher, you are a scarce resource, which can be valuable (scarcity creates value) but it also means that you cannot get a sub when you have the flu and the studio needs for you to teach the class.  Additionally, teachers are prohibited by the KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Center in Mysore from holding teacher training programs to create more Mysore teachers, so Mysore teachers are often forced to be creative and designate “assistants” who can fill in when the teacher needs them.
  3. Burning the candle at both ends: Mysore teachers cannot really live off Mysore classes alone.  They have to teach other classes, in the afternoon or evenings, to make ends meet.  You end up burning the candle at both ends.  You become the itinerant teacher, dashing from studio to studio, teaching two or three (or more!) classes a day.  At the end of the week, you look forward to Friday evening when you can fall asleep on the couch with a book and sleep in the next day.
  4. Codependence: It is ironic that it is called “self-practice” yet a teacher has to be present all of the time.  Students can become dependent on the teacher for adjustments into certain postures (e.g. binds, feet behind the head, dropbacks).  These adjustments can be physically taxing for the teacher, if he or she has 10 or 15 students in any given class.  Teachers can become dependent on their students to support their ego and feed what I often have seen as dictatorial tendencies (more on the dark side of Ashtanga in a later post).
  5. Tunnel vision on how to practice: Because it is a set sequence, Ashtanga demands that you adhere to the sequence in order to observe the effects and, half-jokingly, to avoid the ire of the teacher.  Because it is a set sequence, Ashtanga is easy to memorize, easy to observe deviations, and easy to discuss with the student on areas of improvement of difficulty.  Because it is a set sequence, though, Ashtanga can foster tunnel vision for the teachers and students alike.  “You have to practice it this way, or it’s not Ashtanga!” “Why are you not doing jump backs between sides?” “Why are you doing it that way?  Who taught you that?” “I cannot practice because my (random body part) is injured and I cannot do a full practice.”  All things I have heard in the Mysore room, over the years, sometime said to me even.  Discipline is important in learning the sequence and the method, but I’ve never felt comfortable with the simultaneous shaming and interrogating that can occur in a yoga class, especially the Mysore classes.  (As I am writing this post, I am seeing about 5 other articles I am going to have to write).

So what to do?  Is there a way to make Mysore-style yoga more sustainable for the teacher, more accessible to the public, more profitable for the teacher and the studio?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

 

 

 

Vinyasa Krama, by Matthew Sweeney

Vinyasa Krama Playful, Versatile, Creative

Mindful, Focused, Consistent

with Matthew Sweeney

1. Vinyasa Krama is Yoga tailored for individuals – sequences that are scaled and modified for students with any physical condition. Students learn sequencing as a model for exploration rather than a goal to be reached. This enables all Vinyasa Krama teachers to help a huge variety of students with different rates of learning. One claim we make on VK teaching is that we are able to teach more students than most if not all other Vinyasa or Ashtanga teachers – as neither age nor ability is a barrier. Potentially any sequence or tradition can be used under the VK umbrella.

2. Self Practice
– rather than focusing on Led classes where the teacher will often teach what he or she is best at, we focus on self practice so the emphasis is on student maturity and learning / experiencing at your own pace. Self practice is the key to all other aspects of Yoga – Pranayama, meditation, and self inquiry. A key point we make is the importance of not relying on only one technique, sequence or tradition – the technique or tradition is the map, not the territory. A Self Practice teacher guides and encourages; he or she has to be objective and able to provide time, space and feedback. Self Practice class sizes are also generally limited in order to give individual attention.

3. Pranayama
– Vinyasa Krama breathing techniques are comprehensive, taught over a period of time, in a step by step manner, via self practice. Students learn based on commitment and ability, and are assessed as to whether each technique is appropriate. As most Pranayama classes are taught in a group format, this comes with some significant problems. That is, a lack of individual guidance, plus the tendency to teach more advanced techniques (Kumbhaka for example) before a student knows how to breathe properly and without effort.

4. Self Inquiry and Relational Development
– we explore self awareness in the context of our relationships to others. This key aspect of integrating Yoga, Self and relationships is usually overlooked or even abused by many teachers, Yoga or otherwise. A teacher / student relationship must be ethical first, and technical second. It is personal and therefore requires a clear mind and open heart.

 5. Meditation and Advaita Vedanta – we also focus on the big picture, continually returning to the spaciousness of the natural, effortless, non-dual self. The techniques are simply pointing at the same universal truth every time – I am that.

For more on Matthew Sweeney, his books and DVDs, and his courses, visit http://www.yogatemple.com

Why do you practice yoga?

I’ve been asking myself “Why?” a lot recently.

I suppose it may have something to do with the liminal state I find myself in, as I move away from teaching morning Mysore at Yoga District (now led by the awesome teacher Claudia Paredes), and into projects with a broader scope.

I’ve been asking myself why I practice yoga.  In fact, why do we practice yoga at all?  What is the purpose of a yoga practice?  What constitutes a yoga practice?  It cannot be posture practice in and of itself.  It cannot be limited to pranayama (breathing awareness and exercises) or meditation.  It certainly is not any sort of scholarly knowledge of the field of yoga or the history of yoga.

Why do I put my foot behind my head several times every week?  Why learn headstand, shoulderstand, or even padmasana?  There is nothing that really compels me to do these seemingly strange contortions of the body, except my own ambition and my own interest (and now after 20 years of practice, a certain level of investment in the series).  I’ve come to realize that, if I were really into playing the piano or painting or finance, I would apply the same level of interest and concentration to that as I do to mastering postures and techniques.  (At heart, I am a frustrated concert pianist.)

What it really boils down to is: mastery.  Yoga is a path of mastery of our minds, our emotions, our actions.  Mastery is a long-term process.  It is not something that can arise from haphazard strategy, mindless repetition, or inconsistent practice.  It requires discovering your purpose, absorbing information from a variety of sources, and, most importantly, practice.

Ashtangis know it by heart.  “Practice, practice, and all is coming.”  If you do the series, you will see the results.  But the results will differ based upon the person.

Over the years, I have heard the following question repeatedly: “Which postures can I do to work on (name of the physical, mental or emotional issue)?”

I may give a simple posture or two for the student to practice, but I always remind the student that it is consistency, practice, and intelligence that are the ingredients to resolving the issue.  If any of these elements is ignored, then the practices do not bear any fruit.

And ultimately, it is about the awareness you generate through attentive practice that bears the sweetest fruit.

 

 

6 things a beginner’s lesson in tango can teach you about your yoga practice

Last night I took my first tango class in over ten years, at Capital Ballroom in Bethesda.  I love taking beginner’s classes because it reminds me of how other people feel when they take their first Mysore class.  I can feel that same sense of trepidation, of uncertainty when faced with learning the moves of tango, that students new to yoga feel on their first day in one of my classes.  It keeps me humble and focused on the basics, especially after I’ve stepped on my girlfriend’s toes two or three times.

I also love to take beginners’ classes in other art forms (martial arts, music, dance, painting) because I get the opportunity to see my main practice, Ashtanga Yoga, from a new angle.  Let’s face it: it can be frustrating practicing the same sequence, day in, day out, for years at a time, so it can be refreshing to move the body in a completely different way.  I’ve realized that, by almost exclusively doing yoga for the past ten years, my repertoire of movement has narrowed.  Yes, we focus on breathing and, if you’ve had some training in Iyengar yoga, on alignment, but our practice movements are contained on a yoga mat.  For the most part, the body is moving in a linear fashion, and postures are strung together while remaining roughly stationary (excluding Nakrasana and other dynamic postures).

Thus, we lose the freedom of movement expressed in dance, the joy of moving with someone else, the circular movements the body is capable of, the spontaneity of each moment.  We become imprisoned in thoughts on how we should move, rather than how we are moving right now.

Even the whole injunction to “take your practice off the mat” is more aimed at the notion of expressing compassion and awareness towards others, less about standing in Samastitih on the metro.  (Please don’t stand in Samastitih on the metro.)

And yet, I continue to believe that the practice of yoga postures should not only make sitting more comfortable and stable (posture practice’s chief aim according to the Yoga Sutras) but also more refined, elegant and graceful when moving through the world.

  1. The embrace: the energetic connection between you and your partner. This is something that is felt between two people when they move into each other’s personal space.  The embrace can vary in distance, from formal, where there is more space between the partners, to more intimate, where there is little space between the partners’ chests.  The embrace must be maintained while dancing so that the partners can communicate non-verbally with one another.  If you lose the embrace, then you lose the dance.  Application to yoga practice: whether you are teaching or being taught, or you are practicing in a room full of other students, see if you can keep a portion of your awareness on the feeling of the others in the room.  So often I see students’ move their mats around when other students come to close to them, or they feel like the other person’s Sun Salutations are eclipsing their own.  The lesson is that being closer to others will increase your body control and your sensitivity to others, and yoga cannot be practiced in isolation, only in relationship.
  2. Polarity: one partner must be masculine and the other must be feminine.  The masculine leads and imparts directionality to the dance, while the feminine follows and elaborates.This has less to do with gender than with the roles the dancers are playing.  Normally, a man assumes the masculine role in the dance, while the woman assumes the feminine role in the dance, but men can dance with men and women can dance with women.  It is important, though, that one of the partners leads while the other follows, in order to preserve the polarity.  If both try to lead, then conflict ensues.  If both try to follow, there is hesitation, uncertainty and aimless movement.  Application to yoga practice:  When you are teaching, teach from a place of confidence and surety.  You are leading your students through the sequence and giving them the opportunity to breathe, explore, and deepen their awareness.  When you are taking a class, assume a beginner’s mindset.  Even if you’ve practiced for twenty years, you can still learn something from someone else.
  3. Dance together but also be comfortable dancing on your own.  This means that you must learn to listen to what signals your partner is sending you so you can dance together comfortably.  At the same time,  you must be comfortable with your own ability to dance in order to feel comfortable dancing with other people.  Application to yoga practice: If you practice any system for any length of time, the mark of progress is actually in the deepening of sensitivity to the world around you and to other people.  I don’t mean being sensitive in any sort of weak, simpering manner.  Rather, being sensitive means being attuned to what is happening around you and how others are interacting with you.  If your practice is working, then it should actually make you more sensitive to your physical movements, more conscious of your emotional habits, more aware of your thought patterns.  This way, you can better communicate with others.  However, it is equally important to feel confident in and true to one’s self.  Learn to become self-reliant in your yoga practice.  Your progress in individual postures and in set sequences is limited when you take classes.  Group classes are fun, but you are at the mercy of the teacher’s whims or the time allotted to certain postures.  Self-practice is the way forward in establishing a more stable, strong yoga practice.   In fact, self-practice has much wider applications to other forms of practice, such as meditation, pranayama, philosophy, martial arts, writing, painting, dancing, and more.  It’s only once you have taken ownership of your practice that it will truly blossom.
  4. Dance as if you are walking.   When you are walking in everyday life, you have a natural gait, a rhythm that feels appropriate and efficient, almost effortless.  When dancing the tango, you also want to move through space with the same ease and grace you would feel when walking down the street.  Application to yoga practice:  this goes back to what I was saying about posture practice helping us become more graceful and elegant in how we hold ourselves, move through the world, and how we express ourselves physically.  In other words, how you hold yourself and how you express yourself physically communicate your inner world to those around you.  Your posture is your personality.  Your movement is your language.
  5. For the masculine, practice being sensitive yet assertive.  The masculine partner always initiates the movement with the marca, whether it is a glance of the eyes, a pressure of the arms, a movement of the chest, or a weight shift. This marca communicates to the feminine partner where he wants her to move.  In its most simple demonstration, the teacher showed us that you can merely press your partner on the shoulder to indicate which direction you want her to move.  Once the woman receives the marca, she moves, and then the man moves.  And the process starts all over again, step by step.  Application to yoga practice:  When receiving an adjustment from a teacher (or when you are giving an adjustment to a student!), learn to feel the student’s movements and breathing.  Be sensitive to how your adjustment changes them and how their response changes your application of the adjustment.  Hands-on adjustments are a form of communication.
  6. Breathe!  It surprised me how much I ended up holding my breath, especially when I was trying to focus on practicing the basic moves.  I would find that I had either not breathed much or had held my breath for several steps, only to realize that my body was feeling stiff or unresponsive.  I consciously kept reminding myself to breathe as I practiced walking with my partner. The less I held my breath, the more I was able to relax and practice the moves.  Application to yoga practice: Pretty obvious, right?  Every other word you hear in a yoga class is “Breathe.”  The more you liberate your breathing, the more fluid your movement will become.  Make your practice like elegant tai chi ch’uan.

Or better yet, make your yoga practice like a dance.  Dancing is fun, liberating, energizing.  We dance when we are happy, when we want to celebrate, when we want to drive away the demons of stress and isolation.

We can dance our yoga practice.  We can dance our walking.  All of our life can become a dance.

The next time you are feeling stuck in your yoga practice, move laterally and take a dance class.  You might just get back a bit of beginner’s mind.

Why you will succeed with a Minimial practice done daily

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

How often have you said that when confronted with something new?  Whether it is learning a new language, learning how to play a musical instrument, or learning how to use your new laptop, it is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed.  Many people feel the same way when they consider starting a self-practice in Ashtanga Yoga or some other form of yoga.

The prospect of doing the entire Primary Series is daunting.  First, you have to learn all of the postures. Then you have to be able to jump through and jump back, like a hundred times, and we all know that your arms are grossly shorter than your torso, and your legs are filled with lead.  And then there are those other students who are just flying through the sequence like they’ve been taking gymnastics since they were six, and don’t forget that the teacher is probably judging you for your utter lack of strength and for your petrified hamstrings. 👹

All joking aside, starting a self-practice routine can make you feel like Sisyphus.

You really don’t know where to start.  What can you do?

It is really quite simple. Start at the beginning.  Take it one step at a time.

Often we are loath to admit that it is this simple, because, deep down, it is not the complexity of the system that baffles us.  It is the resistance of our egos getting in the way of learning the system.

We don’t like to make mistakes.  We don’t like to look unskilled in front of a perceived authority figure.  We don’t like to fall on our face from a failed bakasana or on our bums from a failed bhujapidasana.

But we all have to start somewhere.  Often the teachers you admire the most are the teachers who had to earn every single posture.  Nothing came easy to them.  Even the more flexible teachers struggle with their own issues.  After all, it really hurts when your head smacks into your shins in every seated forward bend.  Those cursed with loose hamstrings have to learn to hold back.

And at the end of the day, we all have to struggle and to put in the grunt work to learn anything.  Every great pianist started with learning chords and keys.  Every great writer started with learning how to express their inner voice on the page.  Every yoga student started with some simple postures.  What differentiates these people from you is merely time invested in their activity and a relentless pressure to keep coming back to the practice.

So that being said, how can you succeed in starting a daily practice?

  1. Schedule your practice session. Commit to practicing something three times a week.  Either Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  Or Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Or some combination of those.
  2. Set your practice at the same time every day.  Schedule it for a time that you know will be yours and yours alone.  Don’t just say you might practice that day.  Set the exact time.
  3. Start with the Surya Namaskara A and B.  Do three to five rounds of each salutation.  I feel that sometimes we discount the sun salutations as being just the warm-up or less complex than the rest of the series.  But in fact, you learn a lot in the Salutations, including breath-movement synchronisation, abdominal and hip control, and shoulder strength, not to mention the basic method of stringing each posture on the breath in a flowing sequence.
  4. Give yourself permission to fail.  It is more important to do something imperfectly than it is to do it perfectly.  You can make adjustments as you go along.  Your patient grunt work will give you context for your teacher’s comments to make sense.
  5. Make it mundane.  Asana practice is no more spiritual than flossing your teeth.  You are making the body limber, stretching out tight muscles, and building strength.  There really isn’t anything spiritual about that, unless you accept that all things are spiritual.  Anyway, you brush your teeth and floss your teeth every day because you know your teeth would rot out and your breath would stink if you didn’t do it.  So approach asana practice with the same attitude.  It is something you do for your health and your well-being.  Stop making it something it isn’t.

So, if nothing else, commit to the following practice every day.  If you want more, seek me out at Rogue Ashtanga.

  • Surya Namaskara A, 3 to 5 times
  • Surya Namaskara B, 3 to 5 times
  • Padmasana (or some variation), 10 breaths
  • Savasana

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.