ashtanga intermediate series

When Should I Start Intermediate Series?

When should I start intermediate series is a question that often comes up pretty early in Ashtanga practice. The second series was originally taught to those early teachers in Mysore almost immediately. Or in continuation with their learning of the primary series.

Primary and Intermediate we originally one series

So, there was never originally such a division between series. It was not inherently that one series was harder than the next. Rather, that they were simply different postures; demanding in their own way and conveying a uniquely different energy. Moreover, that one actually balanced and complimented the other.

To that end, the first two series – primary and intermediate series – were almost grouped together as one. Backbends today signify the closing of the series at the end of the primary series. Originally these were located at the end of the intermediate series.

It is also worth noting that the other series (for there are six series in ashtanga), are not to be taken in the same way. In contrast, they are literally ascending in difficulty and do not have a perceivable and necessary relation to each other.

A clear division has now been created between the series

When to start intermediate series is now a big-issue as a clear and definite split has been made between the two series. In fact, a generalised standard has been made now around the ability to stand up from a backbend. Which, evidently, was not the original pre-requisite when they were one series and the backbends came at the end.

Yet, this has now been taken on quite strongly by many of the teachers who visit Mysore to practice. They see this as the general protocol there.  Unfortunately the first part of intermediate series contains backbends of a lesser degree than the one at the end of primary. Indeed, postures that can be instrumental for developing safely and effectively the principal backend urdhva dhanurasana (bridge or wheel).

The logistic of no Ashtanga intermediate Series before standing up from drop-backs

The principal error in all this is that the attitude then many teachers take to encouraging students into intermediate does not recognise certain logistical matters particular to ones’ experience in Mysore and with Sharathji there. Namely;

  • Sharath doesn’t always have the luxury of a long-term relationship with each student. Therefore, he needs a blanket rule for many students that he is only meeting for one month’s practice.

So, this rather arbitrary rule is in place. Basically due to time and numbers of students. There is not the time that we might have at home with our teacher in order to be able to figure out a more individualised approach. This means, in the very moment;as to looking at options and ways to modify/approach the backbend themselves. But, we are also talking about a long-term relationship with a student.

With a long-term relationship we don’t need rules

This is the crucial part. Being able to work with people over the long-term and personally is not a luxury that Sharath has. Therefore, the standard rules to stop debate and make it clear for everyone. It makes sense if one stops for a minute to imagine the anarchy if this rule was not in place; the discussion and argument between students wanting to go further and Sharath would be impossible.

Yet, the problem is when these standards in Mysore, as mentioned; mainly developed out of a practical reaction to circumstances there, are taken home as a universal truth. That is, as opposed to the attempt at pragmatism they actually are. Indeed, when we are at home we ought also to follow suit. In pragmatism according to our circumstances there and our ability to relate in infinitely more individualistic terms to those we are working with.

The fundamental question is do we have foundations?

There are then a few very clear questions we might ask ourselves or our students in terms of beginning Ashtanga intermediate series. First and foremost;

  • Do we have a consistent and established practice to build upon? If the answer is no, this is the first task to which we ought to commit ourselves to achieving. Without a steady foundation, we can build nothing above.

If, the answer to the first question is yes. Perhaps, first it must be qualified as a regular routine of most of primary series – albeit modified or adapted, on average of no less than four-times per week. Off the top of my head, I would say, this alone should have been stuck to for six-months to a year.

Taking into account the person in front of us

Once we have ascertained that we/they do, indeed, have a steady practice, then there are a few other questions/observations to ask or make with ourselves or our students:

  • We need to take age and health into account. Where it is not at all irrelevant holding back a young and fit twenty-year-old for example, so as to really get the most out of a certain position or movement, it is not the same situation at all as we get older. Our bodies lose elastin and collagen and develop greater patterns of imbalance. We may never be able to do what is asked of us – whether standing up from a backbend or another posture we are stuck at. Adaption is then imperative.
  • This is when a working relationship over a longer-period is essential. Obviously, we aim for the best for a student and don’t want them to lose their focus over too much, treating superficially what they might go deeper into. On the other hand, if a student has been stuck for a period of time on a posture it may be more beneficial to move forward rather than risk the disillusionment or loss of interest of the student.
  • Which, in turn, raises a third question of general approach to practice. This is itself twofold in understanding more around background – both literal and emotional. Do we know anything of their daily lives that might incline us to work differently? Ones emotional situation , as well as more practically the what other responsibilities one has outside of practice make all the difference. For, these, affect dramatically how much time and energy they will have to give to practice. Even so, this may lead us to postpone starting intermediate or to do so.
There is no one answer, instead individuals

All this means that there are no conclusive answers as to when to start intermediate series. It really depends on the individual, their commitment to practice – their steadiness as well as their how much their daily routines allow.  Also, how we observe a body over a longer-period. For, not everyone responds in the same way; some open, progress more quickly or easily than others.

We cannot guarantee our or our students lack of injury, but, we want to try to do so as much as possible. This means, a continuous dialogue and consideration of and with the actual person in front of us. It is only then, through a methodical approach, but, also a little trial and error, that we may come to a fitting solution.

For, having said all this, all of us also need a little variation, new challenges and to see signs of progression in what we commit valuable time and energy to. Due to this, we also want to keep ourselves and others motivated and encouraged. Being stuck on the same posture for primary series forever is the quickest way to quit altogether, which, outside, injury is the very worst outcome – even if we risk going forward a little too fast.