Saturday, August 20, 2011

Old School or New Wave?

I did full primary this morning (Sunday is my rest day). After a few days of doing second only, primary feels "the stranger", as Grimmly recently put it. The sequence just didn't seem to come as naturally as it used to. At one point, I almost skipped a posture: I lay down immediately after Baddha Konasana, thinking that Supta Padangusthasana came after it! And speaking of Baddha Konasana, whatever hip muscles that are needed to bring my chest to the ground in that posture weren't as open as they used to be: I felt quite a bit of resistance as I went into the posture, and just barely managed to get my chin to the ground. Hmm... so I guess the muscles that are needed in order to get into a deep Baddha Konasana are different from those needed to put the leg behind the head in second series?

Hmm... I don't suppose you'd care for all these details about the current state of my practice, would you? Well, let's change the subject slightly to something that might hopefully interest you more. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I recently split my practice (i.e. started doing second series only, up to Karandavasana, in my case). I have also been posting quite a bit about my efforts in working with Karandavasana. In writing these posts, I have been working with the assumption that it is right and natural for an Ashtangi to split his or her practice once he or she has been given a certain number of postures in the second series (or whatever new series he or she is currently working on).

In a few comments on my previous post, Bindy offered a different perspective on this matter. She says that in the "old-school" way of learning Ashtanga, when she was learning the primary and second series, she had to do all of primary and second up to whatever posture she had been given at any given time; it was only after she had been given all the seven headstands in second that she was allowed by her teacher to do second only (I believe I am representing your views correctly thus far, Bindy. Please feel free to jump in if this is wrong :-)). Bindy also added that doing all of primary plus a substantial chunk of second has the advantage of building up one's stamina and preparing one for the rigors of daily second series practice. As someone who spent months doing all of primary and second up to Pincha Mayurasana, I definitely can see the merit of this view, especially the part about building stamina. I also think that all the forward bends and hip-openers in primary served as very good preparation for the leg-behind-head postures in second. Even now, I still do all of primary and second up to Karandavasana one or two days a week, and I can definitely feel the difference in hip-openness between these days and the days when I do second only.

But of course, as many of us know, these days, the standard practice--the "new wave", if you will--seems to be to split people somewhere between Dwi Pada Sirsasana and Karandavasana. At least, this has been my experience with all the teachers that I have studied with thus far. I suppose this is done for a couple of reasons. Perhaps the "old-school" way is simply too grueling and exhausting for most people. I also think that this has something to do with Sharath's recent statements that practice should not be longer than two hours at a time. The idea, I think, is that this practice is supposed to be a householder's practice, that most people who have jobs and families and lives and such simply cannot be expected to carve out 3.5 hours in a day (or more) to practice.

My purpose in writing this post is not to say that either the "old-school" or the "new wave" is better. As I mentioned, there are clear strengths to both approaches. I'm sure there are people out there who subscribe to either approach, and we should all do whatever works for us. But being the Ashtanga geek that I am ("Ashtangeek"?), I can't help musing about these things. So, I'm really not writing this post to take any position or make any particular point. But if you have any thoughts to share about this matter, I'll love to hear what you have to say.     


  1. that's just how i was taught. i studied for many months at a time with lino miele & company. he taught me the strict method of doing all primary & 2nd until i finished it. it only took me 2.5 hours & in india, that's pretty easy to achieve. i would take a long nap after my 5-630am practice each day, eat, then hide from the sun.

    some of my friends who spent time in the old shala in laxmipurum were taught both primary & second at the same time. that's super old-school back in the day when guruji could handle the 12 students in the room at a time. now there are probably upwards of 60 in the room at once, so maybe it's got to do with that.

    teaching 1st & second makes sense in many ways-there are postures in 1st that help you "achieve" postures in 2nd, there are postures in 2nd that help you "achieve" postures in primary. that is a fact.

    i also believe that you have to work your backbends a lot if you are doing only primary because all of that forward bending for years can make you depressed. and to back-bend correctly, you almost HAVE to do some strengthening postures in 2nd. one of the old-school rules for beginning 2nd was coming up from backbends by yourself. by any means necessary. even with weak legs, turned out feet, etc. i think that is a recipe for disaster. way too many people are hurting themselves trying to achieve this. my backbends got super solid (drop overs, etc.) only after being given a substantial amount of intermediate postures.

  2. "i would take a long nap after my 5-630am practice each day, eat, then hide from the sun."

    Interesting... I guess it must be very hot and dusty in India, isn't it? Or is it the demands of doing such a long practice that cause you to want to rest and conserve as much energy as possible? I'm asking because I also feel that the practice often makes me want to go into "energy-conservation-mode" for the rest of the day (I often feel I'm basically a couch potato who happens to do Ashtanga :-)), and I wonder if others feel the same way too.

    Wow, learning primary and second at the same time? I can see how many of the postures in primary help with postures in second, and vice versa. But how does this work, practice wise? Do you do primary one day, and second on the next, alternating in this way?

    Actually, I have learnt that the latest "directive" from Mysore is no 2nd before coming up from backbends by yourself. So it seems that Sharath has reverted to the old-school rule in this respect. I have spoken to a few people about this, and the consensus seems to be that it is a sort of safety mechanism: With so many people practicing in the shala at the same time, it is harder for Sharath to monitor everybody closely. So the rule serves to ensure that people have the strength they need to have before they start 2nd. But I totally see how the backbends in 2nd actually help one to build the strength needed to stand up. Actually, I got my heels in Kapotasana a couple of months before I was able to stand up from a backbend by myself.

  3. "I guess the muscles that are needed in order to get into a deep Baddha Konasana are different from those needed to put the leg behind the head in second series"

    Yes. I hinted at this when I was ranting about the expression "opening the hips". Baddha Konasana requires external hip rotation but not any flexion. Led-behind-head postures require mostly flexion. External rotation is necessary, but it's very possible to do them with little rotation; their very nature requires deep flexion, though (think the action of Marichyasana A). I had posted a link to a pic with a guy doing a leg-behind-the-head pose (Parsva Dandasana, from 4th Series) without much rotation, but I can only find the pic on Facebook. It was part of the Time magazine article with the John Campbell photos. The pose in question was done by someone else, though. But if you happen to have that copy of Time, you can look for the guy in Parsva Dandasana.

  4. "i would take a long nap after my 5-630am practice each day, eat, then hide from the sun."

    i should have said 5-730 practice cause that's how long it took until i was allowed to split. yes-the reason i would take a nap is because it sapped me. and because i study in south india & am very sensitive to the heat (i've had heatstroke a few times & skin cancer-i'm super white) i can't go on the beach until 4, so i nap, have a gobi oothapam, coconuts, tropical fruit drinks & just hang in the shade or go to a bollywood movie where i can get some relief from the heat.

    when i say primary & intermediate were taught together, i'm actually not sure how people would split. i never did it. probably primary on sun, fri OR they did both each day. i know some people would do 2 practices a day-one in the am & one at night. still common in mysore for people to go to another shala at night because they aren't getting enough attention in the ayri. i used to sneer at that, but instead i stopped going to mysore & go to kovalam where there are far more teachers there to assist me with my practice. one pays a LOT of money to study there & the plane ticket is not cheap either. plus you have to stop working for months. i would often go for several months at a time. i much prefer the vibe & people in kerala over mysore any day, although all of india is SO diverse-each state is totally different from the next.
    goa is an easy hang with a gorgeous beach. purple valley has many amazing certified guest teachers. i'm currently trying to get over there to see dena for her 2-week in january.

    i actually don't like the stupid rule of having to stand up from bb before "getting" pasasana. too many students are hurting themselves with the turned out feet, drama, & compression on the sacrum. i disagree with that. dena teaches a very specific backbending technique that was approved by guruji. she's kind of my backbending teacher & lino is my vinyasa/counting system teacher. he wrote the book on that.

  5. Hello Frank,
    my anatomy knowledge leaves much to be desired, but based on my own experience of the practice, I'm quite sure you are right that Baddha Konasana and Padmasana requires external hip rotation, whereas leg-behind-the head postures require more in the way of flexion, allowing the practitioner to "get away" with not doing much external rotation. But I still can't help but wonder: Would external hip rotation enable one to get into the leg-behind-head postures with more depth than if one relied solely on hip flexion?

  6. Thanks for sharing, Bindy. Yes, I have heard quite a bit about the crowded conditions and subsequent lack of individual attention at KPJAYI. I have also heard much about Dena, although I have never studied with her before. Hope to be able to do so one day.

    Yes, I certainly see the danger with sacral compression in trying to stand up from bb before second series. Even though I actually stood up from bb AFTER I had already been working on the second series bbs, I still went through a couple of weeks of pain/discomfort in my lower back. That kind of worked itself out after my kapotasana became deeper/more integrated, but those were a scary couple of weeks. I can imagine that if one tries to stand up from bbs before second, the risk of such sacral compression must be even greater.

  7. "I certainly see the danger with sacral compression in trying to stand up from bb before second series."

    yes, except taht lots of people *are* able to stand up from back-bends before working on 2nd. I did. In fact, I could do that before I could get my arms through my lotus for Garbha Pindasana, which I just modified. The approach I'm seeing most often is to make people work on dropping back & standing up before starting 2nd, but that it's not a requirement. Essentially, if you are reasonably proficient at Primary and your breathing is good, and you've been working diligent on drop-back for a period of time (say, at least a 3-to-4-day-a-week practice for at least, say, 3 months), you'll be introduced to 2nd Series, probably up to about Laghu Vajrasana. So, 2nd Series isn't given out willy-nilly--you do have to be committed and basically earn it--but being able to drop back and stand up is only an absolute requirement at the stricter shalas.

    I think I like this less-strict approach; it probably avoids a lot of injuries by people not pushing themselves to do things they're not quite ready for (and thus compress the sacrum).

    I worry about how strict things are getting in Mysore. Sharath is now requiring men to come up from moving even on. A visiting teacher here said that when Sharath started him on 3rd Series he could only land Karandavasana and not come up yet, and this was maybe 2005 or 2006. Much change since then, though. The reason I worry is that it seems that things in Mysore are just getting out of line with what is realistically going to be taught elsewhere. i mean, does any teacher outside of Mysore require men to come up from Karandavasana before moving on? I have yet to see it, if only because the strcitest shalas I've been to didn't have any men practicing that far, at least not when I was there. Eddie's, maybe? Havent' been there.

  8. Thanks for sharing, Frank. Having never been to Mysore, I don't feel that I'm in a position to say anything about how Sharath chooses to set his criteria for advancing practitioners through the series. But I do agree that different people have different bodies and aptitudes, and that different approaches probably work best for different individuals. There are definitely people who can get up from bb way before 2nd. Others are best off with the approach that makes people work on getting up from backbends, but not making it an absolute requirement. Yet others have to get way into second (for me, I got my heels in kapo before I could actually come up) before they can develop the strength to stand up.

    As for Karandavasana, I don't know... If you can come up by yourself from Karandavasana, then you definitely have developed a considerable degree of strength and control, and are quite probably ready for third (although since I don't do third, I can say this with any authority...). But if you can't do this, does this mean it won't be productive for you to work on third, especially since the first two arm balances of third look like they can at least help you to develop your strength and control further, which might help with coming up from Karandavasana? Just wondering.

  9. Absolutely! My teacher said he was well into 3rd before he could come up from Karandavasana. And I am 100% sure that working on the arm balances in 3rd Series are getting me closer to coming up from Karanda'--no question. Can you do without? Well, some can. A lot of guys have big shoulders, which certainly makes it easier. I, on the other hand, do not, and I have particular difficulty building muscle in that area (of course, this makes back-bending easier...). So, I can't recruit my shoulders to pick up the slack and haul myself up from Karandavasana the was some guys can do from the get-go. I'm certain, thought, that coming up from the 3rd Series arm balances is developing the necessary core strength, though.