By Paul Mitchell Gold
By Paul Mitchell Gold
Posted on May 18, 2010
I have wanted to go on record for awhile regarding when yoga students should be taught asanas from the Intermediate Series of Ashtanga Yoga. Too many times, I’ve had students in my class who have been taught prematurely by another teacher.
When Rachelle and I were taking the teacher’s course in Mysore last June with Sharath, we had the opportunity to ask for detailed and definitive guidelines on the subject. So, here’s what we were told straight from the source.
Before a student can begin learning the asanas from Intermediate Series, he/she needs to be able to do all the asanas in Primary Series. Let’s be clear about this… that’s all of the asanas from Primary, as in each and every one, not all but the one or two that he/she can’t do.
There are circumstances where a student might need some help getting in an asana, like marichasana d or supta kurmasana. If a student can do the asana with help, it’s ok.
Furthermore, in addition to being able to do each asana in Primary, a student needs to be able to stand up from urdhva dhanurasana and then do the drop-backs section. This requirement is most often what I see missing when students come from other teachers.
One of the problems with teaching students more advanced asanas prematurely is that it can cause ego problems. Many students are preoccupied with advancing and doing as many asanas as possible. The number of asanas is seen as the symbol of progress, etc. and starts to inflate the ego. I’ve seen it over and over. When a student who isn’t ready to advance past Primary series begins Intermediate, the ego becomes inflated without any corresponding growth of humility.
To be sure, the same can be said of students who are learning any of the series, but are taught more asanas than appropriate. Very often, a student has trouble with one of the poses in the marichasana section of Primary or gets stuck at kapotasana or karandavasana in Intermediate. It is so important to be patient and stay at asanas that we can’t do. Teachers that pile on the asanas for whatever reason are ultimately doing that student a disservice.
There is so much to be learned from taking one’s time when asanas are difficult. One of the great gifts of yoga practice is the development of the virtues of patience, humility, non-attachment and faith. Along with these is the all-important element of trusting the yoga teacher and believing that he/she knows what he/she is doing and has the student’s best interest in mind.
If a student is advanced too quickly, particularly if he or she isn’t ready to tackle more advanced asanas, the opportunity for developing the virtues above is missed. In the worst case, over time, if these virtues have been ignored, practice devolves into another form of consumption in which the asanas are like any other thing to be acquired and possessed. The problem, however, is that doing more asanas can never be a real or satisfying substitute for developing patience, humility, non-attachment and faith.
The ashtanga yoga system is organized so that each asana grows out of the asana before it and prepares one for what follows. The system has an internal logic and beauty of intelligence that becomes clear when practiced diligently and faithfully. When a student has been advanced prematurely, practice slowly falls apart asana by asana after the point in which he/she should have been stopped. I have too often watched students practices unravel from the moment he/she started doing poses “over the line”. Breath and bandhas disappear and become non-existent. The student is no longer practicing yoga. It’s a shame and it’s not the student’s fault.
I have heard teachers defend advancing students prematurely saying that the asanas of Intermediate Series, particularly the backbends at the beginning, help “open” a student so he/she can stand up from urdhva dhanurasana. It’s been my experience that it never works that way. Being able to stand from urdhva dhanurasana and do drop-backs is what signifies that a student is strong enough and open enough to begin Intermediate Series and not the other way around. One of the great challenges of Ashtanga Yoga is to complete one’s asanas and then have to buckle down and do the backbending section. Students taught prematurely are never able to stand up and do drop backs. I’ve never seen it happen. Not once.
I also speak from personal experience as a student. I was once held at a particular asana by Guruji and Sharath for three years. That’s a long time to simmer in one place. I could have been impatient. I could have complained as I watched others advancing. I could have sought out teachers who would advance me quicker, but I didn’t. I trusted my teachers. I also believed I was something to be learned from persevering and allowing the process to unfold slowly.
I’ve had students quit or go to other teachers because I wouldn’t let them go farther than they wanted or thought they should be going. My attitude has always been, “if you can’t handle not doing it, you can’t handle doing it.” Whether they quit or seek a more accommodating teacher is neither my business nor concern. It’s their karma and I am just trying to teach the same way I learned from Guruji and Sharath. So, when students get impatient after a month or two, I simply smile and tell them it’ll be ok and I’ll let them know when they’re ready to move on.
Now these guidelines are not a huge secret or mystery. Anyone, teacher’s included, that’s spent time in Mysore has seen that nobody is taught Intermediate Series asanas unless he/she can meet the above-mentioned requirements.
This begs the question of why are students being taught prematurely by some teachers? That’s a subject for another time though I may not voluntarily venture into that quagmire. It’s always risky and presumptuous to guess others’ motivations.
About Paul Gold
I took my first yoga classes in 1995 and became a dedicated practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga after a short period of experimenting.
From 1998 to 2001, I studied with Noah Williams and Kimberly Flynn and taught at their yoga school in Los Angeles. I also want to thank Jorgen Christiansson, an early teacher and good friend, who first taught me to trust this practice.
In 2001, Rachelle and I made our first trip to Mysore, India. Since, we have returned annually to continue our studies with Guruji and Sharath.
I received authorization to teach the Ashtanga method in 2004 and was a member of the first group to receive Level 2 Authorization in July 2009. I have the blessing of KPJAYI to teach students the full Primary and Intermediate Series of Ashtanga Yoga.
Dedication to daily practice is the cornerstone of my teaching philosophy. I encourage my students to develop the virtues of patience, faith, diligence, compassion and non-attachment using the integrity and genius of the traditional Ashtanga system. As these virtues are cultivated over time, students are well on the way to living fuller, happier and more balanced lives.
republished with permission