Ashtanga Blog

When is a student ready to start Intermediate series?

The things to look for as teachers before we move on a student, what is important and what holds people back.

Tania Kemou performing Ustrasana pose in Mysore, India.

Lets’ face it, this question has been or will be on the mind of every single practitioner at some point. A source of excitement, frustration or both, this much anticipated moment often divides teachers and their approach can label them as dogmatic or progressive. 

Ashtanga Yoga, unlike other styles that are more free and require less structure, comprises 6 series. Students progress to the next one only when their teacher considers they have mastered (to an extent) the previous series. In a traditional Mysore setting this is often seen as a ritual. The day one starts Intermediate or Third series is a day that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

This is because any series, even Primary which is not as easy as its name suggests, takes a long time to be tamed, let alone mastered. It is not just the poses themselves but also the vinyasas, the endurance, the following of the counting, the evenness of the breath that are taken into consideration.

For most students it will take 2-5 years of daily practice until they finish Primary and be moved on to Intermediate. What’s really interesting here is that in order to be moved on, on top of mastering the asanas of Primary one needs to be able to stand up from Urdhva Dhanurasana and perform three drop backs without help. Many students get stuck there for months, even years. This landmark as a stopping point is considered by many unnecessary dogma.

Where is the truth then? As always, somewhere in the middle, in my humble opinion.

Although it might seem so at a first glance, standing up and drop backs are rarely the only thing a teacher will look at in order to move on a student. Here are the things I usually take into consideration:

1. How long has the student been practicing for and how often?

Primary series has as main goal to make the body healthy. Its Sanskrit name is “Yoga Chikitsa” that means yoga therapy. Muscle stiffness, back pain, digestive issues, sleeping disorders are some of the things Primary series addresses. This series works on the gross body (Annamaya Kosha), on the tissues and organs. If the body is not healthy one cannot focus on prana or sit and meditate to reach higher realms of consciousness. For health and vitality to be established it takes time. Dedication and frequency of practice are key. Someone who practices twice a week and someone who practices daily won’t progress at the same pace. I am not saying that only daily practice is valid. But before I move on someone to Intermediate series I always consider this:

Is practice really part of the life of this student? Or is it something they occasionally do? 

It would be a pity to move on someone before they get the chance to feel the benefits of Primary series in the long run. Apart from leaving important lessons unlearned it could also be dangerous. Which brings me to the second point:

2. Is the student’s nervous system ready to deal with second series?

The Sanskrit name for Intermediate is “Nadi Shodana” which means purification of the nervous system. This series, with its deep twists, backbends and hip openers acts on a much deeper, pranic level (Pranamaya Kosha). According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika there are 72000 Nadis in the body. Those are subtle energy channels that need to be freed through asana and breathing for the energy to move freely and the nervous system to be purified and strengthened. 

But in order to start this deep energetic work one needs to be ready. The mind needs to have been made still to an extent through daily practice of Primary series for a while.

A certain strength of character, emotional control and capacity to accept and even relax in discomfort are qualities that need to be cultivated before someone starts Second series. 

Otherwise it is very likely that the student will soon be overwhelmed by a hurricane of emotions and the nervous system might be overloaded to a point that practice can become harmful instead of beneficial. I think 2 years of (almost) daily practice is the bare minimum. 

3. To which extent does the student master Primary?

The idea here is not to achieve the perfect shape or perform the most impressive jump back. What we are looking for is the capacity to practice the whole Primary series without breaks and without losing the breath. Endurance is extremely important if we want to make our body heathy and vigorous. Students will keep perfecting asanas over the years. Obviously the lessons each asana has to teach need to be learned but I wouldn’t stop someone just because they cannot cross the legs behind the head in Supta Kurmasana or if their Bhujapidasana is not completely effortless. Poses like these take years to fully master and there is no point in stopping someone just because they are not perfect. This gives the wrong message and can discourage the student. 

4. How long in Primary is too long?

This can only be answered on an individual basis. Every student is different and their body and psyche have different stories so there is no “one size fits all” kind of thing. It is only natural that after a few years the student will want to learn more. And a wise teacher should encourage this. Once the main lessons of Primary have been learned and the student has proven to be committed and dedicated there is no reason not to move them on.

Curiosity and openness of mind are qualities we want to cultivate, not suppress.

So when I hear that people are stuck for years at a pose I always get skeptical as to whether there is a valid reason for this. Again let’s not be guided by perfectionism but by pragmatism and real interest in the student’s wellbeing.

The elephant in the room: drop backs 

Again, there is no “one size fits all” approach here. It is worth noting that before Ashtanga became extremely popular and the Shala in Mysore got literally flooded by hundreds of students every season, Urdhva Dhanurasana and drop backs were only taught after the end of Intermediate series. Students were learning Primary and Intermediate back to back without this terrifying landmark. Later on, as the number of students in Mysore kept rising, changes were made to be able to teach them all. Hence the need for more rules and uniformity. 

Still, there is always room for individualised teaching even in Mysore. When I was moved on to Second my drop backs were far from graceful, I could barely stand up by myself and my back was still very stiff. But my teacher saw that I had spent considerable amount of time in Primary and that I really needed the backbends of Intermediate to move forward. And he was right. When I started Intermediate my front body responded to it in an astonishing way and I felt the benefits after only a short time.

The more I practice and teach and the more time I spend in Mysore practicing with my teacher the more I realise that there is little to no room for absolute rules and rigidity in Ashtanga Yoga. This is why it is extremely important to establish a real and deep connection with one’s teacher. 

A good teacher is not someone who blindly follows rules and just hands poses or stops people based on an instruction manual. Sure we need a certain blueprint especially when we teach big numbers of students. Still, we should try and meet each student where they are at any given moment and take the time to observe, listen, feel what’s good for them. And if that goes against a certain rule, we should find the courage to break it for their sake. 

Intuition is our greatest asset as yogis. Let’s use it wisely.