Is Ashtanga’s third series the new second series?

I feel as if I’ve been seeing more references to third series lately. Specifically:

  • Earlier today, Kino MacGregor started promoting her new third series DVD through tweets and a guest blog post.
  • It was recently announced that Tim Miller is changing up the focus of his three-day intensive during his annual April visit to Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio. The first day of the April 2012 intensive will focus on primary series (Yoga Chikitsa), the second on second series (Nadi Shodhana), and the third on third series (Sthira Bhaga).
  • Hilltop Yoga here in Lansing, Mich., has just put on its schedule a new Sunday class “where students practice primary, second or third series Ashtanga at their own pace.”

I’ve seen Sthira Bhaga translated as “divine stability,” “divine steadinessandstrength and grace.” (I’m partial to the “divine stability” translation myself.) And I have practiced next to third series practitioners. It is awe-inspiring — perhaps less because of the poses themselves (oh, those leg-behind-the-head variations!) but, as the Sanskrit name of the series indicates, the fact that someone could flow with such a sense of calm through such seemingly daunting poses.

Before I link to photos of the series, I want to put this in context for students new to Ashtanga or for those who don’t practice yoga (long-time Ashtanga practitioners know this through experience already) — looking at the photos alone is taking the practice totally out of context. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a compassionate practice for the body — traditionally, you only begin to practice a pose after you have an established practice in the one before it. So it’s not for gymnasts and contortionists. When you see photos of someone in a crazy-looking pose, what you’re looking at is the current incarnation of years of commitment to the practice.

With that lead-in, here are some photos of third series.

After dinner one night during his Mt. Shasta second series retreat last year, Tim Miller was talking to a few students and the question of third series came up. I remember hearing Tim describe the series this way — in terms of the gunas. (If you’re not familiar with the concept of gunas, the simplest definition of gunas I’ve seen comes from T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga: “qualities of the mind; qualities of the universe.”) Primary series is like tamas (heaviness, inertia), second like rajas (activity, change), and third like sattva (clarity, lightness). I’m looking forward to hearing more in April in Columbus.

Here is what MacGregor says about her DVD:

I created my new DVD of the Third Series of Ashtanga Yoga in response to the increasing number of Advanced students practicing Ashtanga Yoga today. I also wanted to share what is for me my most personal journey, my most intimate struggle and now my most consistent daily practice.

She’s not the first to offer an instructional DVD on third series. David Swenson, to the best of my knowledge, was the first to do so, back when we all stilled watched VHS tapes. You can now get Swenson instructional program on a DVD.

It seems to me that Ashtanga students used to talk about second series the way they’re talking about third series now — something a little intimidating, a little exhilarating, and a little out of reach. With more and more students practicing second series these days, it makes sense that third is next. MacGregor writes:

The practice of the Ashtanga Yoga Third Series is not something to be taken lightly or to play around with.

It is a devotional practice that burns through some of the deepest blockages that exist in the human mind and body. It is a practice that contains the essence of Ashtanga Yoga and one not to be taken for granted.

This is what she believes is the first prerequisite for third series:

First you must have a committed six day a week practice of the full Intermediate Series and have been practicing for around five years. That practice should be done smoothly and effortlessly so that when you finish you have more energy to give. The key gateway postures of Second Series should ideally be well-established.

Here’s my question, though. Will Ashtanga practitioners start jumping the gun now that a popular teacher has released a DVD? I’m pretty sure the cybershala can’t provide the wisdom, guidance, feedback and inspiration needed to fully appreciate, understand and experience the third series (or primary or second, for that matter).

I wrote about my qualms when students leapfrog over primary and head straight to second a while back, and I wonder if something similar could start happening with third series. There’s a big difference between doing the Ashtanga sequence and adhering to the Ashtanga method.  

(Photo credit: New <3 necklace via Bekathwia’s Flickr’s photostream.)

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8 thoughts on “Is Ashtanga’s third series the new second series?

  1. Great insights Rose. When Kino says “It is a practice that contains the essence of Ashtanga Yoga and one not to be taken for granted”… Can’t that statement be applied with equal resonance to the Primary Series? Or Second?

    For some practitioners moving into Third, I have to wonder if part of it isn’t the ego pushing them. It reminding me of a [slightly crude] quote from the article in Elephant today on Bryan Kest:
    “If you’re in full pose you’d better not be happy about it (hanuman asana), there will come a day that you will not be able to this pose. It will happen. And you’ll be just as upset as you are happy now. Get off the f*cking yo-yo now!”

    • Excellent point, Dave. And talk about timing. Over Twitter, Jason Stein (Twitter handle: @LeapingLanka) tweeted the following today:

      (1of2) Let’s take a nuanced view of the 6 Ashtanga series: vessles to contain ishta devata/mantra/yantra and cultivate luminosity & clarity.

      (2of2) ALL THE SERIES DO THIS, 1st thru 6th. Each is merely geared for different predispositions, interest level, tendencies, capacities.

      And that Bryan Kest quote is spot on.

  2. Ashtanga does make a big deal about ‘the next series’. In Vinyasa Krama postures just develop and grow out of each other. The leg behind head postures of third series are just a continuations of the leg behind head postures of 2nd not as challenging as they look once your comfortable with eka pada sirsasana (it’s fourth where LBH really gets taken to the next level). The arm balances are just arm balances, less challenging for men than woman perhaps given our tendency to upper body strength, they look fancy, showy but again aren’t particularly challenging. What is challenging is running through so many of them together, same with the arm balance subroutine of Vinyasa krama (where there’s no vinyasa, you go in and out of headstand the whole time ) but that’s just fitness and energy conservation, comes with practice. The backbends are nice backbends, nothing as scary as first coming across Kapotasana and hanumanasana of course, just the splits.
    Not saying third is easy, far from it but it’s nothing to be intimidated by I think the jump from primary to second is a lot greater than that between 2nd and 3rd.

    Get the feeling Kino is on the defensive in her presentation of the series, almost justifying the DVD. I ordered mine earlier in the week, I’d started 3rd around the time I got into Vinyasa Krama so never really practiced it consistently for any length of time, seemed too showy, too demo’ish though I liked the second half of the series. Kino’s DVD seemed a good enough reason to revisit it for my evening practice now it’s warming up( My main VK practice is in the morning, oops late starting).
    Sharath it seems said you can’t learn ‘this stuff’ from Video, in conference this week. He’s right of course you can’t learn it from videos, books…. or from a teacher for that matter, you learn it by doing it, engaging with the practice day in day out, same as anything else really.

    • Thanks for your perspective, Grimmly. I’ve never practiced third series — only seen snippets of the sequence — but I hear you when you say that the jump from primary to second is perhaps greater. That’s got to be such a personal transition. I mean, for some, the jump from not ever connecting breath to movement to starting primary series might be the greatest leap for this lifetime.

      I’m looking forward to reading your observations of Kino’s DVD.

      • I’ve watched through the two discs of Kino’s 3rd now and was struck by how much she stresses safe practice. There are a whole bag full of tips, hints. suggestions for achieving or working towards a posture but these seem out numbered almost by the notes of caution and advice on how to minimise risk, going so far as to say at several points that if x is challenging to you then perhaps your not yet ready for this posture or indeed 3rd series and need to work a little more on y (pun intended).

        I think it’s relevant too if your practicing 2nd series or even been practising primary for a year or more. There’s some good stuff on bandhas, a long treatment actually which will be useful to anyone practicing for any length of time. Although she’s talking about 3rd series postures the suggestions can probably be applied to 2nd series leg behind head work as well as back bending. It’s also useful for me coming from Vinyasa Krama as all the 3rd series postures come up there too but without all the fanfare.

  3. The hardest part of the practice is bringing it into everyday life. I’ve grown more in awe of the people who can calmly go through the difficult moments of their lives with grace and peace, then those who can stick their legs behind their heads with grace and peace, unless of course, they can translate that into their lives and into the world. The physical practice brings great benefits to the body; It is amazing to discover the things it can do. However, without the mind and spirit following, it is an empty of meaning and might as well be a series of acrobatics. The goal of making it to the “next level” kind of reminds me of a video game.

    • Yes, I agree — the practice of bringing this practice into daily life is, for most of us, a lifelong challenge. We achieve that balance and equanimity some days and we fail miserably on others. That’s what I love about Ashtanga’s six-day-a-week practice — you’re never very far from all the reminders of the journey that you’ve chosen to take.

      • I will break it down even further and say there are some moments of equanimity and then other moments of complete failure. :) As a mom, I am currently on the breath by breath scale. Turning to the practice keeps me sane!

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