Why I practise full intermediate

Nancy Gilgoff teachingI practise full intermediate.

If that sounds like a smug way to start a post, I don’t mean it that way at all. Along the way my mind and body meet many challenges – which means that I would be stopped much earlier in the practice by many teachers. For instance, I don’t bind in supta kurmasana. I don’t stand up by myself from backbends. I don’t bind in pasasana. I don’t keep my leg behind my head in eka pada. The list goes on.

So why am I practising full intermediate instead of stopping and ‘perfecting’ some of these earlier poses? The reason is that my teacher, Nancy Gilgoff, sees primary and intermediate series as working together to form a balanced practice – not as a linear sequence with various pass/fail stages along the way. For her, it’s important for physical and mental health to start intermediate series as soon as practice and breathing are consistent. If you wait too long in primary while you ‘perfect’ various asanas, you could get injured by the constant repetition of forward bends.

A healing process

I experienced this first hand. After spending years practising primary alone, I had constant inflammation in my lower back and pain in my knees too. But after Nancy taught me intermediate and encouraged me to alternate it with primary, these pains disappeared and my body got stronger. It made so much sense: my practice was much more balanced, with the backbends of intermediate complementing the forward bends of primary.

Opening up to the world

The mental and emotional sides of practising intermediate have been important too. As a person with a quiet, internal personality, too much primary can lead to me getting stuck inside myself; all those forward bends get very inwards in their energetic direction. But, by opening the front of my body in the intermediate poses, I find it easier to open up and connect with the world and other people.

Lifting mental barriers

KapotasanaOne more benefit to practising intermediate I’d like to mention: it has freed me from being daunted by it. By having a go at these difficult postures on a regular basis, I’m not intimidated by them anymore. A lot of mental barriers have lifted due to simply ‘having a go’ – even if my attempts are far from perfect.

To sum up, practising intermediate has helped me physically, mentally and emotionally. It has healed injuries and given me confidence in my ability to tackle the practice. I make regular trips to Maui to study with Nancy and am very grateful to her for showing me this approach. I also really enjoy practising in Mysore and have been going regularly in recent years.

Read more about how Nancy Gilgoff learned primary and intermediate together in her article Ashtanga Yoga as it Was.

And find out how I managed to keep practising after giving birth to my daughter last year in my previous post Baby steps: practising after childbirth.

– Louise

What do you think?

Have you practised with Nancy? Does your teacher allow you to follow different ‘rules’ than those currently taught at KPJAYI? What do you think of this approach? We’d love to hear from you, so let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

24 Responses to Why I practise full intermediate

  1. Hannah Moss
    Hannah Moss 22nd March 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    I love this post Louise, it’s so interesting to hear about different teaching styles from different advanced teachers, even though they were all taught by Guruji around the same time. I especially resonate with your comment about the forward bends being very inward-focussing and how backbending really allows you to open up to the world. In fact, you can’t help opening more as you go deeper into backbends, as it’s a real heart-opening posture. I feel more inspired to practice with Nancy after reading your posts about her, and might try to do so when she comes to the UK later this year.

  2. José 22nd March 2015 at 3:37 pm #

    I found this article interesting and i think it´s great that this approach worked for you. I´d like to share my experience, which is quite different. I started practicing intermediate series and went through them quite quick, and this caused me quite a few injuries and pains.. i was exhausted and after some time, i got to a point of wanting to quit. I was lucky enough to find a teacher who made me go back and start all over again so i could build up the openings, strength and resistance you are supposed to gain by continuous practice of primary before you face the much more demanding intermediate series. when i went back to it, after some years, i felt completely different than before, i had energy to face it, my body was open enough to do the poses correctly and complete (which is the way to gain their benefits fully) and i realized how other teachers had made me run into the series taking me to a place of severe exhaustion and pain on a regular basis. So you see, my experience is quite the opposite… plus, facing the challenges of every pose i could´t do till i got them helped me develop so much persistence, patience and gave me so many psychological benefits i don´t think i could have got by going from one asana to the next without accomplishing them. Every case is different but this practice is quite well designed as it is to me, and you would spend the necessary years in forward bend before you are ready for second, unless you spend too many years on primary for any given reason, for instance, not have a regular, consistence practice. Then, you might think is the practice that is not working for you, but it´s actually your approach what´s not working. I feel a lot of respect for your teacher just for all the years she spent with Guruji and her dedication to the practice, but still i quite don´t understand some things about her approach: If she learned like this with Guruji at the beginning and she trusted her teacher, why didn´t she trusted the changes he decided to introduce by his own search? I mean, maybe he started teaching like this and then after some time he realized there was a better way, right? By his own experience of so many years he changed the way he was teaching, as he was getting more and more experience… so what´s the point with teaching “The old way”? A few of my students went on a weekend workshop with Nancy few years ago, 2 of them were working halfway primary and when they came back, they were all doing intermediate all of a sudden… is this really taking care of the students? Not to mention if it´s respectful towards those student´s teachers… Really, there are some things about Nancy´s teaching that are really hard for me to understand, what i can tell you is, my students were completely exhausted by this. And i really don´t understand the point of it.As i don´t understand what´s the use of doing asanas incorrectly and going onto the next one without having accomplish what you needed to face it on the previous one. That´s my point of view, my experience and that´s also why none of my students practice full intermediate until they are ready for it.

    • Quyen 21st June 2016 at 10:11 pm #

      Hi Jose,

      I am having the same problem, there is some pose in primary that I cannot bind by my self like Marichasana D and supta, but I am doing intermediate up to dwi pada.. I only go to the shala once a week due to my work schedule, the rest i practice at home and I have to face the challenge in marichasana D, supta, pasanasa, kapotasana and i feel exhausted… so i spoke with my teacher about my situation and asked her if i could go back and work on my marichasna and supta because i still feel it is not opening yet…

      When i read your reply i feel like I am not the only one that go back in time and i really don’t mind… also i want to ask when you said “go back and start all over again” do you mean go back and do primary only?

  3. francesca 24th March 2015 at 12:02 pm #

    Louise l love your post! I am a friend of louise, l am also a student of nancy and go to mysore. My experience is exactly the same as louise’s. My knees were gone after being stopped in maricasana d for several years. Nancy taught me some intermediate and this saved my knees!!l think rules are one thing but the respect for everybody’s different bodies is more important.

  4. Louise 24th March 2015 at 7:05 pm #

    Hannah, Jose and Francesca – thank you for reading my post and taking the time to comment.

    Hannah – hope you do get to one of Nancy’s workshops.
    Francesca – great to ‘see’ you on this blog!
    Jose – it was good to read your thoughts and find out how you healed from injuries. I sent the link to this post to Nancy and she wanted to answer your interesting question about why she didn’t change her teaching method when the approach changed in Mysore. We will publish her response on Sunday so please check back to read it.

    Happy practising everyone.

    • José 28th March 2015 at 11:16 am #

      That´s really great, thank you so much, i´m very interested on what she has to say!

  5. Patrick 24th March 2015 at 8:27 pm #

    i am a bit sceptical about this approach.
    (1) doing just primary is unhealthy? that’s certainly not my experience. whenever i have experienced pains, imbalances or the rare injury it was from “overdoing” it, not from following the series or not from having done no intermediate series asanas.
    (2) someone who masters the full primary series (masters it as in full execution of every asana and correct vinyasa) goes on quickly to intermediate. i suppose nancy’s method applies to those that actually haven’t mastered all of primary. since primary is taught asana by asana the practice for most of us does not include the entire sequence. therefore, the the criticism of “too much forward bending” does not really apply. one would stop at a point in the sequence where it is not too much. i would argue, from personal experience, that the ability to do kurmasana and supta kurmasana correctly, fully and with ease is a good indicator for the likelihood of forward folding to be injurious. as a consequence, if that’s not within ones reach one should stop there or actually even before one gets there. the whole idea of having to learn or do the series as an entire series (as opposed to step by step) seems flawed.
    (3) why it should be mentally and emotionally problematic to be limited to asanas of primary series completely evades me. that makes sense only from the perspective of asana practice as a mere physical exercise. if a physically appropriate daily asana practice consists of surya a, b, fundamentals and some finishing – how could that possibly be disadvantageous for someone’s emotional or mental state? and if it were so: how could it be fixed by say – an attempt of karandavasana or dwi pada sirsasana?
    (4) i suspect that many of the proponents of nancy’s approach are in favor of it mainly because of their desire to perform asanas that are within their physical grasp, that they personally like but would otherwise not be doing and secondly because it gives them an opportunity (and in fact a convenient justification) to avoid asanas that are difficult but would have to be done/attempted.
    (5) it seems to me that it is highly unlikely for someone to do “full intermediate” when they don’t do “full primary” – in the sense of correct vinyasa, relative ease, full execution of all asanas. is there an example of this?
    (6) it is often said that the series have a hidden design. one thing leads to the next, repeated variations of a theme etc. therefore, arguing that doing a few asanas from intermediate is beneficial to inform how one does some other asanas in primary is just another way of saying that the set sequences are suboptimal and subject to adjustment and improvement. those are musings that those might have whose daily practice is somewhere in advanced.
    (7) most importantly, the approach makes particularly no sense when considering asana practice as an austerity and not a sport.

    • patrick (a different one) 1st April 2015 at 6:25 am #

      Whoah, easy tiger. I think Louise is charting a thoughtful, sensitive and well-considered approach to finding a fitting way to practice. I kind of think we plunge a little bit into Crazytown if we insist, The Method Works, Period, even when people are experiencing pain or injuries in the hamstring, lower back, knee, etc. from putting our oh-so-human bodies through the same strenuous poses day after day after day. If a change — intermediate — helps balance and deepen their practice, helps ameliorate issues of pain or strain, I say, great.

      I mean, I absolutely agree that it’s absurd/dangerous to plunge into the deep backbends and demanding hip openers of second if you’re just getting started. Primary is an incredible foundation for so many things, and a lodestar to which you can always return. But I don’t think the bar to move on should be “mastery.” Because a) I don’t agree there is such a thing. b) It sets one rigid standard for a vast range of physical bodies with different needs and limits and c) Check out this video of Guruji leading an intermediate series class from the 80s. There are some real pros, but also just regular people working their imperfect, un-mastered way through.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YybN587ByyE

      • Hannah Moss
        Hannah Moss 1st April 2015 at 11:14 am #

        Thanks for your comments both Patricks! I hope Nancy’s response has helped to alleviate some of the uncertainties and clarify any confusion. Thanks for the youtube link Patrick 2 – always fascinating to watch Guruji in action 🙂

      • Jamie Allington 13th May 2015 at 10:56 am #

        I agree. I don’t think Nancy is suggesting someone jumps into the whole of intermediate. If I’m correct, she takes the view that primary should be considered to end at kapotasana?
        This makes more sense to me. Primary is great for establishing a good foundation of stamina but to do all that forward-bending and then be expected to master the highly gymnastic act of dropping-back before being allowed to go on and do ‘easier’ backbends that would have built towards doing drop-backs has never made any sense to me. I followed traditional teachers and went through the years of primary without enough complimentary backbending and my body is the worse for it.
        The linear progression of the Ashtanga method just doesn’t stack with my idea of what an asana practice should be. I’m very glad that these old-school teachers are still around to offer a more mature, considered approach to the practice.

  6. Louise 25th March 2015 at 11:14 am #

    hi Patrick, thanks for your thoughts. I think there might be a misunderstanding – I wasn’t talking about taking postures out of the order of the series, or skipping some of them.
    You ask how it could be a disadvantage to do primary only…I love primary and really enjoyed it from the start. But have experienced how doing intermediate as well as primary has helped me avoid injuries and feel much better emotionally. What I’ve found is that the repetition of primary only, over a long period of time, wasn’t the best way for me to progress in the practice. It is all very much to do with context and individual needs, it seems…

  7. Simplicity 26th March 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    Can it depend upon if you’re over-flexible or not?
    Forward bend does’nt make something for me. It’s to easy…
    Backbends is, in opposite, strenghtening for me and make my sacroliac joint to stay in place.

  8. Madelaine Heinemann 26th March 2015 at 5:13 pm #

    So happy, to read this as I follow the same principles. I have been slightly embarrassed by my approach to practicing and teaching Ashtanga, knowing it’s not the Orthodox Mysore method. But through personal practice and observing my students, I began to follow a more integrated approach. Trained as a BWY teacher there is no way we would teach predominantly forward bends for months on end. When one applies the principles of vinyasa; pose and counterpose it makes complete sense that primarily an intermediate are complementary. Also as a Structural Yoga Therapist I observe the postural problems that accompany modern life style in the west. there is a great need to strengthen the back of the body and open up the front as well as calm the nervous system, both these needs are addressed by practicing !st and 2nd series.

    I do not subscribe to perfecting the postures in order. I use/offer modifications and props when needed to enhance and deepen a students experience of a pose making them more accessible. This is because I have found that each pose offers a unique opportunity to experience ones strengths and weaknesses, to refine ones awareness of ourselves and opens the body/mind in a different way. E.g. Without practicing 2nd series, Urdhva – Dhanurasana would have been inaccessible for me, there is virtually no real preparation for it in primary, urdhva mukha svanasana was simply not enough. I understand the humility and patience traditional mysore develops , but it can also make one to obsessed with mastering a pose rather than simply experiencing it as much as one is able. Luckily there are teachers, practice, sadhana to suit everyones needs. So love and blessing to all those yoga lovers out there.

  9. Petra 26th March 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    beautiful post, I just feel with “every single piece” of me the deep meaning of your words, of your personal experience. I understand the necessity to share these importants happenings with all of them, who are now, where you’ve been. Thank you

  10. francesca 27th March 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    I want to add something to my previous post.having studied with nancy for a long time and also in mysore l have to say that nancy ‘s approach is for me the one that respects most the fact that everyone has a different body and that we are not all super flexible, everyone is welcome in nancy’s classes!

  11. Nichole 29th March 2015 at 5:03 pm #

    recently stopped my practice of Ashtanga primary series completely because I was having so many lower back problems and was starting to worry about doing permanent damage to myself. I’m now lifting weights in the hope of strengthening body enough to be able to handle Ashtanga without pain. Now I wonder if I should try adding in Intermediate. I should also point out that I was practicing in a respected Mysore studio,so my pain was not the result of poor alignment or posture, since my teachers work hard to correct that.

  12. Nadia 1st April 2015 at 6:08 am #

    Hi Louise, thanks so much for the beautiful post!
    Just wondering if you went to Maui to learn with Nancy? I have been wanting to learn from her but not sure how to access it… the website link contains little information about her workshops outside Maui.
    Thank you 🙂

  13. Louise 1st April 2015 at 1:59 pm #

    Nadia – if you go to the section on Nancy’s site that say ‘on tour’ and then click on ‘schedule’ you can see all the workshops outside Maui, Hope that helps!

    Patrick (a different one) – thanks for that youtube link. Just looked it up and definitely see what you mean. A lot of people needing to be hoisted out of laghu vajrasana and kaptoasana just like I do. And some great leotards and lycra in there too. Ahhh..the 80s.

  14. Kacey Neckowitz 6th April 2015 at 3:37 pm #

    What is a young Ashtangi to do when she reads this and “Yoga As It Was” by Nancy Gilgoff, and finds herself yearning for this type of teacher and this type of practice?

    I miss Guruji without ever having been in his presence, just from the stories I’ve read…

    As part of the new brood of Ashtangis, starting much later than most in her cohort (I’ll be 36 in September, and have been practicing primary for a year-stopped at Marichyasana C), I’m finding the youthful gusto that comes with jumping back and jumping through exhilarating, but am just learning to temper that with some wisdom and ahimsa for the sake of my tired shoulders. I practice half at home, and half in a yoga studio with a small Mysore group that will be losing its (also very young in the practice) teacher soon.

    The desire to follow this way of practicing because it looks like it will be better is strong in me, but I also know how powerful Parampara is and how there really is no substitute. As I approach the solitary road of home-practitioner, what guidance would you give?

    • Jamie Allington 13th May 2015 at 11:05 am #

      I have found yin yoga to be very complementary to Ashtanga, especially work for opening the front of the body. I think Nancy is a rare voice of wisdom in the Ashtanga community. Myself, I’d include the first poses of intermediate up to Ustrasana as a matter of course now. These aren’t strenuous poses and to say that one has to go through years of practice to get to them is just useless dogma, in my opinion.

  15. Louise 8th April 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    hi Kacey

    I practise at home and it does feel a bit solitary at times,,,but if you can go on a few yoga trips and workshops that really helps.. Also in your town maybe you can create a little group for everyone who practises whether that’s at home or in a studio…and meet socially when you can. We will hopefully make that happen in Brighton soon and I’m really looking forward to it.
    Being a home practitioner is great though – I really enjoy the rituals of getting up early, sitting for a while then getting into a really quiet space in my practice. Going to one of Nancy’s workshops years ago was what switched on the lightbulb of ‘daily home practice’ for me. She talks about moving through your practice quickly – under an hour is fine, just enjoying it, not judging yourself, just moving and breathing. That made daily home self-practice seem really manageable and I’ve done it ever since. I also really like the ‘letter to students’ by David Williams which you can read on his website. He talks about making your practice sustainable so you can do it your whole life – not burning out but keeping it enjoyable and manageable, ‘sthira and sukha’..

  16. Justyna 21st January 2016 at 7:43 am #

    I couldn’t agree more with You.
    I met Nancy in September last year. Well I have been doing part of the intermediate already at that time but always doing primary till navasana some days. Nancy after having heard about different pains in my body and many accidents I had because of working with difficult horses, told me to skip primary some days and to do only Internediate even if it wasn’t still the full one. In order to do some asanas from primary perfectly I would have to quit working with horses and to live in India all the time:) Well I am not going to stop working with horses and can’t live in India few months each year as some can:) at the moment few weeks at the most. Now I do every second day primary and every second day intermediate and life is just perfect:)

  17. Louise 22nd January 2016 at 4:59 pm #

    Thanks for commenting, Justyna. Sounds like you’ve got an amazing life working with horses. Definitely worth adapting your practice for!

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