Ashtanga Yoga Intermediate Series and “the Crazies”
When I was given pashasana, the first posture of Ashtanga yoga’s Intermediate Series, for the first time three years ago I was completely unsuspecting of the miraculous ways in which the Intermediate Series would affect my life. I was also oblivious to the roller coaster ride that this incredibly dynamic practice was about to take me on. I had practiced the Primary Series with dedication for over three years before beginning Intermediate Series and thus had already experienced the bizarre and seemingly random thoughts and emotions that the Ashtanga practice can stir to the surface and pull out of you. But the intensity of feelings and “side-effects” that I experienced for the first six months or so of the second series was unprecedented. I will, having been inspired by another Ashtangi writer who described this oddity on her blog, also call these side-effects “the crazies”.
Sometime in the first three months of these crazies, having at this point lengthened my daily practiced up to supta vajrasana, I speculated that I was either going completely insane or that this practice was more powerful than I could have fathomed. Finally one day after practice I approached one of my teachers and asked her. To my relief her response verified that yes, the crazies when beginning the second series of the Ashtanga yoga system is a common phenomenon and no, I was not insane. Phew! She even told me about a woman who has been practicing for decades and no matter how many times she folds over into kapotasana, she cries every single time! After verifying that I was not developing schizophrenia, I became fascinated by this phenomenon and preceded to research it in more depth. Here is what I came up with.
The Ashtanga yoga system is comprised of three powerful groups of asana sequences in ascending order of difficulty that effectively purify, strengthen and open the body and mind. The first series is known as the Primary Series and is described in Sanskrit as Yoga Chikitsa, or yoga therapy. The Primary Series functions to heal, detoxify and align the body with particular emphasis on realigning and making the spine healthy, open and strong. The Primary Series works on the grosser physical level, healing and cleaning our organs, musculoskeletal system, breath, etc. With proper and consistent practice of the Primary Series over time, foundational strength, health and flexibility are built in preparation for fully accessing the benefits of yoga.
The Intermediate Series is described in Sanskrit as nadi shodhana, or cleansing and opening of the subtle energy nervous system. By opening and cleaning the nadis (energy channels), we also open the functioning of our chakras (internal energy centres), are able to fill our being with prana (life energy), and balance the dualities within us (ida and pingala). Therefore when we practice the Primary Series correctly, we make ourselves open and strong enough to endure the energetic healing of the Intermediate Series. Once we have opened our energy channels and accumulated prana within us, we can then embark on the almost impossible Advanced Series. The advanced sequences effectively stabilise and ground the large quantities of energy that we have accessed.
All sounds pretty straight forward, but what does this have to do with yoga making you go crazy? Kino MacGregor in her book on Intermediate Series describes this occurrence and the corresponding symptoms. I have also read and spoken to other Ashtangis who have experienced similar second series symptoms. Here are some of the frequently mentioned side effects:
Disturbances in sleep patterns: either not able to sleep at night, or being overly tired and needing to sleep extra hours and take naps, or both.
Changes in appetite: either being unusually hungry or completely losing the appetite, or fluctuating between both extremes. Shift in diet.
Nightmares and/or vivid dreams.
Emotional and moody: Very very emotional. Extreme fluctuations of emotions in short periods of time from intense love, happiness, elation and compassion for all beings to hopelessness, resentment, sadness, anger, fear, guilt and agitation.
Nervousness and anxiety.
Huge amounts of energy that you don’t know what to do with.
Excessive crying and/or laughter. (Personally I discovered a lot of crying in my spine and a lot of laugher in my hips.)
As described above, Intermediate Series cleanses our energy channels and nervous system. The postures (comprising of deep backbends, twists, leg-over-head poses and arm balances) open the internal energy channels and enable prana to flow more freely throughout the body. The furnace of our energetic potential (kundalini) is stored at the base of our spine deep in our hips and our central energy channel (the shushumna) runs along the spinal cord. The deep hip openers and backbends of the Intermediate Series therefore effectively release the kundalini force and pushes it up the shoshumna so it circulates into the entire system. No wonder those backbends and hip openers make us teary eyed!
We all have energetic blockages within our energy system, which are crystallisations of our life or karmic experiences and can be referred to in Sanskrit as samskaras (impressions). When the content of the blockage is pushed by increased prana flow to the surface it can manifest in “negative” forms such as sadness, trauma, guilt, anger, fear, or anxiety, etc. It is as though the increased levels of prana that is circulating through our system burns away these blockages and the symptoms we are experiencing is the consequential smoke.
As we continue to practice and express these energetic blockages we open and access a tremendous amount of potential and energy within us. Therefore the practice of Intermediate Series can cause strong emotional and mental upheavals, which give us the impression that we are going crazy. The reality is, however, that we are cleaning, letting go, and healing. It takes a little while for the physical body to adjust to containing such an extreme increase of prana, but as we make more space within ourselves and allow for blockages to be released, with dedicated practice eventually these imbalances do indeed transform into balance and equanimity.
That all being said, what can we do in the interim to sufficiently prepare ourselves for all the wonderful benefits (there are many, I promise) and the crazies that Intermediate Series bestows? Firstly, we need to practice Primary Series consistently over an extended period of time (often years) to lay the appropriate foundation to support the energy and dynamics of Intermediate Series. A qualified teacher will be able to determine when you are ready to begin practicing second series. The asanas of second series are very powerful medicine. As teacher Magnolia Zuniga explains, each asana is a medicine, and just like how you wouldn’t take the whole medicine cabinet all at once, you also wouldn’t start practicing all the asanas of any series all at once. Enter the Intermediate Series slowly, only adding postures when you have sufficiently integrated the preceding postures. This is best done under the guidance of a qualified teacher. This will help to minimise any adverse effects or the risk of injury.
Secondly, we should spend extra time in the closing postures, specifically the inversions, to help ground and stabilise the energy we release from the practice of second series. There is a reason the last segment of the second series is a sequence of seven headstands. If we have not yet completed Intermediate Series and have not reached the headstands, it is helpful to take more time in the finishing postures, i.e. shoulder stand sequence and headstand.
Thirdly, if you awaken any “crazies” as a result of your practice, give yourself the space and compassion to be present with and become aware of whatever rises up from the deep. Allow yourself to fully process and release anything that needs your attention and healing. It is a wonderful opportunity to connect to yourself and your practice on a much deeper and more intimate level. Become an uninvolved observer to what moves inside of you. Meditation and breath awareness practices will help to cultivate this awareness.
It is also important to mention that if we begin the practice of Intermediate Series before sufficiently preparing ourselves with the thorough practice of Primary Series, we will either not reap the benefits of second series (nothing will happen) or we will blow a fuse (injury and/or illness). Postures such as deep back bends and leg over head postures unleash huge amounts of prana that pushes itself through the body, blasting through anything that comes in its way. If you have done enough work with Primary Series, these blocks will be loosened enough to be pushed out of your system by the increased flow of prana. If not, injuries, illness and imbalances will likely ensue.
Imagine the nadi channels as water pipes and prana as water. When they pipes are clean, water can unobstructedly flow through the pipes. If there is some sediment or debris clogging the pipes, the pressure of water will eventually break through the obstruction and flow through, bringing these things to the surface with it. When the pipes are completely blocked, however, and an increasing amount of water pressure is trying to break through, eventually rather than moving the obstruction the pipes themselves become damaged and either leak, break, or explode. This is the same as your nadi channels and prana. It is okay to have some crazy side effects of practicing Ashtanga Intermediate Series, but when we begin to fall ill, incur injuries, or suffer other kinds of “explosions” within our bodies, then it is likely we are pushing ourselves too hard. In this case we need to remember to be kind to ourselves, to step back and reconnect to our practice with awareness, patience, and compassion. We need to remember that we do this practice for inner stillness, not to be a pretzel.
Also, I should say, that if you do not feel any “crazies” while practicing the Ashtanga Intermediate Series, that’s okay too. It does not mean it’s not working or you’re missing out on something. Some people cruise through second series will no awareness of any “symptoms” at all. This is also perfectly normal and acceptable.
Through there is beauty in the process, I was also very thankful that by the time I arrived in India to study Ashtanga this phase of the “crazies” had subsided enough for me to focus on my practice. After the preceding months of bizarre inner chaos I had finally found myself in a state of unprecedented peace and equanimity. Despite the crazies, the Ashtanga Intermediate Series is a wonderful, rewarding and stilling practice, even if the craziness occasionally resurfaces to remind us how deeply the practice truly transforms us from the inside out.