Original Article on Elephant Journal. Written by Peg Mulqueen
I’m pretty sure Ashtanga’s intermediate series should come with a warning label.
Consider this—after a short succession of well-meaning backbends, you’ll quickly find yourself face to face with the wicked queen of all heart-openers, Kapotasana. Which was utterly terrifying for me.
(Truth be told, it’s still not pleasant).
And the fun has only just begun. Because then the series goes for the hips—and all with very little foreplay, I might add. It really can be kind of brutal.
In the Mysore room, it’s not at all uncommon to have someone sobbing while another grunts with determination. Faces are made with heavy sighs of despair. I can remember learning Kapotasana and as soon as any teacher would come near me, I’d collapse onto my back—my version of a white flag surrender.
It’s really no wonder I quit this craziness about 3-5 times (depending on whose memory you trust) during this time. Often, I’d leave my practice agitated and irritable—I longed to return to primary and not just on Fridays.
It really was agony for me.
And I know I’m not alone. I hear students talk of their vivid dreams at night, their intense onslaught of emotions, the fear, the anger, the sadness…the crazy.
The good news for me? I survived and lived to tell about it.
And yet, I wonder—are there others out there, not so lucky I sent my teacher one of my wildly random emails and asked jokingly, but not really:
Can the second series of Ashtanga make someone legit crazy?
And this is what David Garrigues had to say:
The second series is called Nadi Shodana (cleansing of pranic channels) for good reason.
The second series frees internal energy channels causing prana to flow more freely throughout the internal bodily and mental world. The content of energy that is obstructed or somehow held back or blocked is often ‘negativity’, in the form of anger, resentment, grief, trauma, fear, guilt and such. When these states remain blocked and unexpressed they represent an incredible amount of held back life force, a tremendous amount of unavailable energy within.
Breathing, working on stilling the body in postures, and achieving states of equanimity serve to remove the obstructions that prevent the flow of energy that is behind these states. Thus practicing second series can cause strong emotional upheavals, feelings of ‘going crazy’, of not being in control.
Yoga’s answer to these upheavals is to create mudra’s around them, to contain the energy that is being expressed, and this done by admitting them and the energy that they unleash into your internal world. There within your practice, your reflection times, your contemplation and meditation times, you accept, observe, interact with and transform the energy. Ideally you learn to work with these states that sometimes contain raw, unbridled, unruly, undirected energy.
Accurate yoga practice is meant to help you learn to direct, shunt and express, in meaningful curative ways, all the different manifestations of energy that arise from within you. And if you are not mature enough to handle the internal tension and pressure that second series can evoke, you will most likely lose your self to mundane distractions, to unhelpful projections, and to creating new obstructions that staunch the newly flowing prana that the second series is awakening in you.
So you will simultaneously want to grow in consciousness and not want to grow in consciousness, make efforts to increase your awareness and concentrative powers and also thwart those very efforts with various blinding responses and behaviors. You go into a kind of partial psychological slumber before you do severe damage to your self.
Rarely do you end up truly unhinged or crazy, like the guy in the movie Paris Texas whose existence has been reduced to pacing a freeway overpass ranting his angry tirade to the unheeding people in cars zooming by below.
Not that I wouldn’t take David’s word for it, I did also ask Kino MacGregor—you know, for a girl’s perspective:
I have never known anyone to go “legit” crazy from doing Second Series. But it does certainly stimulate intense feelings and emotions that eventually level off into balance and equanimity after years of practice.
Kino is in the process of writing a book on the Intermediate Series that she promises will answer this question and more.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.