The learning curve of the Primary Series is steep. As we drag we ourselves up the slopes of the practice, we encounter an endless line of false summits. Each time we think we have neared the peak, another one appears, and looms higher still on the horizon. If we continue to toil our way through these experiences, we gradually begin to realize that the peaks are never ending. There is always another level, another way of doing the series more elegantly, more vibrantly, or with more focus and awareness. We never really complete the Primary Series, but we keep rediscovering it, and rediscovering ourselves in the process. This is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when facing the vexed question, which every Ashtanga student must eventually face: Am I ready for the Second Series?
There is no simple answer to this question, no plain measure that we can can use to decide this question definitively. In the Ashtanga community, there are certain standards of postural proficiency, and these standards make sense in certain contexts, but they are much too rigid and superficial to be of wider use. They work for that small group of people whose role is to embody postural standards, but they prevent other people, otherwise ripe for the experience, from embracing the potential of the Ashtanga practice as a whole. Some bodies will never bend into the more formidable forms of the Primary Series, but that does not indicate much of anything about their steadiness and suppleness of mind, nor about their deeper postural integrity, nor then for their readiness to advance further into the practice.
Still, there is good reason that the Primary Series comes first in the Ashtanga curriculum. From both psychical and physical angles, the Primary Series comprises the foundation upon which the later sequences build. And unless that foundation is strong, the whole edifice will be shaky, and in constant danger of collapse.
To assess your readiness to move into the Second Series, you should understand a few things about the psychodynamics of the practice. The first is that the Primary Series is designed specifically to strengthen apana, the downward and dissolving force that removes excess from the body and mind. Apana is the force that allows us to let go of thoughts, emotions and memories that no longer serve us, so that we can move on with our lives, and continue to evolve. All of the folding, squeezing, wrenching and binding that is so characteristic of the Primary Series serves to consolidate and amplify the apanic force, with the intended impact of creating more focus, stability, and mental resilience.
The Second Series, on the other hand, is designed to dredge up the sediment of past experience, to dislodge fragments of unprocessed thought, feeling and memory from the inner recesses of the body, and release them into the open space of awareness. If the apanic force is strong, it will dissolve this sediment, and the whole process will be experienced as a kind of psychical release. The creative force confined within those mental fragments will be absorbed back into the subtle body, which will light up in response, and shimmer with an enhanced creative charge. In terms of yogic psychology, this moment of absorption is called hatha-paka, or sudden assimilation, which is one of the most crucial processes of unraveling the conditioned mind.
This process will not unfold unless the apanic force of the mind is quite strong. And that is precisely why the Ashtanga system emphasizes the quickening of the apanic force from the beginning. If that force is not strong, and the conscious mind is unexpectedly exposed to its latent and unprocessed memories, the result can be quite traumatic. Unable to remain detached and grounded, the mind will become entangled in those memories, and all of the dramatic stories that they represent. And for just that reason, the mind may become inflamed, disturbed and quite possibly deranged.
The sudden release of unprocessed memories is nothing to take lightly. Yet taking them lightly—with a sense of detachment, tempered with wonder—is precisely the method of hatha-paka. To practice that method requires a strong apanic force. One must be fully grounded in the body. And to become more grounded in the body is the purpose of the Primary Series.
Of course, one can be grounded in the body without having mastered the more difficult forms of the Primary Series. Some bodies will never take those forms, however strong their apanic forces might be. So technical proficiency in the Primary Series is a poor and superficial measure for readiness to move on to the Second Series. Having a strong apanic force, which can withstand sudden surges of latent memory, is a more pertinent measure of readiness for the Second Series. But this measure is not sufficient by itself.
To be sure, some people are quite grounded in their bodies before doing Ashtanga at all. Perhaps they engage in other somatic practices, or they have a grounded temperament by nature. Still, it would not be prudent for them to practice the Second Series from the start, because Second Series postures, in their conventional forms, can present severe physical challenges, and unless one has developed the kind of deep physical integrity that comes from practicing the Primary Series for some time, experimenting with a standard Second Series practice could expose one to serious injury. So having strong apanic forces is not a sufficient condition for readiness to practice the Second Series. One also needs to have a strong foundation of internal postural support. And there is no better way to acquire that support than to practice the Primary Series.
However, there are many postures and movements in the Second Series that can be extremely beneficial when adapted to the unique bodies and circumstance of even the most unexperienced practitioner. No rule about postural proficiency or even existing foundational support should prevent such students who would otherwise benefit from these postures from availing themselves of their tremendous therapeutic potential. So readiness to take on some adapted Second Series sequencing cannot be measured by the combination of apanic forces and foundational support alone.
And there is a predominating psychodynamic reason for most serious Ashtanga practitioners to begin experimenting with some adaptive version of the Second Series after two or three years, regardless of whatever level of postural proficiency in the Primary Series they have attained. And the reason is balance. With its pronounced emphasis on apanic forms, the Primary Series is not a balanced asana practice. Instead, it is an intelligent foundational element in the development of such a thing. When done in the right amount, the Primary Series can gather and consolidate our psychical forces, enhance our focus, stability, and mental resilience. But when taken too far, or for too long, it can also encourage introversion, mental rigidity and even dogmatism.
Nor is this possibility unique to the Primary Series. Any strongly apanic practice, if overdone, can encourage signal apanic derangements. These are most evident in people who become increasingly hunched, introverted, distant, and hung up on their own perceptions and ideas. At the extreme end, apanic imbalance can manifest as extremism, which is one of the most serious obstacles to yoga. So even if one has little ambition to accumulate a wide repertoire of postures, and feels overwhelmed by the challenges of the Primary Series, one should consider the adaptation of some Second Series sequencing, simply to invite more openness and receptivity into the mix. In other words, one should consider balancing the apanic practice of the Primary Series with one that enhances the flow of prana, the ascending current that underlies our imagination, inspiration, creativity, and the ability to see things from multiple points of view.
For practitioners of Ashtanga, this would mean adding some intelligently adapted versions of the more pranic postures that appear in the beginning of the Second Series. These postures characteristically involve more opening, reaching and extending through the hips and spine, which is exactly the opposite of the flexing and closing movements of the Primary Series. They encourage the attention to mov upward and outward, while stimulating longer and deeper currents of sensation through the body. When combined intelligently with Primary Series sequencing, this postures can gradually bring the asana practice into a sustainable balance.
Instead, the Primary Series is an important foundational practice for those who need to reign in their psychical currents, and ground themselves in their bodies, while preparing themselves physically and mentally for the kind of deep and strenuous asana practice that the Second Series represents.
In fact, there may be psychodynamic reasons for some new Ashtanga practitioners to incorporate some intelligently adapted and accessible versions of the pranic postures that appear near the beginning of the Second Series from the start. There might be a pressing need to break up thick layers of mental stagnation, elevate the mood, or extrovert the attention. And as we have seen, there might also be some need to confront more apparently physiological problems like chronic pain or tension in the shoulders and hips. So it can make sense to weave Second Series postures into an Ashtanga practice quite early on for an array of reasons.
To conclude, there is no simple criterion, which we can cast in terms of postural proficiency, that can determine our readiness to move into the Second Series. There are many good reasons to add postures from the Second Series into an Ashtanga practice, long before meeting conventional standards of technical proficiency. An experienced and capable Ashtanga teacher can help you make an intelligent decision about that, but you must also remember that no one can make that decision for you. You have to decide for yourself when and what to do with your body and mind. Of course, it would be reckless to ignore traditional insights about such things, and arrogant to defy the more experienced people around you. But more importantly, it would be scandalous to surrender your power of judgement to convention, and give the most crucial decisions about your psychical development to someone else.
To walk the path of yoga, without swerving irrecoverably off course, you have to develop your power of discernment, viveka-khyati, so that you can in intelligent sequences of action and counteraction. Otherwise, you succumb to the wiles of your own mind, which never tires of imposing rules and constructs on your experience, and will gladly prevent you from engaging yourself in an open spirit of experimentation. To immerse yourself in that spirit—which is the true spirit of yoga—you have to keep surrendering your ideas and preconceptions, as well as the ideas and preconceptions of others, and looking again, without fear or conceit, into the luminous center of your experience, while sustaining simple, unstilted trust in who you are.
So if you have spent some time with the Primary Series, and your find yourself wondering whether you are ready to move on, set your rules and precepts aside. Rather than imposing an external criterion on yourself, having to do with postural proficiency or physical prowess, consider the impact that the Second Series might have on your mind. Know that you cannot predict or control that impact. And know that, in practicing the Second Series, you will be exposing yourself to the unknown, and feeling into new dimensions of your body and your psyche. Are you ready to confront the demons that are waiting there in the shadows for you? Are you ready to embrace them with compassion, and accept them as your own, without getting tangled in whatever dramatic stories they might recall? With these questions in mind, you must finally ask yourself. Am I ready for the Second Series?