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Redefining Advanced Yoga

in Yogitorials
image via huggermugger.com

image via huggermugger.com

by Charlotte Bell

In 30 years of teaching, I can’t even begin to relate how many times I’ve heard people say that they can’t do yoga because they’re not flexible. Similarly, I wish I had a dollar for all the times I’ve heard a longtime student declare himself/herself to be “just” a beginner because in all these years he/she has never touched toes in a forward bend or done Upward Bow with straight arms.

A few days ago I read a blog lamenting the yoga cultural emphasis on “advanced” poses and how all the social media photos of yoga practitioners in these poses is likely scaring people away from practice. This is probably true, and certainly a valid concern. But I want to take the discussion a step further and pose the question: “What is advanced yoga anyway?”

Is “advanced yoga” the ability to slip easily into full Pigeon? Is it the ability to wedge your ankle behind your head? Is rocking arm balances on the beach advanced yoga?

To be sure, accomplishing poses such as these—along with many, many more extreme ones—can show determination and discipline. My dad was a gymnast. Even when he was in his 60s, the discipline it took for him to be able to compete when he was younger served him well. For his entire adult life, he was in better physical condition than most people half his age.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to challenge our bodies. But the truth about the poses that are widely considered to be “advanced” is that they will only ever be accessible to a small portion of the population, no matter how many decades we’ve practiced asana. And their practical benefits in terms of allowing our bodies to function with ease in our everyday lives is questionable.

The Pursuit of Bendy

We’re all built differently. Some of us are born with stable joints and strong ligaments. Some of us are born with shallow joints and loose ligaments. A person with stable joints may have perfectly relaxed soft tissue, but still have limited mobility because range of motion is limited by one bone running into another at a joint site. A person with loose or shallow joints will simply be able to move their joints further before encountering bony contact.

Over the years I’ve encountered a number of students who could do “advanced” poses on their very first day of class. Does that make them advanced practitioners? Conversely, I’ve observed students with decades of practice who can’t touch their toes. Does that make them beginners?

Most of us can maintain and even increase our flexibility with consistent asana practice. But to what end? Is ever-increasing flexibility a goal to covet? For a person who tends toward the stiffer side, maintaining and increasing flexibility, within limits, is probably a positive. For a person who’s naturally flexible—often the people who become attracted to asana in the first place because, “I can do this!”—not so much.

As a person born with loose joints, including the hip dysplasia that has enabled me to perform all kinds of amazing feats of flexibility, I’ve had to rethink the popular Western notion that more flexibility is always better.

When naturally flexible people practice asana, going too far is almost inevitable. In order to feel something—anything—we flexies have to push our joints to their healthy limits and beyond. Never mind that the point of practice is not to “feel a stretch.” The real issue is that pushing our joints to the limit further destabilizes them by stretching ligaments and wears down cartilage as bone grinds against bone.

For a naturally flexible person, building stability—not more flexibility—creates balance. I’d argue that a naturally flexible person doing fancy poses that require hypermobility could be in the beginning, rather than advanced, stage of his/her practice. Here’s why:

Steady and Comfortable

Remember this: shtira sukkhan asanam? According to Alistair Shearer, Sutra 2.46 means, “The physical posture is steady and comfortable.” Hmmm. “Steady” implies stability. “Comfort” implies ease. Nothing in there about being über-flexible. And here’s Sutra 2.47: “[Asana] is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.”

Advanced asana has nothing to do with what your body is capable or incapable of performing. It has everything to do with developing the awareness and sensitivity to be able to practice asana from a place of ease, presence and contentment with what is. It is learning to partner with your body, rather than trying to conquer it.

I tell my students this all the time: When I see a person in my class backing away from doing the “full” pose; sitting out a pose and doing something else entirely; or resting deeply in a simple, so-called “beginning” pose, that is advanced yoga. When I observe my students resting in the present reality of their asana practice—no matter what it looks like—without straining, pushing or judging themselves for a perceived deficit of yoga ability, I’m elated. Their minds are at ease, fully present and content—even grateful—to be in their bodies as they are right in that very moment. That is mastery.

Inquiring into Your Practice

Here are some questions you might consider asking yourself as you practice:

  • How is my breathing? If your breath is not free and easy, mastery (according to Sutra 2.47) won’t be possible.
  • Where am I feeling stretching sensation? Is it in soft tissue along the bones? Probably okay. Is it in a joint or joints? Back off.
  • What’s my mind up to? Do I feel that my current practice is deficient in some way? Do I feel that my current practice is superior? Both these things are judgments that get in the way of actual yoga (the settling of the mind into silence). Practice is just what it is—practice. It’s not a performance. Simply be present.
  • Instead of asking the question, “What more can I do to go further in this pose?,” try asking yourself, “What can I stop doing that’s getting in the way of my experiencing this pose here and now?”

Remember that yoga asana asks us to partner with our bodies to create a state of ease and stability, a place where our minds can find rest. The goal of asana is the stilling of the mind. “Advanced yoga,” however we choose to define it, isn’t the goal. We can be at ease any time, when we let go of the idea that outward manifestations of poses are the point. The journey is inward, and it leads you to this very moment.

~

Charlotte Bell is a yoga and meditation teacher, oboist and writer living in Salt Lake City. She writes for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’s blog and Catalyst Magazine, and has published two books with Rodmell Press: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators.

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33 comments… add one
  • Great post Charlotte – completely agree it is a shame that we seem to have got a bit fixated on advanced vs. beginner, and in many peoples books ok vs. really amazing yoga poses. It is all in danger of missing the point totally. I wrote about the flexibility discussion on my blog recently too – https://rohayoga.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/not-flexible-enough/

    It’s good to see this discussion being had in the yoga community.

    • Hi Katy, Thanks for your comment and thanks for directing us to your insightful post. I also love Leslie Kaminoff’s comment about how much flexibility we need. I’ve yet to find a practical use for putting one’s ankle behind one’s head …

  • This is one of the more refreshing articles i have seen in a while. I, myself, learned this the hard way. I remember i used to take an ashtanga class. I have always been very flexible, so in forward folds…i would have my face to my ankles. The teacher would use me as an example, telling the students how amazing it was that my head could almost reach my feet. He even use to push on my lower back with his foot to help me achieve an even DEEPER forward fold. This, of course, made me feel like the yogi super star. Looking back, i want to punch myself for allowing my ego to think i was any better than anyone else in that class.

    Fast forward 5 years.

    I kept asking myself “what is that pain i feel in my bottom, is it DOMS? I must have really worked my glutes.” A few days later, i was wondering why my bottom still hurt. Now, it was my hips that were starting to hurt. I was very worried that i actually had my very first yoga injury. After practicing for TWENTY years. I thought “no way, not me. I have NEVER had a yoga injury before!”

    Come to find out, i did exactly that. I damaged my connective tissue that connects my femur to the hip socket. I occasionally STILL feel it. I absolutely cannot do forward folds and/ or hip openers without it later resulting in pain. I have accepted this. People often turn to stare at me as they are headed into their deep forward folds, and i just skip that part. I know some foks are thinking “oh, she must have the tightest hamstrings”. Nope. I can fold so good, i could look at my butt if i wanted. lol. But…no…i am no longer interested. I do yoga to improve my physical, mental, emotional well being. Not to damage it.

    Now that i teach, i witness the same thing. When i see someone consistently showing off their flexibility, or if i ask the class to do bridge pose…and a bunch of folks just push up into wheel…i know right away that they are still in the beginning stages of yoga. Even though they may have been practicing for 20+ years as i was.

    Dealing with that yoga injury has greatly improved my relationship with asana. So, i am very grateful i experienced it.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. I used to be very attached to being the most flexible person in the room, even though I knew asana practice wasn’t about competing. It is wise that you’ve given up forward folds with your condition. There are LOTS of poses I don’t practice anymore even though my body will still do them. One of the great things about aging is that I’m no longer the least bit concerned about how others judge my practice.

    • Hello Samurai Witch. I have been experiencing similar pains where femur meets pelvis for years. Before I had a consistent yoga practice I just dealt with it. Then it began to reveal itself in so many asanas I had to pay attention. I am still working with it. The pain has diminished in scope but still remains provoked with activity and quieter without. Ive sought help for it from a variety of practitioners and have learned a lot about managing and honoring this pain. I suspect it is exactly what you describe. But nobody to date has really helped me sort it out and identify the specific structures or given me anything useful and comprehensive that I can do for it. May I ask what type(s) of practitioners you found who helped you sort it out? I live in upstate NY.

  • I think Zen Buddhism has it right when it encourages us to have “beginner’s mind”, whether we have been practicing 6 months or 60 years.

    • One of my favorite quotes ever comes from Suzuki Roshi. I’m sure you know it, but perhaps other readers haven’t heard it: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.”

  • k4k

    Thank you for this article. I was thinking about this subject today while taking a yoga class. This was a flow class, which I normally don’t take. It’s a good class but sometimes I think that in flow I don’t get a chance to truly feel myself into the pose. I am simply going from to the other. I feel good after class is over but that self examination during the class has to happen faster. Does anyone have any feelings about flow vs. other types of yoga with respect to examining the limits of your body?

    • Thanks for your comment. I wonder if it might help you to do a slower practice at home so that you can learn your limits, at least in a general way—limits change from day to day and from practice to practice. That way you can apply what you know to a faster-paced class. When you slow your practice down it’s easier to feel overstretching before it happens.

  • Yoga is now famous all around the globe and it is a perfect exercise for body fitness.

  • Absolutely beautiful post. I began practicing yoga regularly after years and years of feeling that it “just wasn’t for me” in late August of this year. Being a person who is “fit” by most standards (long distance runner + lots of plyometric HIIT), I often beat myself up over not being able to handle advanced yoga poses.

    The thing about yoga that is so beautiful is that it really is just about you and your breathing.. It’s not supposed to be a competition of who can hold crow pose the longest or who can bring their foot behind their head. I often find myself getting so worked up over trying to get into the poses (because God-forbid I listen to my body and take a rest) and forget to breathe.

    I don’t know why this is, but I think that it may be human nature to want to be “advanced” or “skilled’ in all that we do. Problem with that is that to get to an “advanced” place, you first need to begin. In my practice the other day, the teacher kept reinforcing the idea that not being able to get into a pose is okay and that poses “come and go.” The focus was put on being able to relax into your body and breathe. I am so grateful to yoga for allowing me to, for the first time in my life, connect (or at least try to connect) with my body in a way that is gentle and compassionate.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. I think the most challenging thing about yoga practice for Western practitioners is to really get—on a cellular level—that it’s not about competing, and that in fact, competing gets in the way of yoga. It’s easy to understand on a surface, intellectual level, but to integrate it to the point where you really aren’t even tempted to compete—not because you’re holding yourself back, but as an act of respect and even joy—takes time. It took me decades to really get it and I wasn’t a particularly competitive person to begin with. Be patient with yourself and your practice as it unfolds. When you find yourself feeling competitive, it’s really okay. It’s part of the practice too.

  • Jay

    I frequently refer back to the article you wrote some time ago (“Why Yoga and Flexibility Are Not Synonymous”) which is a well told case story of the points you make above. Additionally I just added your book, Mindful Yoga Mindful Life to my Nook. Yes, this Ashtangi must remind himself time and again that “yoga is what you don’t see.”

    • Hi Jay, Thanks so much for reading this and for adding my book to your collection. I do seem to harp on this subject a lot, but it comes from 30+ years of practice and making a whole lot of mistakes. Thankfully, I’ve learned a little from many of them! Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  • It took me a while to come to terms with the idea that while other people were happily pushing up into full wheel and touching their nose to their knees, I was struggling to get anywhere close. Finding peace struggling with poses other people do with ease is my version of an “advanced” practice.

    • Thanks for your comment. Finding peace no matter what your pose looks like is everyone’s advanced practice. Our bodies change. Very few people will be doing the same yoga in their 60s and 70s that they were doing in their 30s. If your happiness is dependent on being able to do fancy poses, you’re in for some major disappointment. If, on the other hand, you can be content in the simplest, least impressive-looking poses, you’re way ahead.

  • ianna

    love this, charlotte. thank you. yoga culture really needs the voices of “yoga elders”. i’m almost into my 3rd decade of yoga now and i think a lot about issues of advanced practice.

    i think that while my practice probably looks from the outside a lot less “advanced” than it did in my first decade or so, my inner experience is a great deal more respectful and accepting of What Is than it was at that time. i am so much more able to listen to what is actually going on and to respond to that, so much less caught up in the dogma and doctrine of what yoga is supposed to be – and so much less interested in what anyone else might think. for me, advanced practice is more about wise, mature practice: the recognition (borne of experience, not ideas) of what is actually important to me. just because i can get my leg behind my head doesn’t mean i should! – though, interestingly, there seems to be a correlation between placing deep focus on the breath, the internal dynamics of embodiment and the “energy lines” of a given practice/pose, and externally “advanced” poses showing up spontaneously.

    also – great to hear a shearer’s translation of the sutras quoted. by far my favourite version

    thank you again.

    • Thanks, Ianna. Everything you say resonates with what I feel about practice. My practice also looks less “advanced” according to the mainstream definition. I decided to stop putting my ankle behind my head about six years ago. What’s the point?! As the years have passed, so many fancy poses have dropped away, and my practice has become so much more satisfying.

      I also love Alistair Shearer’s translation. A friend and I got together monthly for about seven years to study the Sutras. While we used a lot of other translations to bolster our understanding, we agreed that Shearer’s was the main one we wanted to use.

  • Thanks for the advanced Yoga Retreats providing in Italy. I will surely going to use this technique for my Retreats classes.

  • VQ2

    Those youthful and not-so-youthful bendy 21st Century fakirs who are gymnastics mavens and and dancers and acrobats; into power yoga and puffing themselves up with AcroYoga exhibitionism, still -if their sequences are sound and their philosophy is deep (not Jivamukti-deep, necessarily; but not flavor-of-the-month sex/close-up-ready shallow) have much to give. Just go easy on the yank-and-crank, and don’t try to convert me into a sister inversion maven; and just allow me to be entertained by watching you. You are in the entertainment business, like it or not. That’s what fakirs have done back then, for alms.
    That’s how you can be intergenerationally and stiff-people friendly. It’s probably YogaWorks’ secret sauce … No, I am not wasting time or taking up space in your class.
    Get a freakin’ grip!

  • Awesome post! I’m a yoga teacher who can’t touch her toes and proud of it! Well, I wasn’t before I became a teacher…if it wasn’t for the wonderful NZ yoga teacher Juliet Forch saying to me in a workshop that we need more inflexible yoga teachers I probably would not have committed to becoming a teacher. So thank you. The more we talk about yoga not being about how flexible you are the better.

  • dan

    Ah yes, in our rush to a yogic non-judgment mindset we can forget whom we judge most. A mindful spiritual practice can easily be derailed by pushing our physical selves to some unreasonable expectation. Resulting injuries are not always just physical and the unhealthy cycle is continued. Honoring all aspects of your practice and not “setting the bar” at your desire for a deeper back bend can break this cycle if you let it. Love this post.

  • karen Mulhern

    Wonderful article. I would only add
    that even in a mindful, careful practice, injuries can happen. I have
    a small labral tear that probably began
    asymptonatic. When I started to feel
    a tightness in my glutes that was new,
    I began to alter my practice to try and
    figure out what was wrong. I agree
    with the above comments that deep
    folds are probably not a good idea for
    most of us!
    I guess this practice just requires
    deep study, deep concentration and
    a moment to moment awareness.
    This lesson has become more resonant
    as I work within the limits of my injury and will only continue as I age.
    Knowing your body allows you to go with the flow and give your body what it needs. This is when movement becomes organic, unique and incredibly interesting.

  • Randy B. - Durham, NC, USA

    Advanced yoga is when one gets past the physicality of the practice and realizes that yoga is the balanced practice of meditation with movement and breath, AND proceeds to teach this to others or lead by example.

  • Em Whitfield

    This is a fantastic article that represents and reminds us of what true yoga is. I was somewhat flexible in yoga and kept pushing myself , as we all were , to reach Nirvana!
    Ridiculous .After becoming “advanced” it left me empty and injured until one day I asked Doug Keller “where do I go from here?”
    He replied ” maybe it’s time to go inward” . Now that’s yoga! It changed my relationship to yoga forever.

  • KimS

    Thank you for this great article. I actually read it about a week ago and have thought about it almost every single day. The yoga place I go to has many different classes and the other day I went to a class where the students were making fun of some new classes/teachers because the teachers were not doing strenuous enough yoga. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and your article really helped me.

  • Thank you for such an honest post! I have been practising for 18 years now but due to various changes in my body due to injuries, childbirth, etc., there are certain poses that are either no longer accessible to me or simply do not interest me because they do not feel good or serve a purpose. It took me many years to reach a point at which I’m able to use my discernment in deciding how to design a practice that serves me, and to me, that is the definition of an advanced practice. And yet, we all are beginners. There is still so much to learn, and I do appreciate the new insights we gain from the various brilliant teachers in the yoga community. It may not be traditional, but it keeps me curious. I’m comfortable with the notion that I may always remain an advanced beginner, if we should venture into labels. This notion is humbling and reminds me to stay soft, not rigid, always ready to explore something new.

  • Thank you for this article, I completely agree. I used to do a fair amount of vinyasa classes and began to realize that I wasn’t slowing down enough to honor my body and I was over-stretching and injuring myself, even when I tried to ‘take it easy.’ So I quit doing flow and I’ve been committed to a restorative practice for the past year and it’s been a powerful experience.

  • Charlotte, May I read this article in parts or whole to the yoga classes I teach? I feel it is such an important point to bring up for both brand new and advanced students. Myself included. Before I became a yoga teacher, I thought I had to master all those advanced asanas to be able to teach. Now I see the misunderstanding in that. Some of my deepest practices have come in classes with the most basic asanas as I was led to sit in tree and pay attention to directing my knee one way, and softening my inner groin, and pulling my outer hip to midline. Instructions that were not only physically inaccessible to me 5 years ago, but were intellectually incomprehensible. I had no idea what that meant when I first began practicing. Now I recognize the changes within my body and mind that allow me to even begin to try to settle into an asana in that way. Yet, even with that understanding, there are days when it is easy to get drawn into the idea that as a ‘good’ yoga teacher, I “should’ be home practicing handstand or crow or some other asana I find difficult. Then I realize the mind’s game and wait until my body asks me to make those efforts. So far, my body is proving much smarter. Thank you so much for this article. I am happy that it is a discussion happening in the yoga world. It is much needed. I read parts of it to my husband who only sometimes lets me guide him through a practice. And he agreed that pictures of people in those advanced poses become the reason some people never even try it.

  • Josh

    Well said. Do you know about J. Brown and his ‘Gentle Is The New Advanced’, ‘Slower Is Stronger’ yoga?

  • I agree that “advanced” yoga isn’t about being bending or doing difficult poses. I recall a few years ago taking classes with one of my favorite teachers and sometimes there would only be 2 or 3 students in the class which probably allowed her a bit more freedom and flexibility in teaching the class. We’d do “advanced” yoga. We’d be holding the poses longer, working toward ease and comfort in the poses while quieting our minds. It was a wonderful experience and, for me, defines an advanced yoga practice.

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