Advanced Yoga

Circus Contortion

I hear the term “advanced yoga” thrown about quite often.

  • “Advanced yoga”.  I want to try that.
  • She is so advanced.  Check out her Upavistha Konasana.
  • Will you teach me the “advanced yoga” secret handshake?

What is advanced yoga?

Often, people use the term “advanced” to refer to someone who is capable of getting into seemingly complicated postures such as Hanumanasana, aka, “splits”.

What you may not know is there are some people who can plop out of bed in the morning and drop into the splits or fire log or a dozen other yoga postures that look like they would break you in half.

The Problem with Advanced

Commonly, we approach life like it’s a ladder to go up.  Climb one rung and the logical conclusion is to try for the next.

But yoga is not a linear process.  It exists to help us discover and learn things about ourselves as we engage with the postures.

Nor is yoga contortion.  Contortionists typically start at a young age, endure a painful training regiment and usually can only contort in a certain manner (forward bending or back bending depending on their body).  A forward bending contortionist who is not able to touch her toes would not be very successful.

Contortionist

A yogi, though, doesn’t care if he ever touches his toes.  The real joy reveals itself while trying.

We use the postures to get into the body…not the body to get into the postures.

 Qualities of Advanced Practitioners 

An “advanced yogini” has certain qualities.  She is kind, compassionate and loving.  She is self-accepting and humble.  She laughs often.

Her practice is refined, skillful and aware—deliberate.  Her focus is on her breath. She is consistent in her effort, and comes to her practice with a sense of inquiry and playfulness.

She is relaxed.

The thing is, she develops these qualities by working through the postures.  Over many years, her regular practice offers tens of thousands of postural experiences to consider how she is moving through the world.

Each experience shapes her.

Her initial habit of hardness and intensity serves only to distance her.  Slowly she realizes her typical pushing pattern is more like banging her head against a wall.

Yoga at this point is annoying and frustrating.   What she is doing is not working and she doesn’t know why.

But she keeps trying again and again.

She comes to the conclusion to move in a kind, relaxed way because they are what offer her a feeling of connection and love.

Or consider the story of Darren Rhodes, a well-regarded yoga teacher.  He decided to undertake all 200 of the postures in Light on Yoga, the primary yoga pose text.

“When I come across a posture I ask myself, “How do I have to shift physically, mentally, and in my heart to be able to do that?  I want to be able to do a posture because I know it will require transformation on all levels.  I ask students to be with the asana as a mode of transformation. The most beautiful thing about yoga is that it allows anyone and everyone to find their bliss.”

His personal endeavor took several years and injuries—at one-point recalling, “I asked my dad, who is very strong, to push my feet into my abdomen, to no avail.”  [Don’t try this at home.]

And in the end, it wasn’t about the physical, but what he learned about himself that made it worth it.

If this is the case, a better term for “advanced” might be “mature” or even “seasoned practitioner”.  It suggests someone who has been around the block and understands deeply what yoga is about.

It’s about less, not more

The reality of the matter is the more “advanced” we are in the practice, the more ordinary we become.

Confused?  Let’s revisit the purpose of yoga.

Yoga helps us savor life

The joy, the beauty, the love that we seek is right here, right now.

Why, then, are there complicated yoga postures?

 Yoga exists because we feel disconnected from life, other people and especially ourselves.

The physical practice can help us find our way back.

Depending on the source, yoga has anywhere from 84 to 8.4 million postures.  In reality there are 200 agreed upon “classical” postures organized by BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, and practiced by many schools of yoga.

This 200 gets chopped down to maybe 50 different postures you will regularly see in most yoga classes because:

  • We sit a lot of the day and have tight hips, sore lower backs and weak shoulders.
  • It takes consistent practice to begin to access the more challenging postures.
  • The nature of group classes means the teacher teaches to a wide experience level.

But let’s say you did have a class with people who are strong and flexible like dancers, gymnasts and cheerleaders.  They may have an easier time getting into the postures but that doesn’t mean they are practicing yoga, let alone “advanced yoga”.

Splits

The work of yoga is the same for everyone—to come to a place of comfortable discomfort.

  • We use physical sensations to guide us there.
  • Once there we become present to what we feel.
  • We pay attention, listen and observe.
  • We watch our emotions as they come up.
  • We witness the patterns of behavior that reoccur in our lives.

Physical yoga is a great access point because it starts externally.  You can both see and feel your leg working and shaking.

If you don’t feel anything you’re not doing the work.

If you have a greater range of motion in your body (commonly referred to as flexibility) then you are going to need different posture options to come to a place that is interesting.

This is the reason for the variety and number of postures.

“Stretchy People Have Further to Go”  Rusty Wells

A paradox in yoga is the inverse relationship between complicated postures and feeling.  Often we start to seek more difficulty and “advanced yoga poses” because we want to feel more.  But as we are able to make deeper and richer connections internally we begin to access a huge amount of sensation through progressively simpler postures.

A posture like tadasana that, at first look, seemed benign is suddenly offering you a tidal wave of feeling.

Thus, more complicated postures aren’t necessary to become “advanced”.

An “advanced yoga practitioner” may choose to work in:

  • Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)
  • Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle)
  • Samastitihi (Equal Standing Posture)

…just like someone who is new to yoga.  Her focus, however, is quite different—feeling the overall sense of balance, relaxation and breath.  She is able to appreciate the subtlety and is conscious of where her energy is being channeled.

 What began as a quest for complication turned into a journey towards the simple.

This is predictable when you learn that all complicated postures are a series of simple postures strung together.  If you want to do the complicated posture well do the simple beautifully.

It’s a process we all have to go through to value the simple.

When I was in my twenties I loved going to clubs to dance.  And when I reflect back on why I realize I wanted to move, be seen and make a connection with others.  I wanted to have fun.

It was a lot of effort—getting ready, coordinating schedules—and a lot of intensity—sound, lights, smoke, people.  Sometimes it worked and sometimes it felt cold and lonely, even in a crowd.

Now I still dance, though primarily in my kitchen.  I have a great time.  I share deep connection over cups of tea and bowls of cereal with the people I love.  And I am able to see myself through my practice.

I have become quite ordinary and am thrilled.

How do you become “advanced”? 

  • Start where you are.
  • Commit to a regular yoga practice.
  • Find the best teachers you can and study with them on a regular basis.
  • Give it time—at least 5-10 years.

In short—practice yoga.  (And keep practicing.)

As you practice consciously and deliberately over a period of time you’ll find you experience more joy in your life and become kinder.

You stop “striving” and instead focus on what’s important in life.  You are more relaxed and loving.

In reality, the truly “advanced” yogini is always a beginner—she approaches life with freshness and a sense of wonder. 

There is irony in relaxation and softness for they are the more difficult path.

Anyone can push, yell and do more.

But this doesn’t get you very far in yoga or life.

It takes trust, patience, vulnerability and a willingness to let go to find a soft touch.  Yet, this is exactly why a relaxed manner matters because it asks you to develop these qualities.

To be relaxed is to be advanced. 

For when you are, a whole new world and life opens up to you.

“I never understood [relaxation].  As the years have gone by, it’s happened for me.  I understand less is more.  You have to have the power or reserve inside.  I find now that by relaxing and enjoying this present moment in my life I find that things are getting easier…being open so that the power can flow through you.  Whether you are an actor, a painter, a musician or an airline pilot—you can’t be tense.  It’s a whole principle of life, if you relax, chance is good things will come to you.”  Anthony Hopkins