A recent post entitled “Where Are All the Hard Yoga Classes?” has generated a lot of interesting and lively discussion on this blog. Much thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts. I’m seeing a range of opinions being expressed, and this certainly reflects the many different experiences we all have with yoga, and our different attitudes about and conceptions of yoga.
An important and recurring question has arisen from the discussion, and I’d like to take a few moments today to address it. The question is this: Exactly what constitutes an “advanced yoga class”?
In talking to various people, and in reading the emails and postings on this blog, I’m getting the sense that people tend to fall into one of two camps.
The first camp thinks of an advanced yoga class as one where you sweat a lot and push yourself to the physical limits of your body. These people enjoy “advanced” poses like arm balances, deep back-bends, acrobatic inversions, etc., and they tend to shun classes which emphasize the quieter aspects of yoga, such as meditation.
The second camp consists of people who believe that the meditative and/or spiritual aspects of a yoga class are what make it advanced. These people also seem to think that the classes which are focused on asana are not really advanced, because they are missing the whole point of yoga.
Without taking sides, I’d like to point out that these two camps are not (necessarily) mutually exclusive. In other words, it’s not meditation vs. asana. It’s not the spiritual vs. the physical. After all, there is no one “true” definition of yoga, and there are probably just as many different traditions of yoga as there are types of people who do yoga. Even within a given tradition, there are many unique takes on what yoga is really all about.
The crux of the disagreement, I think, is that people in one camp or the other tend to oversimplify what people in the other camp are doing. What follows is my attempt to defend each camp against some of these misconceptions.
In defense of the advanced asana practice.
It is not always true that people who have an asana-centered practice are just doing exercise, without any regard to the mental/spiritual aspects of yoga. In fact, many people who practice a physically intense kind of yoga would argue the exact opposite. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner might claim, for example, that she practices with such physical intensity because this is a way for her to introduce immediate and great challenge to the senses (and thus the mind). The nature of the challenge in her practice is not to “get the poses right”, but to maintain the proper mental state in relation to these poses, especially as they become more difficult and demanding. And, the Ashtangi might add, she practices the poses ultimately as preparation for sitting meditation. This preparation has both a physical component to it (you do asanas so your body is strong and can sit comfortably for long periods of time) and a mental component to it (through the process of doing asana, you release your mind from its enslavement to the senses). In other words, just because you see someone doing crazy arm balances and acrobatic feats in yoga class, it does not mean that she is the yoga equivalent of a “dumb jock” who is all brawn and no brain. Of course, there are some yogis who focus perhaps too heavily on the physical aspects of yoga, and many of us who do practice a more physical type of yoga often have to fight the tendency to make our entire practice just about the physical. But we struggle like this in our practice because we are flawed, because we are learning, and because we are still on a journey. It is neither constructive, nor necessarily accurate, to say about the person who does amazing physical feats in yoga, “Look, she’s got it all wrong,” when, in fact, she is likely just struggling in her own unique way to deepen her practice.
In defense of an advanced meditative yoga practice.
At my local studio, I’ve been hearing a lot of gripes about “easy” yoga classes. This usually amounts to the complaint that these classes are not physically rigorous enough. There is a potentially false assumption, though, behind these comments. While it is true that some classes will not cause you to break a sweat, that does not mean that these class are not advanced. Many Kundalini yoga classes, for instance, are not physically demanding in the way that, say, an Ashtanga class can be, but one should not then jump to the conclusion that Kundalini classes are easy. One of the most mentally (and physically) demanding things I’ve ever done in a yoga class is chanting “Sat Nam” over and over again with my arms raised over my head for half an hour or so. In other words, just because a yogi isn’t doing Cirque Du Soleil stunts doesn’t mean that she is not doing yoga intensely. After all, no matter what type of yoga you practice, the ultimate target of the practice is the internal (i.e., the mental, the spiritual, or what have you); asanas stand in an important but only contingent relationship to that which is internal.
Personally, I believe that the ideal advanced yoga class would be about 2-3 hours long, consisting of the whole package: intense asana, pranayama, meditation, and some restorative poses. Unfortunately, in this day and age, we typically do not have time for such long classes, so the classes we do take tend to emphasize one thing over the others. This is probably a good reason for trying out different styles of classes, different teachers, and different studios. Also, as with anything, it’s probably a good idea to go into any yoga class with an open mind. Instead of harping on what the teacher has failed to provide or do in class, it might be more beneficial to think about what the teacher is trying to provide or do with the class. You might be pleasantly surprised.