What constitutes an “advanced” yoga practice? A lot of people think that an advanced yogi is someone who attends the hardest (i.e., the most physically demanding) yoga classes in town, and has mastered difficult backbends, inversions, and other Cirque du Soleil tricks. I certainly used to think like this, and am still sometimes prone to do so. Over the past year, though, several considerations have forced me to reevaluate my conception of advanced yoga.
First, after having suffered a number of injuries (typical stuff: wrists, knees, neck, shoulder), I’ve come to realize that a “hardcore” yoga practice is not necessarily sustainable in the long term. The body is simply not designed to do, say, 40 handstands and 40 arm balances every single day. Besides, if physical strenuousness were the true measure of an advanced yoga practice, then it would follow that only super-athletic people in their 20s and 30s could be advanced yogis. But this is clearly not the case. The best yoga teachers in the world–i.e., those with the most experience and knowledge–are mostly in their 40s, 50s, and well beyond. (B.K.S. Iyengar is 91!)
Yoga is not all about the physical, despite the fact that many super-athletic people in Level 2-3 and 3-4 classes see yoga as nothing more than exercise. It’s striking to see how many of these so-called advanced yogis are totally obsessed with their bodies, both in terms of what their bodies can do and what their bodies look like. Oftentimes, this leads to a highly competitive environment where everyone is trying to outdo everyone else with greater and more astonishing physical feats. I used to practice in such an environment, which is how I learned how to do many of the acrobatic stunts I did for my Digital Asana Project. Nowadays I rarely practice like this, partly because there are no classes in Bloomington that are taught in this way, and partly because my wrists can’t really handle it anymore. More importantly, though, I’m finding there’s far more to an advanced yoga practice than just sweating a lot and getting toned muscles.
I’ve also been rethinking what an advanced yoga practice means as I’ve learned more about yoga and the history of yoga. It’s sobering to remember that once upon a time, “asana” just referred to seated lotus, and that was the one and only pose in yoga. Even as the number of asanas expanded to include many of the poses we’re familiar with today, asana was never an end in itself, but a means to the true end of yoga: Samadhi.
Frequently, in a modern yoga class, it’s easy to lose sight of the more subtle (and, arguably, more important) possibilities of the yoga practice. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with merely doing yoga for exercise. But, as one of my teachers used to say, if you do yoga without the special mindfulness of a yogi, you’re not really doing yoga, you’re doing Indian calisthenics. (Actually, to be perfectly accurate, the yoga we practice today is not uniquely Indian calisthenics, but an amalgam of British Navel exercises from the 19th century, gymnastics, and other relatively modern forms of exercise.)
So what is an advanced yoga practice? I like to think of it like this: In an advanced yoga class, the practice tends to be more physical, but it’s also less about the physical. To put it another way, in an advanced yoga class, we’re trying to be less attached to the physical body. Attachment to the physical body can manifest in a number of ways. Below, I’ll consider the two ways in which this usually happens. I call these “soft attachment” and “hard attachment”. Both forms of attachment can be quite intense, and in that sense they can both be strong attachments. Typically, people tend towards either soft or hard attachment, but usually, from what I’ve observed in myself and in my students, most people exhibit both forms of attachment.
Soft Attachment: One thing that may be challenging in an advanced class is dealing with the sheer physical discomfort of some of the poses. A common response to this discomfort it to run away from it. Sometimes literally. I’ve seen students walk out of my classes because–as they told me later–the class was unbearable from a physical standpoint. Other students steer clear of physically demanding classes because what they really want out of a yoga class is relaxation and stress relief, and a hard yoga class is anything but relaxing and de-stressing. Finally, the most common way to run away from the physical challenge and discomfort of an advanced yoga class is to cheat the poses. I know this from experience. In my practice, I go through periods of lethargy and laziness where I have to fight the urge to make the poses easier–e.g., taking a shorter (and easier) stance in my Warrior poses, resting on my arm in Triangle Pose, relaxing my legs when they should be engaged in Uttanasa, etc.
The tendency to fight, reject, and run away from physical discomfort in yoga has a number of causes. First, it’s just natural for us to avoid discomfort, especially if that discomfort has turned into, say, burning in the thighs or pain-like sensations in our back. Second, a lot of novice yogis have the misimpression that yoga is supposed to be easy, that they don’t have to put any real work into it and can still get all the benefits. (When, in life, is this ever true!?) Finally, and most importantly, people run from discomfort because they are attached to comfort and immediately pass judgment on discomfort as something to be avoided. Once we get over this, though, and accept that yoga is going to be physically challenging, and that this will necessarily involve all manner of discomfort, then we can start doing the real work of yoga. That is, we can stop running away from stress and start learning how to manage it.
Hard Attachment: This is the type of attachment exhibited by the yoga jock. This is exactly how I would characterize myself during the first 5 or 6 years of my practice. A person who practices yoga in this manner exhibits “hard attachment” by always pushing and straining for harder and harder classes. “No pain, no gain” is this yogi’s motto. If it doesn’t burn, if it doesn’t make you sweat buckets, it’s no good. That was my way of thinking for a long time, and it lead me to miss out on a lot of great teachers (especially Iyengar teachers) who had tremendous knowledge about yoga, but were totally uninterested in teaching sweaty fitness classes.
The yogi of hard attachment is always looking for her yoga high. Frequently, she wants or needs intense heat and humidity, loud music, and all sorts of stimulation to make her practice as exciting and invigorating as possible. She wants to have fun, get in shape, and kick ass in yoga class. She wants to burn as many calories and as much fat as possible in each session. I once knew a guy who actually measured the quality of each yoga class by weighing his sweaty clothes afterward. A “five pound” yoga class was a good one; any less and he felt ripped off. Another guy once said to me that he went to Level 3-4 classes to “feel like his face got smashed into the cement.” This guy, needless to say, was also a “hardcore” yogi, and would bitch and moan if ever there was a class that didn’t nearly kill him.
Now let’s compare the novice yoga (who may exhibit “soft” or “hard” attachment, or both) and the advanced yogi. The advanced yogi is less upset and mentally disrupted by physically demanding poses and intense asana sequences. She is more comfortable being outside her comfort zone. She’s more comfortable taking risks. That is to say, she’s more comfortable being uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean that she ignores discomfort or pain, blindly powering her way through the practice. On the contrary, she’s fully aware of the sensations, but she’s also fully aware that they are just sensations. The advanced yogi recognizes that the physical postures, and the intensity of an advanced yoga practice, are intended to introduce immediate and inescapable stressors to the body and the mind. By learning to face these stressors head-on, instead of hiding from them, making them go away, or admitting defeat, she learns to remain calm and strong in the midst of great challenge. That is, she learns to do yoga.
At the same time, the advanced yogi doesn’t need her yoga fix, and she’s content in just about any class, no matter how hot, cold, sweaty, intense, easy, or weird it is. That is, she doesn’t fall into the trap of hard attachment. She’s okay with a simple and physically relaxing class, even though she doesn’t necessarily crave it and seek it out. Unlike the guy who always wants his face smashed into the cement, the advanced yogi knows how to practice yoga in any environment. That is, she practices non-attachment. In fact, the advanced yogi practices yoga not only on the mat, but off the mat as well. As the practice becomes less about the physical, she practices yoga while sitting in traffic, while being yelled at by her boss, while being sick with the flu. Indeed, the most advanced yogis leave the asana practice altogether, not necessarily having mastered all the postures, but having outgrown the need for them.
Yoga teachers often say, quoting Patanjali, that yoga is about calming or stilling the “fluctuations of the mind.” One of the most direct and intense ways for “fluctuations of the mind” to arise is through physical stress on the body. This, at least in theory, is the reason why many Level 2-3 and 3-4 classes are so physically demanding. “Fluctuations of the mind” also arise when we’re annoyed, bored, angry, agitated, judgmental, grouchy, etc., and these are all emotions that arise when we’re dissatisfied, for one reason or another, with an “easy” or “bad” yoga class. When we can let this go, when we can let go of our soft and hard attachments, then we can actually start to practice yoga.
Depending on our tendency for soft or hard attachment, we may find that we are averse to certain yoga classes, or certain challenges in yoga. But these are probably the very classes and challenges that we need to confront. When we learn to face what is difficult for us with equanimity, then we start to reap the real benefits of yoga. Challenges come from within and without, and all result in disturbances or “fluctuations of the mind.” But it’s a simple fact that life involves inescapable stress and challenge. What we’re left with, then, is figuring out how to deal with stress and challenge when they do arise. And this, I take it, is what an advanced yoga practice is all about.