When you do an Internet search for “advanced yoga,” the results are pretty intimidating: you’ll see barely clothed men and women in poses that would make Gumby squirm and gravity angry. I’ve often wondered about the concept because I’ve heard the word “advanced” a number of times with regards to yoga since I started the practice. Sweaty, naked people aside, I find the notion of “advanced yoga” to be quite misleading. Some have tried to define an “advanced yogi” as one who can do certain poses, achieve particular binds or bend with rubber band flexibility and, I have to say, those definitions make me cringe. While I have nothing but respect for the yogis out there who have worked so hard to do those poses I dream about, I know in my heart those poses aren’t the end goal of yoga and that an asana does not an advanced yogi make. Sure, arm balances and inversions are empowering, challenging and fun but are they what make or break a yogi? I sure hope not.
All of this talk about advanced yoga makes me reflect upon what I believe to be important about this practice of ours. Since I’m 6 months pregnant, a lot of poses are inaccessible to me. Does this mean I’m not advancing my practice or that someone who can rock a prayer twist “beats” me in the competition for advanced yoga-hood? I don’t think so. Thankfully, yoga can be about more than just the poses — if you let it. I’m sure there are tons of yogis out there who practice just for the workout and the chance to do gravity-defying things with one’s body, and I respect that. Just because yoga means something to me, doesn’t mean it has to mean the same thing to others.
But, I am SO grateful it means more to me than just physical movement. If it were just a workout, I’d be one frustrated preggo right now because there’s just so much I can’t do! To me, yoga is breath, peace, empowerment, “me time”, self-love, community and oh-so-much more. To become “advanced” at this practice is a journey through all of those things, not just the physical asanas. Since that’s the case (in my book), I think it means I have a heck of a long way to go before the word “advanced” ever applies to me.
Yet, we use these labels and I get it. At 3 Bridges, it’s nice to have a Beginners class, for example, because people new to yoga will feel more comfortable attending. Yet, we also have Level II’s, which brings up so many questions! How will I determine if I’m “cut out” for a class labeled Level II, Power, Intermediate or even, gulp, Advanced? The reality is, every studio is different and it’s hard to know the standard by which they measure their class level. For some studios, the more advanced a class, the hotter the room is while for others, the faster the flow. What follows is a very subjective, quite personal and absolutely non-absolute litany of questions to ask yourself to gauge whether you might be comfortable in a more “advanced” class. Feel free to disagree with any of these!
• How’s my breath throughout the practice? Do I hold it? Am I able to sustain ujjayi or at least breathe only in and out the nose?
• Do I feel familiar enough with the alignment of most poses? Is my alignment safe for my joints in poses? (Notice, this isn’t about the pose looking good, it’s about being safe and strong!)
• Am I willing to try new poses and let go of expectations for myself?
• Do I know my limitations and when to say, “enough” or “I’ll stop here”? Am I willing to let yoga be about more than just the poses?
• Am I able to focus on my practice without being distracted by the yogi next to me? Can I let go of what my neighbor is doing and just do what’s best for me?
• Am I safe to practice near, meaning, do I muscle my way into things and risk falling over or into someone when I should back off and ease my way in?
• Can the instructor trust me to know my body: its strengths and weaknesses, so I can honor it throughout the practice?
• Am I open to the instructor and the yogis around me so that I can soak up whatever they might share with me?
These are just some things to think about. If I know anything for sure about yoga, it’s that it is a process. For example, some days I am awesome at letting go of expectations and other days, I can’t let go of my need to compete. But within this process, there is so much grace! There are countless opportunities to send love to oneself and others and release the expectations that have such strong holds upon our lives. While I know yoga may just be a workout for many, it has a way of creeping into the rest of one’s life (that’s what happened to me!). Now, here I am, on this journey and loving (almost) every minute of it. I am thankful to be in this journey with all of you since I know very well that I will need help along the way.