What Is An “Advanced” Yoga Practice?
And Why We Need To Start Dropping Labels
By Julie Schoen
Recently I have come across numerous yoga classes and events with the label “advanced” – “advanced yoga”, “advanced practitioners only”, etc. My first encounter, an invitation to teach an advanced yoga class at a local studio, was met with enthusiasm. But my initial excitement, which was brought on by the fact that I was even asked to teach the class combined with fun ideas for stringing challenging yoga postures inaccessible to many into a ninety minute class, faded quickly as I began to really ask myself, “What is ‘advanced’ yoga?” The more I thought about the question, and even more so in hindsight, I realized that I was viewing the chance to lead an advanced class as a challenge, or even a competition, hearing the little “anything you can do I can do better” voice popping up in my head with an even louder and scarier voice singing back, “No you can’t.”
No you can’t. No you can’t. No you can’t.
I heard it again and again as I jumped on and off my mat trying to decide what I was going teach in this advanced class. “If only I could do handstand away from the wall,” I would say to myself or, “I’d love to teach this pose, but I can only do it with a strap” or, “This sequence would be great but I should really have (*insert any name of incredible yogis in my neighborhood*) demonstrate it because she’s better.”
This went on and on for a week until, in tears and frustrated to the point that I actually pulled my hamstring trying to improve my Hanumanasana, I called the studio and bowed out, suggesting the names of several other instructors in town whom I admired for their ability to do the unbelievable.
I was down and out. I was lead to the conclusion that, despite my love and passion and knowledge for it, I was out of my league when it came to teaching advanced yoga. Maybe, I thought, I was out of my league with yoga in general.
Nowadays it seems like yoga instructors need to be able to put on a show to get respect from a larger audience. The Internet is filled with incredible photographs and videos of absolutely amazing yogis performing some of the most beautiful poses and home practice sequences you have ever seen. Google any name of a well-known yogi and, almost guaranteed, some of the first images that show up will be them in out of this world poses.
Many of these people have put in decades of work, dedicating their life to their practice, and their incredible feats are simply the fruits of their labors being photographed and filmed not for “Look At Me!” reasons, but simply as documentation of what is, like a virtual badge of identification that just says, “Hi. My name is ___________ and this is what I do.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. I applaud that. I love that.
There are, however, some people who are naturally inclined to become awesome at yoga, and at a much quicker rate than your average person. Take any former gymnast or dancer and they’ll be in “advanced” postures on day one of their journey to yoga. Of course they will meet plenty of challenges if they continue their practice, they will have to overcome fears and old habits just like the rest of us, which is why, in my opinion, so many people fall in love with practicing yoga.
Overtime, it will push you. It will make you question things you were once comfortable with and examine them out in the open. It will bring up crap you don’t want to deal with. It will make you sweat, cry, laugh, smile, and sometimes all at the same time. For me, this is the essence of yoga – discovering who you really are and honoring it, whatever it happens to be in this very moment, every day. It’s a journey into the entire universe within and everyone is invited.
But let me get back to my point for a moment – what is “advanced” yoga?
Should one’s ability to do Kapotasana determine whether or not they belong in an “advanced” class? Should someone who has been dedicated to their studies and practicing yoga for two decades feel intimidated by a class labeled as “advanced”? Is it fair to applaud someone as an “advanced yogi” who happens to be able to wrap one limb behind their neck but who hasn’t the slightest idea what the 8 Limbs are?
These are the questions that a beautiful and wonderful friend of mine asked me over coffee as I lamented to her about my inabilities to teach “advanced” yoga students. Through this conversation and several others I initiated with my teachers and mentors I came to the conclusion that this “advanced” label I had been obsessing over for the past several weeks really didn’t matter in the least.
Yoga itself teaches us that we are all on our own path. That the simple act of practicing, whether it be asana or meditation or loving kindness or non-harming, on a daily basis is enough. It’s not the outcome, but rather the act, that matters. Or as others have put it – it’s the journey not the destination.
A wonderful teacher, Christina Sell, said to our class a few weekends ago, “In yoga we all ask the same questions, but we get different results.” In which I wanted (but thoughtfully restrained) belting out, “Preach it sister!” in the middle of Down Dog.
Isn’t that right though? Yoga is yoga – nothing more. When we allow ourselves to get caught up in the labeling of our practice (Advanced, Yin, Vinyasa, Beginner, Kundalini, Iyengar, Bikram, Hot, Power…) I believe that we begin to limit ourselves, both as teachers and students. A yoga class should be welcoming to everyone. It should change depending on who is attending, the time of day, the mood, and those secret conversations that are overheard before class starts (“I wish my low back didn’t feel so stiff”, “I hope I do okay tonight because I just sat for three days at a conference for work”, etc). An advanced yogi knows how to make beginning poses challenging and a great instructor knows how to take care of beginning students in class by offering incremental stages, variations, and loving support mixed with a watchful eye.
Advanced yoga is not something that can be witnessed at first glance. It occurs on a deeper level, one that is rarely recognized in today’s visually obsessed world. Advanced yoga is calm and quiet, thoughtful and beautiful. You see it in bits and pieces as you observe one at work on their mat and in their daily life. Small, shining moments, peeks into the world of someone who has dedicated themselves to being present, to feeling their breath, can be observed whether they are practicing Urdhva Dhanurasana, sitting in Dandasana, or simply interacting with a person at the store.
I would love if the yoga community would collectively start embracing the true depths of yoga and, in doing so, lose the labels so we can correctly represent what this practice is – a beautiful journey, not an “advanced” destination.