How to "Advance" in Yoga

This is Advanced Yoga Dog. He's so in touch with his inner Chi he can defy gravity. Don't  you  want to be as advanced as Advanced Yoga Dog? 

This is Advanced Yoga Dog. He's so in touch with his inner Chi he can defy gravity. Don't you want to be as advanced as Advanced Yoga Dog? 

I often joke with my students and clients that the more “advanced” I get in yoga, the smaller my poses get, the more interested I get in the basics and the less I care about the showy poses that I once reached for. You know, the ones that are labeled “advanced” in the books and magazines.

One of the first things I discovered after my teacher training was that beginner classes were the hardest to teach. It was much simpler to communicate with people who already had a yoga foundation, those who already had some semblance of a body/mind connection, who already understood the basics and how to build on them. What is handstand, after all, but down dog arms, boat core, and mountain legs? Take the basics and expand on them. Simple.

But teaching someone to feel their feet on the floor, like really and truly FEEL them - skin, bones, connective tissue - teach them how to articulate toes and arches, to be quiet enough to feel their connective tissue sliding, muscles contracting and releasing, to create a foundation of those feet that sends tentacles down into earth and up into the legs and heart, to feel that connection so deeply that their is a sensation of loss when that foot is lifted off the ground.

That is hard to teach, hard to explain. It must be experienced and embodied over time and repetition.

That deepening connection with my own body has been revelatory. The more I explore it, the more I discover, the deeper I go. I lose that connection, that ability to observe and explore when my body gets too tangled around itself. That’s not to say that I can’t develop a relationship in the showy poses. Over time, with attention and reverence, I could, I might. And I do visit those poses. I still find joy in trying something new. I still get excited when I achieve a new physical level of “advancement” in my practice. But I find peace in the poses where I can investigate without fear of falling over.

This body/mind connection has also taught me caution. All poses are fine and good in themselves, but my body is not built for all of them. They are not all good for me. Poses must be altered and molded to fit my frame. To do this takes patience and it dissolves ego, which means it may also be humbling. It means I must surrender and allow the pose to be what it is in my body right now, not what I want it to be or what it is in someone else’s body. It’s this awareness that is “advanced.” 

Sometimes the depth or shape of the pose changes with time, attention, breath and work. In my body that work must be gentle or it causes physical pain. That too is humbling. Which is a good thing.

I think humbleness is sometimes a better barometer of advancement than the shape of a pose. 

So what is an advanced practice to me? For me? It’s one where I can breathe fully, steadily, and purposefully. It’s one where I am sure of my body, but I have a little room to push and explore, to see what’s near. It’s one where I feel better when I’m finished than when I started. It’s one where I feel more connected to my own body, mind, and world around me as a result of it.

Being a yogi is not about how flexible or strong you are, it’s about growing the connections between you and everything else, about blurring the lines between you and everything else. Advancing your practice is not about getting your foot behind your head, although that could happen, it’s about deepening what you know, seeing and feeling more, observing what is without reaching for isn’t, even if it just isn’t yet.