“Advanced” Yoga

This post is nearly three weeks delayed, with apologies; the last paragraph had a stubbornly long birth.

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Vancouver, BC: home to the Olympics, delicious food, beautiful weather and luscious views, and invigorating yoga studios.  On the ground there for a three lovely days, I quickly sniffed out a studio just two blocks from my hotel, joyful that I’d finally be able to get some time on the mat where I wasn’t directing either myself or others.  I could relinquish all control and just…be.  Heaven, no?

Well, yes and no, as it turns out.  It felt wonderful to put my achy body and tired mind in the hands of another person, knowing that all I had to do was show up and honor how the instructions occurred with in my own body.  But I felt a bit like Goldilocks: neither class felt quite right.  This one was spacious and inviting but not invigorating; this one felt too closed and exclusive but challenging.  I never quite found the “just right” class, though I think it’s more the fault of only having time for two classes.  But the experience honed in on something essential to yoga but easy to forget: being “advanced” is more about one’s mindfulness than one’s physical capacities.

I struggled to remember this in the more invigorating class.  I suppose that I wasn’t quite expecting that I would be told, several times through one class, what its level was.  And as I tried to fit my tight shoulders, quads, and chest into the asanas my teacher had deemed appropriate for that level, I felt more and more frustrated.  “Does the lack of bend in my back suggest that I don’t belong here?”

Rationally I know that’s not the case.  Openness aside, differences in physiological structure can affect how one’s body moves into an asana.  What I found was that my ego flared up, not, as is often the case with yogis, as a desire to force myself into something and “prove” myself but as flashes of insecurity.  The insecurity quickly turned into grumpiness.  “Just what was I doing here?”

I walked away from the class thinking about my mental exertions.  It is easy for yoga to turn into a competitive sport rather than a contemplative practice.  A few key ingredients, depending upon the day’s recipe, and you have a dangerous dish of ego where physicality trumps aspects care-taking for yourself.  I worry that yogis who don’t fit the yogi stereotype (lithe flexible bodies more akin to Gumby) might too easily succumb to this dismal outcome if they aren’t encouraged otherwise.  If things like physical abilities dominate the studio environment or creep into our speech.  Fixating on the body or labeling asanas as ‘advanced’ or ‘beginning’ contorts yoga to suit a common modern mindset: that you’re only as good as some arbitrary set of standards says you are, that health or wellness or goodness only fit certain body types and certain ages, that the value of a practice isn’t found in the actual practice but in its rewards.  (None of these thoughts discount or belittle the exhilaration of finally “getting” a pose you’ve been working on – though I might argue that it’s the process that creates a great deal of your excitement – I just don’t want us to rest on that singular moment and say that yoga’s greatest fruits are found in achieving certain poses.)  Equally, if not more, important to finding a pose are all of those little moments that get you there because that’s where precision, compassion, and mindfulness lie.  That’s how our minds and bodies come together for greater self-awareness and other-awareness.  And that’s where we begin to shed ourselves of external measures to pick up and shine all of those crazy beautiful portions of ourselves.  I’m for polishing those latent beauties in ourselves.  Who’s with me?

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