Advanced Yoga — With or Without Props
Most of my students have been attending my classes for many years—some for decades. When a newbie comes to class, they often remark that their fellow students, the longtimers, are so mellow and uncompetitive, each doing her own practice at her own pace. If a longtime student opts to lie down in a Restorative pose in lieu of a backbend or standing series, I trust that they’re body-aware enough to know what’s best for them. If a longtime student who once practiced the full version of a pose instead practices a less intense version, I support that. To me, that is advanced yoga practice.
But wait! Aren’t the students who can bust a Titibasana or Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana on command the most righteous yogis? Maybe, maybe not. It’s quite possible that a person whose body will do these poses does have a profound practice. On the other hand, it might be that these flexy folks were born with structures that are capable of such feats and there’s really nothing “yogic” about it.
What the Sutras Say
Most people are familiar with the first sutra that describes asana (2.46): “The physical posture should be steady and comfortable.” (Alistair Shearer’s translation). The second of the three sutras on asana (2.47) is not as familiar: “It is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” (Alistair Shearer)
So, asana is mastered when all effort is relaxed? It’s not mastered when we're sweating buckets and our butts are being kicked? Where’s the sutra about mastering fancy poses? If asana is to be a method for bringing us to the state of Yoga, none of these things matter. Perhaps all effort can be relaxed when we’ve worn ourselves out through intense practice. Or perhaps we can develop a deep enough awareness to know exactly how to monitor our effort in a given pose on a given day so that the state of Yoga (the settling of the mind into silence) can permeate each moment of every asana.
So in order to understand advanced yoga in the context of yoga rather than in the context of our culturally preconceived ideas about what that means, we must completely shift our perspective. If mastery is about relaxing effort, how do we apply this to asana practice?
Using Props to Advance Your Practice
One way is through understanding what using props really means, and what it doesn’t. B.K.S. Iyengar invented yoga props to allow students of varying levels of strength and flexibility benefit from poses their bodies couldn’t normally practice with integrity. At the grossest level, props help people avoid injury from overstretching or misalignment. At subtler levels, props allow our bodies to achieve alignment continuity, so that our breath can be free, and our bodies can form shapes that allow for the free flow of energy through the nadis. When I studied with Iyengar, he stated that the purpose of asana is to create a relaxed, balanced environment for the mind to dwell—to be absorbed in the Infinite as sutra 2.47 says. If props help us achieve the structural integrity that allows for the free flow of breath and prana, then at times advanced yoga practice might actually require that we use props.
When you’re teaching a class, it may be easier said than done to get students to understand this. Most students see advanced yoga as being able to do the poses without props. Many see props as crutches. This could not be farther from the truth. Most of my students understand this now, after years of hearing from me what mastery really is in the context of Yoga. A few folks still resolutely refuse to place a block under their hands in Trikonasana (above photo), even though their poses collapse in the effort to place their hand on the floor. Sometimes I give them a block, suggesting they try it as an option and tune into how that feels. Sometimes I let them do their pose the way they want to, because doing their pose their way just might be what they need at the moment.
As teachers, our job is to help guide each student through his/her yogic journey. We can offer them the benefit of our experience, but each student will choose to interpret this information and take it to heart, use it for a while or discard it altogether. It is not our job to make them adopt our ideas. One of the greatest gifts I feel I can impart is to help them dismantle cultural beliefs about what advanced yoga is and is not, or that there is even such a thing as advanced yoga. The best way for me to communicate this is to live it myself—to walk my talk. I hope I do this.
How do you encourage students to use props if they need them? How do you walk the fine line between keeping students safe and allowing them to express their asanas the way they want to?