What is Advanced Yoga Practice?

This entry was posted on Apr 9, 2014 by Charlotte Bell.

A former student recently told me that she had to stop coming to yoga classes because she just couldn’t make herself sit out poses that were bothering her back. My class culture is anything but competitive. I encourage people to abstain when a pose doesn’t feel right. But this particular student realizes that it is her nature to want to do everything.

An active biker, skier and rock climber, she’s up for pretty much any physical challenge. She just couldn’t resist doing it all in yoga classes. She’s since spent a few years developing a slowed-down home practice that works for her. I’m glad she’s found her way into a satisfying home practice.

This particular student is not alone ignoring her body’s signals and forging ahead with poses that aren’t appropriate. Especially early in practice, this must-do-everything attitude is quite common. In the US, we’re products of a competitive culture. Most of us bring that attitude to yoga, at least at first.

Sitting out of a pose is lame, right? Well, maybe not. Donna Farhi calls opting out of poses or modifying to suit your body’s current needs “advanced yoga practice.” I agree.

Advanced Yoga Practice is All About Integrity

Developing awareness and wisdom are the main aims of yoga practice. Sitting out and/or modifying shows a level of awareness and wisdom not usually available to beginners. Some of the most admired spiritual teachers—the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh—don’t even practice yoga poses. Their loved for their humility and compassion. All of us in the yoga world are painfully aware of the many famous teachers who can perform amazing physical feats of “advanced” asana, but who have not behaved admirably toward their students.

So when I see a longtime student head to the wall for Vrksasana (Tree Pose), pull up a stack of yoga blankets to sit on in a seated forward bend or rest their bottom hand on a yoga block in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), I think, “that’s progress!”

That student has learned that the point of all this practice is not to look a certain way in a pose. Rather, it’s to develop the awareness to know when your body is aligned in integrity and when it isn’t. Recognizing asana’s ability to teach us about integrity is far more important than its ability to lead us into fancy poses. Modifying your poses is an act of wisdom and compassion.

So when my former student told me about her reason for taking a hiatus, I was happy. Of course I’ve missed having her in class. But I’m happy that during her decade-long yoga journey she developed the self-awareness to know she was not able to keep herself safe in a class setting. I’m happy that she has the experience to fashion a home practice that has helped her heal. And I’m happiest that she’s become wiser and more compassionate with herself along the way.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.