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Advanced Yoga Practice: It’s All in Your Mind

advanced yoga practice Twisting in a Chair: An "Advanced" Twist
Must. Do. Everything.

A former student recently told me that she had to stop coming to class because she just couldn’t make herself sit out poses even when she knew they were bothering her back. Even though I encourage people to abstain when a pose doesn’t feel right, and my class culture is anything but competitive, this particular student realizes that it is her nature to want to do everything. An active biker, skier and climber, she’s up for pretty much any physical challenge, and she just couldn’t resist doing it all in yoga classes too. She’s since spent a few years developing a slowed-down home practice that works for her, and she feels ready to bring what she’s learned—physically and mentally—back into a classroom situation.

My student is not alone in wanting to try everything, ignoring her own body’s signals. Especially early in practice, this must-do-everything attitude is far more common than opting out of poses. 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.

It’s All About Integrity

Sitting out and/or modifying shows a level of awareness and wisdom not usually available to beginners. And the development of awareness and wisdom are what yoga is all about. There are well-loved and highly respected teachers—think the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh—who are known for their humility, wisdom and compassion, not for their ability to bust awesome poses. Everyone in the yoga world is also painfully aware of the many famous teachers who can perform amazing physical feats of “advanced” asana who have not behaved admirably toward their students and in their lives.

So when I see a longtime student head to the wall for Vrksasana (Tree Pose), pull up a stack of blankets to sit on in a seated forward bend or rest their bottom hand on a block in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), I think: “That’s progress!” In my mind, 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 in integrity and when it isn’t, and to recognize that asana’s ability to teach us about integrity is far more important than its ability to lead us into fancy poses.

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 awareness to know that at the time she stopped coming, she was not able to keep herself safe in a class setting. I’m happy that she has the awareness to fashion a home practice that 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, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. 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 schools and 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.

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