A former longtime 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. It’s completely fine with me if a student does his/her own practice in my classes. But this particular student realizes that it is her nature to want to do everything. Like so many of us, the goal of developing “advanced yoga practice” is a deeply held, almost intractable concept.
An active biker, skier and rock climber, she’s up for pretty much any physical challenge. This made it difficult for her to refuse yoga poses that she knew were hurting her. 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.
But sitting out 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. 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. Judith Hanson Lasater says that she doesn’t want her headstone to say, “She did amazing backbends.” She wants to be remembered for her kindness, wisdom and truthfulness. That’s the point of yoga.
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.