Advanced Yogi: It’s Not What You Think

This entry was posted on Jan 18, 2024 by Charlotte Bell.
Upavistha Konasana

Some years ago, I led some yoga students through a rather lengthy series of leg-stretching asanas based on Supta Padanghustasana (Supine Big Toe Pose). At that time, I had always ended the series with a one-legged version of Yoganidrasana (ankles behind the head). Of course, most people in my classes feel pretty flexible if their foot ends up within a few inches of their faces. And honestly, that’s really quite flexible compared to the average person on the street. Some might even think that’s an indication of being an advanced yogi.

The orientation and depth of many people’s hip sockets will never allow an Instagram star expression of the pose. I’m one of the few people whose hip joints are amenable to Yoganidrasana, and to poses such as Padmasana (Lotus Pose). I don’t take particular pride in this; it’s not something I earned through hard work. It’s simply a genetic variation I inherited from my gymnast father.

Yoganidrasana and the SI Joint

The instructions for moving into Yoganidrasana can be confusing to students, probably because the pose has nothing in common with everyday movement. When I demonstrated Yoganidrasana, it was for clarity. It was, in fact, helpful to demonstrate the version that most people can accomplish. This involves bending one knee toward the chest, placing the ankle in the bend of the opposite elbow and drawing the leg in toward the chest. As I offered the option—somewhat jokingly—of slipping the ankle behind the head, it occurred to me to do what I’ve often done: Demonstrate.

For a week prior to this class, I’d been struggling with sacroiliac (SI) pain and sciatica. I attribute this to my genetically loose joints, along with years of practicing alignment instructions that I later found to be inappropriate. In addition, youthful enthusiasm inspired me to try every “advanced” pose I could force myself into back in the 1980s. As a result, my SI joint has become fragile and unstable.

Trashing Your SI Joint Does Not Make Anyone an Advanced Yogi

My SI joint is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for me. On one hand, it’s quite useful; it gives me immediate feedback when my alignment is ever-so-slightly unhealthy. I’ve learned volumes about healthy SI-joint alignment from living with this extremely sensitive and communicative joint. On the other hand, my SI joint misaligns easily and turns excruciatingly painful at the slightest provocation.

So this time, when I had the option to demonstrate Yoganidrasana, I chose the prudent path and opted out. By opting out, I saved myself SI trouble. But more important, I walked my talk. I would never encourage a student to push past SI and sciatica pain. The only motivation I can think of for sliding my foot behind my head would be to prove that I could do it, to show my students what an “advanced yogi” I am.

Why Class Levels Don’t Work for Yoga

I’ve long advocated for a different definition of the “advanced” yogi. Defined class levels (Level 1, 2, 3 and 4) seem artificial, limiting and inaccurate to me. Some people come to yoga with bodies that will do almost every pose on the first day. For example, some people can push up into Urdva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow) with straight arms (the requirement for entering some Level 3 classes) with no restrictions. On the other hand, a yogi with 30 years’ experience may have been born with more stable joints. More stable joints will often not allow arms to be straight in Upward Bow. This person would not be able to attend an “advanced” class. These parameters do not seem useful to me.

What Is an Advanced Yogi?

For me, an advanced yogi is one who has a two-way communication with his/her body—speaking and listening. An advanced yogi has the experience to know when he/she is too exhausted, injured or fragile to practice a particular pose. An experienced yogi knows that the degree to which you can stretch, the number of Chaturangas (yoga push-ups) you can do, the length of time you can stay in Headstand, or having straight arms in Urdva Dhanurasana does not matter in the grand scheme. An advanced yogi’s ego is in check enough to know that what your body can or can’t do is not a measure of your commitment to yoga. The mature yoga practitioner knows that just because you can do a particular pose doesn’t mean that you should.

Donna Farhi teaches that advanced yogis may choose to opt out of doing the most “advanced” variations of poses, rather than push themselves to the point of injury. Advanced yogis are the people who know that yoga is not about performance, but about freedom from the need to perform. I have to agree. My decision to opt out of Yoganidrasana tastes far more of freedom than wedging my ankle behind my head ever could.

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.

15 responses to “Advanced Yogi: It’s Not What You Think”

  1. Avatar Charlotte says:

    IMO, the key to fine-tuning the body/mind/spirit connection is to let go of the struggle against our bodies as they are. That’s actually the definition of mastery of asana (physical yoga) according to the sutras: “It is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the infinite.”

  2. Avatar Matthew says:

    As I begin to practice yoga, I need to keep in mind what you have written and not be so goal-oriented. I don’t want to become “advanced” as much as I want to fine-tune my body and my mind-body-spirit connection.

  3. Avatar Nadine Fawell says:

    Amen, amen, amen!

    I will never be allowed into those level three classes, probably not even the level two ones, because I have limited forearm rotation, the kind of pelvis/femur setup that only really goes forwards and backwards with any ease, and an acromium process that somewhat limits me in backbends, especially of the arms overhead variety…

    So I will never be an ‘advanced’ yogi in that sense 😛

    Great post, Charlotte!

    And I must admit, I am a teensy bit impressed that you CAN get your legs behind your ears. I can too, but only if I dislocate one or both SIJ’s.

  4. Avatar Danielle says:

    Well said! Thank you for this. It is a great addition to the current discussion regarding why yoga can ‘wreck’ your body…loved the summary.

  5. Avatar Charlotte says:

    Thanks, Danielle. I’m really glad that this conversation has been opened up by the “Wreck Your Body” article. I think that the mindset that defines advanced yoga as the ability to do contortionist-style poses is wreaking havoc on people. I hope the conversation will start people seeing things a little differently.

  6. Avatar Pam says:

    I also think an upper level student know how to use props to assist in forming the poses in order to get the benefits of a particular pose.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Absolutely! Props can help you maintain healthy alignment in poses, and can give you the space to be able to relax into the pose.

  7. Avatar Jill Dunphy says:

    How timely to read this! I have been practicing yoga for over 25 years and teaching for 20. I have been “working through” fairly severe back pain for at least 10. My chiropractor diagnosed spinal stenosis and spondololysthesis along with bonespurs in my neck, but said doing yoga was a good thing, so I soldiered on. Just before the holidays, I woke up and could not walk on my right foot and sciatica pain was so severe, I nearly collapsed when I stood up. Three doctors, a series of x-rays and an MRI revealed the severity of my stenosis and I was advised to curtail my yoga practice and all other forms of exercise other than riding a stationary bike. No BLT for me (bending, lifting or twisting). The irony is that I teach adaptive yoga for people with MS, and now I have to restrict my movements. I have always taught caution and “doing less,” as Judith Lasater advises her students, but I just could not practice what I preached. I am now focusing on my physical therapy exercises and hoping I can find a teacher, a class somewhere that will accommodate me. I feel as though I have lost a precious friend. I reveled in movement as a dancer, athlete and yogi, but at such a cost! I am starting again, with beginner’s mind because I want to stay as strong and mobile as possible as long as possible. I feel like you were writing about me. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one! Thank you!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’m sorry to hear about your diagnoses, but I’m glad you’ve identified the issue and can now move toward a more appropriate practice for your body at this time. Even without a diagnosis like yours, our practice needs to change over time to adjust to the changes that naturally happen in our bodies as we age. Beginner’s mind is so important, no matter how long you’ve practiced!

      It’s important to embrace other forms, such as physical therapy, as part of your yoga practice. I’ve been doing weight training for the past year and a half, and consider it a part of my physical yoga practice. That’s because yoga is about balance, not about achieving poses. For me, balance is building strength and sacrificing a bit of flexibility, because my body is hypermobile to an extent that’s not actually healthy. If you approach your other practices with mindfulness and care, they can be just as nourishing as your formal asana practice.

  8. Avatar Jane Gram says:

    Thank you for this post! Another person who does not believe in yoga classes based on levels. For each heathy body, there will be poses which can be taken to the most difficult variations and poses which will never be available. My teaching encourages students to recognize the ways in which their unique structure warrants modifications of certain poses. This was not something I encountered in the many teacher trainings I’ve attended, but something I intuited from my own body and early practice on my own. I credit Paul Grilley’s video (many years old by now, showing that seasoned yogis look very different in the poses) for reinforcing that truth. So glad you can share this with a wide audience of yoga practitioners!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I also have enjoyed Paul Grilley’s teachings on anatomy and the differences in people’s bony structures. It really changed how I approach my teaching. When I first started teaching in the ’80s, I’d say things like, “If you practice long enough, you’ll be able to do such-and-such pose.” I cringe when I remember saying this! I’m ever grateful to Paul Grilley, and my main teachers, Donna Farhi and Judith Lasater, for teaching me that not all bodies are the same, and that yoga practice is highly individualized (which is probably why it was always taught one-on-one until the 20th century).

  9. Avatar Sarah says:

    I guess I don’t aptpreciate the negativity I feel upon reading most of your “articles” the “some forms of yoga” comments are no helpful. I appreciate your comments about getting into poses. but since you set yourself up as a yoga authority, it seems that you might use more inclusive language in you posts

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thank you for your feedback. I’m not sure what you’re referring to. I reread this article and don’t see anything in it that refers to “some forms of yoga.” If I refer to other forms in other articles, it’s simply to acknowledge that there’s a wide variety of ways to approach practice, and whatever I’m offering in my writing may or may not be applicable to the particular style a reader may be practicing.

      Even before yoga became popular in the early 2000s, there were many forms of practice, often radically different from each other. So sometimes I do have to specify that different forms of practice promote different philosophies and ways of practicing, most of which I’m unfamiliar with. This is in no way a diss of other forms. It’s simply that I don’t know enough about other forms of yoga to speak about them.

      I studied Ashtanga with Richard Freeman many years ago, and have the utmost respect for him as a teacher. But after six months or so, I realized that a faster-paced practice is not compatible with my particular body. However, I’m well aware that there are many people whose bodies crave a more fast-paced style of practice. Each person’s body type and constitution is different from everyone else’s, and what’s appropriate practice for any individual will likely change during their lifetime. There’s a place for almost everyone in the broad spectrum of yoga practice. Having practiced a more meditative, slower-paced, alignment-based form of yoga for more than 40 years, I feel I can speak to that. But I certainly don’t consider myself an authority. I’m still learning like everyone else. And I’m well aware that my way of approaching practice and teaching will not be everyone’s cup of tea. That’s totally fine with me.

      Actually, the point of this post was to be inclusive, and to remind people that yoga is not about what your body can or can’t do. Too many people are scared away from practice when they see depictions of poses their bodies simply can’t do. I wrote this post to encourage people to appreciate their practice as it is, rather than what they think it “should” be.

  10. Avatar Blake says:

    Thank you for this article, it was so inspiring! I have been practicing yoga for 20 years and recently completed 200YTT. Being a runner I struggle with many poses in the hips and knees. In the beginning of my practice it was frustrating when I could not “achieve” but as I delved deeper into yoga practice I realized that what the pose looks like is not what’s important. It is how you feel in the pose and my goal as guide is to allow my students to realize this early in their practice so that they can find the joy of yoga and its benefits early on. Thank you! I can’t wait to share this with others!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Congratulations on your YTT! Your challenges will certainly help you be a more empathetic and inclusive teacher. I struggled for years with standing poses because my body is naturally hypermobile, but not naturally strong. Because I had to go through all the baby steps to become more stable and solid in standing poses, I feel that I’m more skilled at teaching them than I am teaching other poses that have come easily for me. As you know, the benefits of practice don’t depend on what your body can or can’t do. It’s the inner experience that counts. Enjoy your teaching!

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