BY DEBBY SIEGEL, MSA, RYT
PHOTOS BY MICHELLE THOMAS
Amongst the the joys of being a yoga teacher is the perspective of a room full of people landing in the present moment. Watching faces soften. Seeing bodies relax. Noting defenses fall away. It’s an honor to observe this shift. Being the teacher in the room also provides the vantage point of how unique we all are on the mat. None of us is built the same and none presents the same exact asana outcome.
As humans, we learn very early on to judge these differences. We acquire labels as we grow up that we internalize and believe, and we constantly categorize and compare ourselves to others. Right v Wrong. Fun v Boring. Easy v Difficult. Beautiful v Ugly. Every day, we’re surrounded by judgments, whether on the internet or in our own minds. Some of this discernment is necessary in yoga. For example your mind-body connection will actually prepare you for a class labeled 2/3 differently than it would for a class labeled restorative. Your amazing body will ramp up its energy reserves to carry you through the class you choose. But, as we look around and decide how our practice looks compared to others inside a classroom, that’s when judgment can be harmful.
We all recognize that the yogis with more advanced asana practices are the ones in cute sport bras or shirtless in the front row, where those who feel intimidated by their skill level tend toward the back, even hiding in their clothes. Many might believe that my practice makes me an “advanced yogi.” That the ability to jump to handstand in the middle of the room, put my legs into lotus in headstand or press into forearm stand (ok, once) means I’m advanced. I would say I’m not. While my asana practice has grown a lot in the 5+ years I’ve been practicing, yoga is so much more than the outward physical appearance.
Lately I’ve been listening to the podcast Vinyasa Yoga with Nathan Johnson, primarily to gain language and flow ideas. One thing he said in an episode that stuck out to me, is that the most advanced yogi in the room is the person who breathes throughout the class with mindfulness, allowing the breath to determine the flow versus the flow determining when to breathe.
From a teacher perspective, I totally agree. I would also add that the
Advanced Yogis are those who:
- treat their asana practice as a way to build concentration or single-minded focus. They actively practice pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) while flowing. Instead of looking around the room to see what others are doing, they’re focused on their breath and their mat space. So, while I often try to flow with eyes closed for this purpose, I’m also the girl picking at her toenails during power yoga and noting how my sweat sometimes forms heart shapes on my mat, or actually thinking of a media post I am going to so cleverly write after class. Rookie.
- engage the body using the teacher’s alignment cues in order to help increase their energetic flow throughout poses while creating space for further expansion. Well, got me here too. I have spent at least 4 of my 5 years not totally isometrically engaging my inner thighs toward one another in warrior poses. I mean, no one can tell that I’m not… Novice.
- use the asanas to prepare themselves for Savasana, versus sort of rushing through class for the celebrated end. They are also basking in all out bliss in Savasana, not mentally writing shopping lists or preparing for a work meeting. Ok, I’m seeing a pattern here. I’m even more of a beginner when it comes to Savasana. Amateur.
- are willing to admit, that they don’t have all the answers. They know that it’s not about the poses, their diet, or even the number of trainings they’ve taken, but how one lives one’s life. You can achieve some pretty awe-inspiring poses (guilty) and still be dishonest or unkind to others or to yourself (ahimsa). The truth is, asana is “advanced” when it gives us better interior alignment and allows us greater comfort in living our truth in our daily lives. Ok, I’m maybe a sophomore here! Progress…
I’m sure there are other bullet points I could add to this list and would love to hear yours (firstname.lastname@example.org). But what I have learned in regard to my own yoga practice is this: I love my asana practice and will always love the strong and vital body it permits me to enjoy. But I am more than this body. I am merely allowed to play in this body. And it will require me to slow down eventually as I age. And as Dianne Bondy told me this past weekend, “Aging is a privilege.”
I am honored and grateful to be a teacher of yoga. I get to witness people blossoming into the best, most confident, versions of themselves. And it is with this vantage point that I bare witness that it’s when you quit caring whether or not you are considered an “advanced” practitioner that maybe, just maybe, you actually are closer to being one.
Those beautifully photographed Instagram posts don’t gift me with any more enlightenment than you. I am on the path though. My advancing in my yoga practice is a not just something I do. It is the way I live my life. I encourage everyone to start where you are and let your practice evolve, unfold, and transform you into an advanced yogi.
It all starts with your willingness to be present in this very moment. It all starts with your breath.
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