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Is there any purpose to practicing “advanced” asana?

I would like to propose that when speaking about yoga, the word “advanced” does not describe what one is doing, but the way in which that pose or practice is being performed. It is not the pose that is being practiced that is “advanced”, but rather the attention that is being paid to that pose that can be advanced.

Advanced asana both is and isn’t about fancy poses.

I think most of us can agree that trikonasana can be practiced in an advanced way. This would begin with a clear and careful transition into the pose, and would prioritize creating an architecture with the body that is useful and appropriate for the unique body that is creating this shape. I think most of us could also agree that a challenging pose like astavakrasana can be practiced in a way that isn’t advanced at all. Words like pushing, forcing, gripping and “NAILING IT” all come to mind.

Right off the bat I’d like to flesh out the difference between “advanced” asana and challenging asana. An advanced practice to me, is about subtlety and clarity and it allows for lots of space and time to explore. That can happen just as easily {if not more easily} in a Level 1 class, as it can in a Level 3 class.

Choosing child’s pose over the extra vinyasa is often the advanced practice. Adding more props when they will be helpful is often the advanced practice.

What I actually want to address here is the usefulness, if there is any, to practicing challenging, or even “fancy” asanas.

For our purposes today, let’s assume that a challenging asana is one that is slightly difficult and may require more different kinds of movement than you are used to using. One person’s challenging asana could be moving from standing to sitting on the floor without using any support. For someone else it could be doing a handstand in the middle of the room.

Everyone has a version of what a challenging movement or shape would be for them, and I think what I will say here will apply to us all.

I hope that we are practicing and teaching asana in a way that serves and supports the rest of our lives. More strength and mobility, the kind that can be gained with an asana practice, do little for us unto themselves. But we live in a culture that moves far less than our evolutionary ancestors, as we have outsourced much of our movement to technology. This lack of movement has created many physical ailments in our society, and asana is a great tool to use to teach mindful, therapeutic movement to restore some of what we have lost by sitting down all the time. {Among other cultural non-movement habits}.

Teachers who see asana as a tool for health may feel that its only purpose is to be able to engage in basic movements, like walking, without any pain. Others will say that the only use for asana is to be able to sit in meditation comfortably. I don’t completely disagree with these perspectives at all, but…

If we follow this line of thinking down to the end of the road, then I think asana might turn into a therapeutic healing modality, more like Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais, and I think something special about asana might be lost in that journey.

There are many brilliant leaders and teachers already challenging the traditionally held concepts about postural yoga and its role in our modern life. If you are not already following the work of Matthew Remski, Diane Bruni and J Brown I really recommend them if these questions interest you.

My intention with this article is to add my own voice to the interesting conversation already taking place.

There is so much polarization in the yoga world, and of course, in our society in general. We often find teachers on two sides of an extreme spectrum. To hear one yoga teacher say that say you should never do something usually means you will hear another yoga teacher you should always do that exact same thing 10 minutes later.

Every time that kind of conversation starts {covering ANY topic} I usually fall squarely in the middle path and say, “well, yes sometimes, but maybe it depends…”

Mini Rant…does this sound familiar?

“Always engage your glutes in backbends!”

“Never engage your glutes in backbends!”

“Always let your hips move with your spine in a twist!”

“Never let your hips move with your spine in a twist!”

Anyway, I think when we are are talking about yoga as soon as we use the words “ALWAYS” and “NEVER” we are wrong. Dead wrong.

NOTHING is that black and white….especially the human body and psyche.

This polarized kind of conversation comes up a lot around “fancy” poses.

I know some teachers on one end of the spectrum that love fancy poses and teach many of them in every class and post daily pictures of themselves performing these fancy poses as “inspiration”.

On the other end of the spectrum, I know teachers who never teach anything other than the most basic poses. I think they do this because they don’t feel like the fancy poses serve any direct, specific physical benefit. {I don’t disagree here.} They also don’t want their students to feel like the fancy pose is the yoga. Of course, I completely agree with that. There is so much to yoga that is smaller and more subtle and simultaneously bigger and more wide reaching and important than simply practicing fancy poses.

And yet.

I think there may {sometimes} be a role in our modern practice of asana for challenging, or even fancy poses.

So, I teach a class at noon on Friday’s at Willow Street Yoga Center that’s called Advanced Alignment Based Vinyasa.

As we know, there are many things that can make a practice “advanced” and I try to incorporate all of those aspects into this class. For me, it is of utmost importance that students are highly tuned to their own movement and muscular engagement patterns and I try to create a strong container that allows them to explore that. In my class we spend a long time slowly warming up, so students have time to sense how their body is feeling and are able to make conscious and intelligent choices about how to move.

Also of great interest to me is what happens in the transitions between poses. I encourage my students to move slowly so they can be grounded and intentional in all the spaces between. Sometimes I’ll teach a transition in a specific and particular way, by breaking down all the movements that are necessary to shift from one shape to another. In my advanced class however, I often tell my students where they are headed, and let them take the path that is most skillful for them.

I incorporate pranayama and meditation into my classes, and offer deep and challenging inner emotional work throughout the class.

Those are all aspects of an “advanced” practice that are important to me. {Sometimes it looks like I have my class just standing there doing nothing for a long time!}

But, because it’s an Alignment Based Advanced Asana class at a studio with wonderful teachers and strong and well taught practitioners, we also work towards “fancier” poses.

Last week in my Friday class we worked towards the version of Vasisthasana where the big toe of the top leg is held and extended to the side.

Photo Credit: Isabelle Carbonell

We looked at versions of that shape in many poses and spent the whole class exploring the patterns that would be necessary to hold on to the big toe. We didn’t push it. We never do in my class. We just explored. I encouraged them, in shapes with more stability, to explore what would need to be sacrificed to hold on to the big toe, and to consider if it was worth it. If there had to be many micro compensatory movements, I told them it probably wasn’t worth it.

And when it came time to try it in side plank, I let everyone sit down for a minute and I got on my soap box. This is what I said,

I don’t care at all if you can “do” this pose. It doesn’t matter and it never will. Nothing about your life will be different if you can do this challenging arm balance.

Here is why we build towards complicated poses like this in my class ANYWAY:

I see the practices of yoga to be mostly about coming into a deeper and more loving relationship with oneself, so that we can be of more use to the world around us.

Yoga asana provides a wonderful container for this kind of self exploration. It is however, not the only tool I recommend. There are many other movement modalities and mindfulness practices that are wonderful vehicles for deepening self awareness. But here we are at an asana class, sitting on sticky mats and wearing exercise clothes. So this is what we’re doing righ