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 right now. This is the tool we have chosen to use today.

We use asana, especially challenging asana, to poke around the body and see what is in there.

Where is there some limited range of motion? What are some of the habitual movement patterns in my body? What are some natural human movements that I don’t have access to? Where are there places of instability or lack of strength? How do things change when my nervous system is not on high alert?

Asana is a wonderful vehicle because it asks us to move our bodies in ways they would not move otherwise. Yoga asana is a natural fit for this exploration because {the way I teach anyway} there is a very high priority on self awareness and mindfulness.

Asana is not a perfect tool, though. There are some natural human movements that are not included in most asana practices. There are some parts of the practice that are inherently imbalanced. For example, vinyasa yoga has way too much strengthening of the pushing muscles of the upper body and absolutely no strengthening of the pulling muscles of the upper body. This must be balanced with tools outside of traditional yoga asana.

If you view asana as just the tool {as the path rather than the product} than a wide world of other modalities opens up to you as a teacher.

As a serious student of Feldenkrais for more than 10 years, I pull exercises from that system and try to incorporate it into a mindful asana practice in a seamless way.

For those of you who have been with me for awhile, you know I have had many periods of serious injury and health issues. As a result of my last major injury {a torn hip labrum} which happened in 2006, the first two years I was a full time yoga teacher I had to walk with a cane and often teach from sitting in a chair. I was 22 years old. My injuries have been some of my greatest teachers, and I will be forever grateful for them. They made me grow up really fast and drastically changed the trajectory of my teaching life. Dealing with my injuries was like doing a graduate thesis in self care, body work, functional movement patterns, and healthy ways of practicing asana. This means that I have had far fewer {if any} real musculoskeletal injuries since I made a full recovery of my torn labrum in 2008. Now, at age 33 I have already lived in so many versions of my body that were injured or unwell. I have also had many times in my life that I recovered and built up strength and endurance and once again had a body that capable of doing amazing things.

I am, at 33, already deeply at peace with the rhythm of life that includes health and activity, and sickness and injury. This rhythm is part of the natural aging process, and this rhythm is also part of life because the human body is an amazing and sometimes delicate organism that needs to be paid close attention to and cared for deeply, regardless of age.

Throughout my periods of injury and illness, I was still teaching and practicing yoga. My personal yoga practice of those periods usually did not include much asana, and certainly did not include any challenging asana.

Because of these experiences it’s easy for me to confidently say, the fancy pose is not the yoga. The fancy pose is not important at all.

But!

Looking towards whatever the challenging version of the pose is for you is still worthwhile because it provides a container for self exploration. Using asana to explore and be curious about our habits, patterns, strengths and weaknesses is fascinating and fun. Doing the prep work that will eventually give you the strength to do a bigger pose will be beneficial to the way your body can move on a daily basis. And at the end of all that work, you may be able to turn your perspective upside down in a forearm stand, and that might be fun!

If we never use asana to challenge our physical strength, stability, emotional resiliency or mental focus we are missing out of some of its great gifts.

In class on Friday I used the example of exploring “your edge”.

Again, the wide spectrum of yoga teacher thought shows up here.

I have heard many teachers say,

“Find what feels like your edge and then see if you can move just a little bit past that.”

“If you are afraid to go upside down, just push past the fear and do it anyway.”

“When you want to come out of the pose, then you should stay one more breath.”

And on the other side of the spectrum, I know other teachers who are terrified to let their students do anything other than lie on the floor, for fear of them getting injured.

Again: Middle Path Girl to the Rescue. {!!}

I think it is interesting to know where your edge is. It has certainly helped me to have a more expansive sense of myself when I’m aware of my movement habits and I know the limitations in my strength and mobility.

But “your edge” is not a place to hang out.

I say, if you are up for it, tiptoe very slowly and carefully up to your edge. Just enough to know where it is. And back the hell away. Know your limits, but then don’t push them.

Because I think the physical part of the practice is so useful and interesting, I try to teach my students how to create a container for themselves and their practice that is both challenging and nourishing.

Yoga is a lifelong, wide reaching practice that hopefully makes us better and more helpful humans.

In my view, yoga can look more like dancing and rolling around on the floor, or it can look more like weight training. Yoga can look more like washing the dishes mindfully or it could look more like a daily sitting meditation practice. Yoga can be engaging in conscious relationship and it could be taking a few days off coffee. Yoga could be a serious study of the Bhagavad Gita and yoga can be doing your physical therapy exercises every day.

As we commit to a life of waking up, it is probably {hopefully} going to be all these things at some point.

Asana is one tool of many that can help us wake up to the life that is available right now. The best way to use challenging asana to its full capacity as a tool for self understanding and growth is to remember that it is only a tool and to call upon it in ways and times that are appropriate. We can love and enjoy it, but we must always remember it is one part of a winding path, not the product at the end of the road. When we build towards asanas that seem just out of our current reach, it’s putting that tool on a sharpening stone, making us more aware and finely tuned in the process.
To read more of Francesca Cervero's work, click here or follow her on Facebook or Instagram. You can also join her yoga teacher Facebook Community here.

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