“Advanced” Yoga asana practice

What if I told you that an ‘advanced’ yoga asana practice has nothing to do with how deep you go into a stretch or how acrobatic your poses are? To be honest, I actually don’t like the idea of calling an asana class ‘advanced’ because I feel that it can (mis)lead yoga students towards achieving something instead of encouraging them to know and respect their bodies.

As a Yoga teacher, I experience resistance from certain students to modify poses when I suggest it, even when I keep repeating that the most important is to keep the body safe, and that the body needs to be at ease in order to maintain an even rhythm of breath. It seems to me that some of them even feel ashamed when I suggest that they rather sit on a chair than on the floor. Why is there shame connected to the limits of our bodies?

In the yoga asana practice the most important is the mindset we have while practicing than what kind of poses we do. The yoga asana practice can be such a powerful tool to keep the body healthy by balancing between stability (strength) and mobility (flexibility), and learning to keep a deep and even rhythm of breath. We use the breath to calm the mind and the nervous system so we can bring our attention to the body as we move in and out of poses.

It isn’t the complexity of the pose that makes the practice powerful, it is the attention we pay to the body and the breath. I would argue that an ‘advanced’ yogi is the one that knows and respects his/her body and patiently practices with the goal of moving at ease in everyday life and, ideally, to be able to sit in meditation with the same ease.

There are several problems I see with the pursuit of complex poses, or what we often call an ‘advanced’ practice. Instead of cultivating a calmer state of mind, we stress the body and the mind by constantly pushing ourselves to achieve that pose that we think will bring some sort of satisfaction. In this pursuit we can get lost in ego and in the worst case senario hurt our body. What happens when our body can’t achieve that specific pose we want to achieve, or when with age, we loose some flexibility and/or strength? Are we then ‘less’ yogis?

We live in times where we are so used to put pressure on ourselves in almost all aspects of our life. It is so difficult to be content with what we have and where we are without having the feeling that we should be aiming for more. We are constantly wanting to improve, to get more, to achieve more. But how much is enough? If we bring this mindset to the yoga mat, we are not doing anything to help us improve our lifestyle, we are just bringing our stress, doubts and worries to the mat and nothing changes.

Lastly, I would argue that an advanced yogi is the one that little by little starts establishing his/her own practice. The role of the teacher is to guide, but at the end of the day, the advanced yogi knows his/her body and mind so well, that he/she is able to choose what is right for him/her.

So next time you’re in a yoga class and the teacher hands you a block, accept it with curiosity and see what it does to your body in that specific pose. 🙂

Yoga: from doing to living (session 1)

If you’re reading this post it is either because you already are a yoga practitioner or because you are curious about the practice. Take a minute to close your eyes, feel your breath, and ask yourself, what is my motivation to practice yoga? Why am I interested in yoga?

For some, yoga is associated with physical activity. Practicing yoga means to move the body, to strengthen and/or improve flexibility, maybe also to have a time in the day or week to unwind and simply spend some well-deserved self-time. There might even be the wish to slow down and reduce stress.

The physical activity that we call yoga in this side of the world is called asana in the Yoga tradition and it can be part of the practice of yoga, but it is not THE practice of Yoga. Practicing asana can be a very good way to start bringing our attention inwards by paying attention to our body and our breath. In order to achieve this, we benefit from approaching the asana practice with an open mind towards ourselves, with curiosity and without judgement. By paying attention, we will discover what are our strengths – physically, mentally and maybe even emotionally- and what are our challenges and limitations.

For the asana practice to really benefit us, it is imperative to accept our body where it is, and learn to practice – preferably with guidance – the movements and poses that benefit our body and not our expectations towards our body or our ego. It is absolutely not necessary to do extremely complicated and/or physically challenging poses to be an ‘advanced’ yoga asana practitioner. I would even say, on the contrary, if the yoga asana practice becomes another pursuit in our life, something else to ‘achieve’ to the point that we even harm ourselves, we are not practicing it to its purpose. If we practice asana blinded by our expectations and desires on how our body should be like, we are missing the opportunity to get to know ourself better.

Not all yoga practitioners do asana, and personally, I use my asana practice to slow down, to reconnect with my body and to keep it healthy, but the most important aspect of my practice is my daily sadhana. Sadhana is defined as the daily spiritual practice. The word spirituality can make some eyebrows rise since it is often associated to some sort of mysticism difficult to grasp, but in the context of this text and my own practice, it is first and foremost the attitude of constantly improving ourself in order to reach a calm and centered state of mind (Prasad Rangnekar). So sadhana, is the time we spend daily for this purpose. For some, it is a combination of breathing exercises and sitting in silence/meditation, for others it also includes chanting, and for those that want to go deeper in the understanding of oneself through the study of yoga, it also includes the study of yoga scriptures. The one scripture that is most accessible for most of us living in the practical world is the Bhagavad Gita. It contains the essence of the teachings of yoga, the theory as well as the techniques to achieve steady and long lasting inner peace. The study of the Gita is not to be used as some sort of dogma, but to understand our own thoughts, emotions and behaviours in light its teachings. The theory of yoga, if directed as some sort of light towards our inner world, can help us understand why we think and behave as we do, and then, start making some adjustments to live a more skilful and purposeful life. One must apply these teachings to one’s own life and observe what happens. Learning in the yoga tradition is very empirical.

As one advances in the path of Yoga, the line between practical life and the practice of sadhana begins to vanish. On one side, the habit of observing our own thoughts achieved through meditation can be used in everyday life to slow down, to start living life through action and not reaction. As we continue doing breathing exercises, our breath improves and we learn to slow down our mind using our breath. Finally, through the study of oneself in light of the theory of yoga, we learn to accept who we are, see our limitations, and gradually make the adjustments that are necessary to live a more peaceful inner life and thus interact with the external world better following some basic principles.

The study and practice of Yoga is not always a walk in the park, and is definitely no quick fix to all our troubles, but with patience and dedication, I sincerely can say that you start noticing slight changes in your inner world that have enormous positive consequences in the way you interact with the outer world. My advice to finish this post is, keep it simple, keep it clear. Stick to one practice, don’t jump from one thing to another to please the restless mind. Give it time. You don’t need to make any complicated pose, you don’t need any specific object, all you need is the sincere wish to go deeper, patience and guidance.

My daily practice

The mind spreads like a big blanket throughout the day
Covering all the areas of our life that require our attention
Once a day, morning or evening, I unroll my mat
My mat is my space where I can slowly fold the blanket
My mat is the place where I can get a taste of my inner strength
My mat is the place where I create the space to see
That everything I need is inside me
My mat is the place where I pray to God to give me the courage
To meet the world with the right attitude
Allow me to be brave
Allow me to be kind
Allow me to be curious
Remind me to be and let be

We all live in the practical world where quite a lot is expected from us, both by those around us and mostly by ourselves. We often feel we need to be better, stronger, improve is the mantra we all go around repeating in our heads.

The yoga practice – asana and/or meditation- can be a vacation from this. The yoga practice can be the time of the day where we are more curious than expecting. We observe our body, we observe our breath, and with care and patience, we move for our general well-being. We can strengthen, we can stretch, we can refine, but for the health of the body and mind.

We can learn to be kind to ourselves on the yoga mat, we can learn to see our weaknesses and our strengths. We can practice acceptance of the weaknesses, and patience to refine our strengths.

We can learn to calm our minds, and to connect with our inner love. We can touch the inner peace. With practice, with awareness, and with patience we will little by little take with us small pieces of these states of mind to our practical life. From the yoga mat can all good things grow inside ourselves, and like a tree spreading its branches to give shadow, shelter and its fruits, we will also be able to share in the practical world.