I spent the weekend in Overland Park, Kansas. This was my third visit to The Yoga Gallery. I love visiting a studio repeatedly because it gives me a chance to get to know my host better and to see a community evolve over the years.
As is often the case, we had a very mixed-level group in attendance this weekend. We had a broad range in terms of age, experience, training, flexibility, strength and perferred practice styles. When I teach a mixed-level group I generally slow the pace of my teaching down and work on helping the students understand technique. I work on helping students cultivate a greater depth of awareness instead of moving everyone through vinyasas or giving lots of modifications for tricky poses. My carefully cultivated teaching style of “Making Easy Poses Hard” is my go-to strategy for mixed-level classes and workshops. I think “Making Hard Poses Easy” is an equally valid teaching style for mixed-level classes but I find that I am less interested in that approach these days. (And, truth be told, if you consistently make the easy poses hard, the hard poses do get a lot easier.)
Maybe I am getting older and more cautious. Maybe those OCD tendencies have caught up with me. Maybe I am simply getting pickier as I go along. (Of course, I do like to think the pickiness has a purpose.) Maybe I just like to look out and see clean lines of energy in the room. Regardless of the reason, everywhere I go these days, I am teaching the basic building blocks of practice with poses like downward facing dog, trikonasana, supta padangusthasana and so on. To me, there is no better indicator of advanced practice or the readiness for advanced practice than the skill, precision and interest a student can bring to the basic postures.
I personally believe the basics are going out of style in many places and being replaced by fast-moving flows, fancy transitions, creative variations and what might be described as trendy poses. Personally, I am a little sad about the loss of the Solid Level 1 Yoga Class so I figure I can do my part to keep people in a meaningful and committed relationship to the foundational postures.
Look, I know that NEVER getting off the basic poses because “triangle is never perfect enough to move on” is a real possibility because I have been to those classes and workshops also. I mean, seriously, no pose is ever perfect and sometimes endlessly refining something becomes demoralizing and more-than-a-bit myopic. In fact, compared to the way I was raised in yoga, I am very lenient in my demand for precision. Of course, compared to much of the current culture in yoga, I am a bit of a taskmaster. So, it all depends, I suppose. And I am very different on the road with a group of students I have never met than I am at home with people who know me and who I know very well. So the variables here are really endless.
And so that we are clear, I do not think one ever needs to leave the basic syllabus to benefit from asana. Everything asana has to offer us is all there to be had on the basic syllabus. A keen student of the basics can learn to deepen their awareness, increase their body-mind-breath connection, develop strength and mobility for their spine, their hips and their shoulders without ever doing anything fancy. A keen student of the basics can enjoy the fullness of a deep breath, the majesty of a lifted chest, the quieting of the mind and the exaltation of the spirit all without putting pressure on their cervical spine in headstand or risking their knees in lotus.
Think about that for a minute, if you will. All the boons of practice are there for us within normal ranges of movement for the human body. Talk about a sane and sober cost-to-benefit ratio. I do not think one needs to push the bondaries of structure to have psychological breakthroughs, to deepen their pranic understanding and/or to evolve and progress as a practitioner.
Furthermore, as we move beyond the normal boundaries of movement for the body, we increase the risk at a rate that, for most people, is inconsistent with the increase in benefit. As much as I love and revere Light on Yoga as a resource for practice and teaching, I always chuckle reading that some of those advanced back bends “cure back ache” or “relieve pressure on the discs” and so on.
I mean, maybe.
But, maybe not.
And chances are, probably not for most of us.
That being said, I do approach poses that are classified as “advanced” and that are off the basic postures and I do teach them in certain situations. I do not judge people who have pose lust or who want to work beyond the basic syllabus. I do not consider advanced poses inherently dangerous nor do I see them as inherently safe. And, if you push me I will say that I consider much of yoga fairly risky and the most productive way to see class, instruction and personal practice is as ongoing lessons in how to mitigate risk intelligently, not as guarantees of safety or certainty.
I see the advanced postures as an outgrowth of the basic skills, the most important of which, in my opinion, is awareness. So, in my way of thinking about “advanced pratice” awareness, breath and physical capacity join together over a long period of time and may, for some people on some days sometimes yield the shapes we know as intermediate or advanced poses.
Of course, I know plenty of people who have a very advanced trikonasana because of the depth of awareness they have and plenty of people who have a basic eka pada rajakpotasana backbend because they are naturally very bendy and the pose is easy for their body to achieve. Again, the variables we could talk about are endless and no word seems to set people off these days like “advanced” when it comes to asana.
And look, I know plenty of people who can do back bends who do not have their arms straight in the poses like Warrior 1. I know plenty of people who do hanumanasana or full splits who don’t work their legs straight in trikonasana.The formula is not as simple as basic poses done well = ready and able to do advanced poses. As most of us know, we often skip steps. And as many of us know, most of us look for, and take, what seem to be shortcuts when we think we have found them.
But there is always a day of reckoning.
Seriously, there is always a day of reckoning. And if it hasn’t happened for you, then you just haven’t practiced long enough. It will come.
The reckoning may come as injury. The reckoning may come when we want to do something harder or more intricate in our practice and the steps we skipped earlier come calling—we lack the strength, flexibility or most commonly, the mindfulness and focus to do the next pose on the syllabus. The reckoning may come when we start working with a new teacher who sees the gaps in our practice and asks us for more than we are accustomed to bringing to our work. The reckoning may come, far off the yoga mat, when we realize that “the easy way out” won’t work in our marriage, our parenting, our recovery or our job crisis and that all that time we could have been building tenacity and self-honesty, we were looking for shortcuts.
In my opinion, the reckoning comes because, as asana practitioners, we have signed up for a path of transformation.
I know, because people always tell me, that people come to yoga for fun, for fitness, for community, for the endorphins and some say they just come for savasana. I consider it none of my business why someone comes to their mat or to my class. Once they are in my class, I consider it my business to help them make the most of my class, to help them learn from me and I make it my business to figure out how best to help them with their practice. But I am a crazy person if I try to teach fitness to the fitness-minded person, sprituality to the mystical person and so on. I offer my class and it either works for the person— meaning that they can find enough of what they need in my offering to come back and engage an ongoing process with me— or it doesn’t work for them and they find a teacher and class better suited to their needs. This stream of thought could rapidly move us into another topic, however, which is probably best left for another day.
My point is that regardless of why someone walks in the room, I believe they are hooking themselves up with a stream of Influence whose primary purpose is transformation. That is not to say that we can’t also find fitness, fun, community, and a great dose of endorphins along the way. However, I believe the stream of Influence behind the postures has our transformation in mind and because of that, the reckoning will eventually come. Even as far as we may have come from traditional yogic ways and means in our current western yoga culture, I do believe we are still hooked up to this Influence and the thread of connection to a Source of transformation is still there. When I stop believing that the thread is still there you will no longer see me teaching asana. I will be doing something else. I am not sure what I will do, but I am not interested in an asana practice that is not connected to this stream of Influence. That's me. Everyone is different.
But I digress.
My point is that if we stay the course, I believe the difficulties will come to help us grow.
Difficulties come on and off the mat, to provide us with incentive to grow, change and revise our habitual modes of being and doing. They come when we are ready and rarely when we want them. And although the word reckoning carries connotations of punishment and so on, I do not believe that difficulties are punishments, karmic retribution or any such thing but are, instead the grist for the mill that will, if we enage them well, help us grind away at what is no longer serving us and bring us to a new level of refinement. I believe the reckoning moments are here to help us fulfill our promise and potential, our obligation to our deepest Possibility.
And when the day of reckoning comes, when the opportunity for growth through adversity visits us, it can be very helpful to have a disciplined practice in place, to know how to be with ourselves in both movement and stillness and to be able to pay attention to the details of our inner and outer posture. I believe it is helpful to have a yoga beyond "fun" because the process of growth and change is not always fun. And there is no better teacher for all that than a good old-fashioned yoga classes that provides hard work on basic poses.
More soon. That's what I have for today.
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