First order of business let's talk about asana. Pronounced "ah-sah-nah" and nothing to do with ass (I KNOW YOU WERE THINKING IT). Asana is the physical practice of yoga and the third limb, the part which you are probably most familiar with.
Didn't know there was more to yoga than simply the postures???? *****(See below)
As a teacher and a very dedicated practitioner I am often approached with questions and comments about my physical practice. Specifically my practice in more "advanced postures." (You'll figure out very quickly why I chose to use quotations when referring to an advanced practice.)
These questions and comments are somewhere along the lines of:
"....that's so CRAZY!...I wanna do cool sh*t""
"Sooooo you're a yogi...what's your handstand practice like?!?"
"don't you have to be flexible to do yoga??? I can't do that. I can't touch my toes."
"....saw that on Insta...."
As an eternally devoted student to the practice of yoga who was once a beginner and was once misled, these questions, comments, concerns, misunderstandings never annoy me or test my patience. They inspire me to teach, and to set the record straight when it comes to yoga. In this case it inspired me to discuss advanced postures. As yoga becomes more and more mainstream and as social media continues to portray advanced postures as the norm it's important to understand how to define "advanced asana" and to know how to safely practice more complicated postures.
Advanced postures do not mean you win yoga. By that I mean they do not mean you're a better yogi or you're closer to enlightenment. They are as fun, and empowering as they are physically challenging. They are a practice of self discipline and self mastery. If you've ever worked hard towards a goal you know how gratifying and uplifting it is when you finally reach it. It's the same feeling when you finally nail that pose you've been working towards.
As rewarding and fun and liberating as they can be, advanced postures should still be approached with caution. Keep in mind they require physical exertion and with any physical activity risk of injury is always prevalent. This does not mean you should avoid advanced asana. This does not mean advanced asana is bad because it could be potentially harmful to the body. It simply means that you need to practice mindfulness when you move so that you do not injure yourself.
How do you do that???? Here's 5 of the simplest tips I've learned from my teachers and my practice:
- Approach everything with a "beginners mind." Know the sh*t out of your foundations. They are called foundational poses for a reason (everything is builds on them). Never stop practicing them. Approach them with the mindset that you're never done learning them and that you will never master them. Each time you return to them you're presented an opportunity to learn something new. So take it and run with it.
- Listen to your body. What it calls for, what it's telling you. Know when to back off and when to persevere or dig deep and push through. And be honest with yourself. Know when you are hearing and not actually listening. Sometimes injury is inevitable, but if you listen to your body when it whispers instead of waiting til it screams, then injury can be preventable.
- Don't be afraid of props. They're there to make your life easier. The best advice I've ever heard about using props was "the wise yogi doesn't bring themselves to the floor, they bring the floor to them." Don't be shy, grab a block and bring the floor to you. Think of a yoga strap as an extension of your arm not a "crutch." It's not cheating or making the pose any "easier" it's giving your body the time and the space to move into the shape with "integrity." Let me be clear, using props to assist you in your yoga practice is NOT a sign of weakness or vulnerability, in fact it's the opposite. Yoga is infinitely welcoming of variation, don't be afraid to stand out.
- Stop trying to be perfect. Shaking, falling, wobbling is part of being "in the pose." It's a part of learning something new. It's a part of challenging yourself. So welcome it. It's one thing to be focused, and to practice with discipline. It's another to beat yourself up if you fall out of a posture. Sometimes you need to fall on your face a few times to feel where you've gone to far in the posture physically. And on an emotional or spiritual level falling on your face is like getting smacked in the face with reality from time to time; we all need that. So when you do fall, which you will, bring your sense of humor. Laugh it off. Get up. Try again. Have fun with it. It's supposed to be playful!
- Never stop practicing. You can't get better or advance at anything without doing it. Some things come easier than others, but nothing ever improves or moves forward without practice. So whatever it is you want to get better at...dancer pose, meditating, anything....just keep doing it. Over and over and over again. You'll have good days, you'll have "bad" days, and usually when you least expect it to, it will fall into place. One day without your even realizing it, you'll just find yourself there. You just have to show up.
Understand that advanced asana is not always the "fanciest", "prettiest," "most-complicated" posture. It's the pose or shape thats taken with integrity. Integrity for the body you inhabit and the uninterrupted flow of your breath. Truly practicing advanced asana is done with careful, precise, and loving intention. It's practiced with honesty and authenticity. It's practiced with love. It's the pose that you still are learning from. With that in mind, just know that sometimes the "advanced posture" for you may be child's pose, other days it may be a forearm stand or a single arm handstand.
An advanced yoga practice is one that you show up genuinely willing to be present for and willing to learn from. Some days it comes easy to you. Other days not so much. Some days your practice is more physically challenging and you have a break through, other days you flop. Just know that when you are approaching your physical practice like a beginner, when you are truly listening to your body, when you suspend your ego and let go of the desire to be perfect, or attachment to the shape, and you keep showing up to your practice you can do no wrong. Any and every pose is technically an advanced shape. Ugh so cliche...I know. I'm a yoga teacher, what did you expect me to tell you?? That challenging pose that you've been working on forever though. Keep practicing it. Practice it over and over and over. Practice it with integrity. Practice it with love. Practice it with no expectations. And when you least expect it, without even thinking about it, you will nail it.
****Yoga in it's entirely is comprised of eight limbs; 1. yamas (ethical standards), 2. niyamas (self-discipline/spiritual observances), 3. asana (physical practice), 4. pranayama (breath work), 5. pratyhara (withdrawal from external environment/self inquiry) 6. dharana (concentration) 7. dhyana (meditation/contemplation) 8. samadhi (peace/enlightenment/connection). As you can imagine, yes, there is crossover between all eight limbs of yoga. There is no solely practicing 1 limb at a time exclusively.
So does that mean you're not practicing yoga right if you have no clue what yamas/niyamas/llamas are???
No. Not the case at all. Yamas and niyamas are a topic for another day and sadly llamas don't have anything to do with yoga...unless llama yoga is a thing now and you're into that?