Given all of the billions of yoga students in the world today, it would seem that there are as many levels of yoga classes to choose from as there are brands of yoga clothing. A recent article in the New York Times sites that the opposite is proving to be true. As the number of people exploring yoga soars to its greatest heights ever, those who are looking to advance to the deeper stages of practice are finding themselves stranded on the tarmac of beginning level classes.
As a serious student of yoga and a teacher at a studio, I understand the dilemma. as a teacher I find that I am drawn to teaching more beginner and multi-level classes which appeal to the widest audience. It is a challenge to expand your class size and remain authentic to the roots of the practice. I’ve been to several “advanced” yoga classes where the theme seemed to be the more difficult the asana, the more advanced the class with very little emphasis on the more subtle and powerful aspects of the practice.
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So what makes an advanced yoga class advanced? Yoga in the West continues to be a practice that is fundamentally physical, and the desires of the students and skills of the teachers reflect that. Therefore the common conception of an advanced yoga class is one that is physically demanding and challenging. But an advanced class can also bring depth to the practice of yoga, though the subtle energy practices of pranayama, mudra, bandha and kriya, and through the deepening of awareness, focus and meditation. Sadly, these deeper and subtle practices are rarely offered to any level of students as teachers, for the most part remain under qualified and experienced to teach these advanced practices.
So, what is available to those few students who want more? Often the responsibility falls on you, the student. First, find a good teacher regardless of the class level. All good teachers not only teach, but also continue to practice and learn. Many of them seek out their own advanced teachers and have firsthand experience with the more deeper practices. Often, good teachers have a gift of infusing even their beginning and mixed level classes with the subtleties of this ancient discipline. As my teacher says, “good teachers meet the students where they are, and then take them where the need to go.”
But, it’s not just the teacher that makes the difference. The intention of the student has a lot to do with the advanced experience. It doesn’t take a class with mayurasana or dwi pada viparita dandasana to take you into profound awareness, what it does require is an openness and willingness from the student, and a commitment to the practice. When done with regard to the classical definition, steadiness (stithra) and ease (sukha), asanas can train the body and mind for much deeper levels of pranayama and mediation. Unfortunately, these classes are the hardest to find, and often require a commitment of travel, time, and money. It is worth it though, to advance your practice and uncover deeper understanding that can be applied daily in a home practice, and refined in those multi-level asana classes to which you can apply your own insight and understanding. But until the majority of the yoga community, teachers and students alike, seek to advance their practice, that small but committed population of yogis will have to shoulder the responsibility of advancing their practice on their own.