In our culture of competition and accomplishment, “no pain, no gain” has become a mantra, though not an especially yogic one. Is it any wonder that we view certain asanas as “advanced” based how physically difficult they are to achieve? These notions lead us away from what distinguishes yoga from other fitness-based disciplines. Many of us even enter teacher training programs hoping to become more skillful in trickier asanas, only to learn that our notions about “advanced asana” are mistaken.
It’s hard to escape cultural influences and to satisfy a mind that craves new experiences and challenges. Most of us are also primarily visual learners, relying on our sense of sight to tell us about the world. The inner energetic experience of asana isn’t as easy to assess or to communicate to others (and doesn’t translate easily into an Instagram selfie!). From the outside, it may look like we’ve nailed a difficult asana, suggesting that we’re an “advanced” yoga practitioner, but the inner truth may reveal something altogether different.
So what makes asana advanced? The Yoga Sutras address this question—though Patanjali never would have imagined the asana-centric yoga we practice in today. He specifically mentions asana in only three sutras (II.46-48), but these are rich with insight for the modern yogi. The first, Sthira sukha asanam, has been translated a number of ways. Asana is usually taken to mean “seat” or “pose,” with sukha translated as “pleasant” or “comfortable” and sthira as “steady.” The asana Patanjali refers to is likely the meditative seat (the variety of poses we practice today took root in the late 1800s, centuries after the sutras were compiled), but this sutra can apply to all asana.
Obviously, “steady” can describe physical stability in a pose, but mental and spiritual stability are just as important. This is what teachers mean when they tell you to practice “from the outside in.” As we advance our practice, we refine our powers of discernment, moving inward from proprioception (where the body is in space) to an awareness of breath, alignment and energy. Can you find that steady awareness while moving through a vinyasa practice, or does the mind scatter, the breath become uneven and the alignment sloppy? Can you maintain mental focus, discern energy flow and how it relates to breath and alignment in a challenging asana, or are you simply struggling to stay on your feet (or hands or head)?
Next, in Sutra II.47, “By relaxation of effort and meditation on the Infinite, asana is mastered,” Patanjali suggests that over time, we can shift from one-pointed awareness to an awareness of the entire field of body-mind-spirit, the seen and the unseen. A stable asana is not rigid, nor is it completely lax. The pose holds itself and control has shifted from the outside (your ego mind directing the pose) to the inside. Can you be steady in a challenging pose and still be aware of the field? Your heart center and your little toe?
From physical stability we also learn equanimity. Sutra II.48, “From then on, one is undisturbed by dualities,” means that when we become established in asana, we feel no pull by opposing forces: Hot/cold, pleasure/pain, joy/sorrow, etc. We can be “comfortable” in any pose, and this inner strength helps us find balance not just in the studio but in the world outside.
In his commentaries on these three sutras, B.K.S. Iyengar stated that when an asana is practiced “correctly,” it becomes a bridge between the inner and outer worlds, and that the practitioner can experience yoga’s higher limbs—dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation)—in the midst of a pose. When asana is viewed this way, we realize that there is an “advanced” experience available in every pose, from Tadasana (Mountain Pose) to Titthibasana (Firefly Pose). It’s perfectly fine to strengthen and stretch and progress to more difficult asanas. But it can be even more “advanced” to find progress within the most simple, un-selfie-worthy poses. In every asana, there are worlds waiting to be discovered.
What does “advanced asana” mean in your world?