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Moving Up to the Next Level: Progression in Yoga

“Remember it is not how deep into a posture you go – what does matter is who you are when you get there”    ~Max Strom

My students ask me all the time, “Do you think I am ready to move up to the next yoga class level?” or “How do I know when it is the right time to try out a more advanced class?”  The truth is, there is no set algorhythm for determining readiness for progression in yoga.  We cannot look at variables such as years experience, body type, age and current ability and come up with the answer.  In this way, yoga is different from almost all other physical endeavors. 

On my yoga journey, spanning almost 30 years, I have found my most profound progressions not when taking advanced training or trying out new postures, but at times when I wasn’t even looking for growth – at times when I was working without goals and without new information to assimilate.  One of the earliest of such steps occurred when, due to scheduling constrictions, I was forced to take an enty-level gentle class.  For the first time, I was asked to simply flow “with the breath” in and out of the most basic poses. I almost quit after the first session thinking, this is all fine and good for newbies but not like the yoga I know and love.  I had never before given much attention to my breath unless I was practicing a specific breath technique.  After a couple of sessions, I noticed the joy of contentment in my practice and a calmness I had not previously experienced.  Another significant moment came when I started practicing in a studio without mirrors.  At first, it was so difficult to settle into my pose without the external feedback on my correctness and alignment in the posture.  Gradually, I learned focus inward on how I felt in the pose, on the easing of my breath and the subtle opening in the various areas of my body.  In the following years, I made sure that, whenever possible, I taught in studios without mirrors and, once my students learned the basic biomechanics of an posture, I stopped modeling as well.  Another step for me, which I believe is critical for all who wish to take their yoga practice to the next level, is starting a home practice.  When I started playing with postures, with my breath, and with my mindset at home where I was relatively free from constraints, guidance or expectations (albeit short on props), I found MY way to discover the essence of yoga.  As no two bodies are the same, no two approaches to yoga are the same. Yoga is not just asana, it is the bringing together of what is on the inside with what is on the outside.  Each experience is, in essence, unique.  A student who knows what it feels like to make this connection is ready to move on both on the mat and off.

So, are you ready?  You may still feel unsure.  Try asking yourself the following questions:

  1.  In my current practice, am I challenged physically or mentally at less than 25% of the time?  Do I “bump up” into some kind of block or barrier that I need to process physically and mentally in order to move forward.  This could be an overactive mind, a tight muscle, balance, emotional lability, etc…

  2. Am I aware of my breath when practicing?   Is my breath an integral part of my asana?

  3. Do I have at least one intention I work with consistently in the practice?  An intention is a state of being you can describe or imagine how it will feel and one that you earnestly wish to attain.   It is often stated as, “I am (blank)”.  The intention can originate in the physical but you must be able to understand how the word or phrase effects the other layers of the self: mental, emotional, spiritual, social).  So “I have loose hamstrings” is not an intention but “I am free from constraint” or “I experience freedom in movement” is.

  4. Do I ever find myself contemplating how Yoga is expressed in my life – off the mat?

  5. Do I have a home practice at least 1 day per week?

Notice how I offered no questions about your physical ability such as “Can you hold an unsupported Triangle pose for at least 3 minutes?”  When you decide to take the next step you undoubtedly will be asked to do new poses that you have difficulty with or hold known poses for longer.  However, your success in these endeavors is irrelevant.  Rather it is how you approach these challenges and how you handle what arises which determines your readiness.  Yoga is a process, a path – what matters is who you are when you arrive. Sometimes you have to take a step backward to move forward.

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