Recently, I took a yoga class after which the thought occurred to me that I had no business teaching whatsoever. It wasn’t because the poses were particularly fancy or that we were doing something I hadn’t done thousands of times before. It was just obvious that this particular teacher had an amazing base of knowledge. The wisdom she possessed was not necessarily a tangible thing, but it was powerful nonetheless. And it was something I felt I didn’t have.
Afterward, I relayed my insecurities to my friend who said “You can’t compare yourself with that teacher. She’s an advanced practitioner.”
My gut reaction was to be offended. “You mean you don’t think I am an advanced practitioner?!” Not that I necessarily consider myself as such. I guess I hoped my 15 plus years of practice gave me some sort of yogic street cred with others, though. Yes, that would be my ego talking. Not very advanced of me to let my ego get the best of me, is it?
I asked my friend how she was defining the term “advanced practitioner.” She had some broad brush stroke ideas – someone who practices asana and meditates every day, someone who lives their yoga off the mat (there’s a lengthy conversation for another time about what that means). Ultimately, she suggested it’s up to the individual to define what an advanced practice means to them.
Being the pitta/scorpio that I am, though, I wanted something more concrete. For that, I turned to a few of the yogis whom I respect the most and asked them what they believe makes an advanced practitioner. Is it the person who can: Hold a handstand for five minutes in the middle of the room? Sit for two hours a day in meditation? Recite the Upanishads from memory? Commit to a life of service? Or is it a function of how long you’ve practiced? Is, say, 20 years indicative of someone who is an “advanced” practitioner?
The people I queried said exactly what I (and hopefully you) needed to hear. My take way from these conversations is that the word “advanced” is kind of meaningless.
Guidance from Gurus
The amazing Cory Bryant, a teacher at Flow Yoga Center, had this to say, “In our Western culture, words like ‘advanced’ generally bring to mind a status that is higher than other beings. I choose not to use this word in association with yoga because I have no way of knowing whether you are enlightened. And enlightenment is the only higher status that exists.”
The teacher from whom I took my 200 hour yoga teacher training, Yogiraj Sarah Platt-Finger of ISHTA Yoga, had a similar response. “If we look at the literal translation of yoga, ‘union,’ then we cannot really apply levels to it. Our mind is what compartmentalizes things into levels; but at the same time, it’s these very fluctuations of the mind that keep us from experiencing yoga: Yogas citta vritti nirodaha (Yoga Sutra 1.2).”
So basically, get out of our mind – which is what’s seeking to put everything into neat little categories in the first place. If you’re stuck in your mind, you’re going to find it difficult to let the yoga happen. I know this from firsthand experience because my mind is pretty much where I live.
Sarah is willing to use the term “advanced” in this way: “someone who lives his or her life truthfully, harmoniously, lovingly, and abundantly. It is someone who is guided by spirit not ego and aware of the consciousness that exists in all things.”
So, in theory, one could never step on a yoga mat or meditation cushion a day in their life and still be an advanced yogi.
Another teacher whom I respect enormously, Brittanie DeChino, also of Flow Yoga Center, views the term advanced as “a class description, that’s all.” Though she also said, “I guess if I was to define an advanced practitioner, it would be someone who is practicing all eight limbs of yoga every day.”
One of my greatest gurus in recent years is a beautiful young yoga practitioner – and an incredibly old soul – named Cat McCarthy. Cat echoed Brittanie’s comments, “To me, advanced yoga practitioners are those who take what they learn in their practice (whether it be on the mat, in a book, or in a meditative state) and use it in their daily lives to benefit those other than themselves.”
Then Cat laid down some knowledge like the boss she is: “Yoga is a tool meant to remind us of the ultimate truth—God is everything. In this truth, differences become obsolete because we are all God and are, therefore, all the same,” she said. “In order to define what an ‘advanced’ yoga practitioner is, you’d have to first determine how these practitioners differ from beginners/intermediates. This creates a separation that takes us further from the ultimate truth that yoga is meant to uncover.” That’s how Cat rolls; quiet and unassuming until she blows your mind with some deep shit.
Another teacher and beautiful soul I know, Kathy Baird, said, “ …the inner work, the daily practice, experiencing oneself in life as it IS…is where my heart is leading me” when it comes to defining what an advanced practice looks like.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana is not Sanskrit for “Advanced”
All of the people I spoke to agreed that one can never really know whether someone else is advanced in their practice merely by observing them.
“The irony of yoga is that it is an inward experience and so we cannot really put a value on it,” said Sarah.
Speaking of which, I worry that, here in the West, we put too much emphasis on what we might be tempted to call “advanced asana.” My concern isn’t necessarily altruistic; it’s my competitive nature combined with my own insecurities. My body is never going to achieve many of the “advanced” postures we see today on Instragram and Facebook. I feel fairly confident in saying I will never get into handstand in the middle of the room. So does that mean I will never be an advanced practitioner?
Sri Dharma Mittra calmed me down on that one. No, I didn’t get to interview him. But I read someone else’s interview with him in which he said, “I don’t encourage people to do fancy poses. They are not that important.” Cool! Then I can still be an advanced practitioner! (Not that it matters…)
Brittanie, a long-time student of Dharma Mittra, explained, “Some people need the asana. Something physiological happens when you exercise.”
I can certainly attest to that. I’ve experienced the energy shifts that can happen during asana practice. For a long time, for example, when I held half pigeon, I would burst into tears. After all, the poses are not just random; they were designed to help process all manner of internal gunk. Or, if you want to get more technical, I defer to Cory who put it this way, “Asana facilitates a biochemical process that works to resolve our karma.”
But that doesn’t mean the asana has to be something that can be assessed by the Russian judges at the Olympics. Whatever poses work is sufficient. In which case, child’s pose might be just as advanced, depending on how it works for you, as handstand, flying crow or some other crazy arm balance.
As Cory said, “A person could have no arms and no legs and still practice yoga.” I would argue that person could even be an advanced practitioner. If we were still using that term.
Competition is not an Advanced Practice
Across the board, the folks I asked agreed that no one should be made to feel less or more than anyone else simply because they can or cannot do a particular pose.
“I believe strongly that there is no place for competition in yoga,” said Cory. That sense of competition or comparing is something that I often worry about and can, just as often, fall victim to. Even my beloved Cat can get herself into trouble by comparing herself to others.
“I still feel the need to categorize. Defining practitioners around me as ‘advanced’ gives me something to strive for, but it also allows for the familiar ‘I’m not good enough’ mentality to thrive.”
How about we all just stop comparing ourselves to one another? Easier said than done, trust me, I know. But every practice is beautiful and, more importantly, effective.
Studying for the Advanced Yoga Exam
Another one of my insecurities concerns self-study or Svadyaya. One of my teachers is arguably the best read person I know (certainly as it pertains to yoga philosophy and religion). He has what seems like instant recall of the Upanishads, the Sutras, the Baghavad Gita and probably hundreds of other seminal texts. It’s not just his ability to recite them, though, but his deeply ingrained knowledge and understanding of what they mean that blows me away. And leaves me feeling that I – who have never (oh the shame!) read the Gita let alone understood it – have no business attempting to teach yoga.
So where do knowledge and learning fall in terms of the definition of an advanced practitioner? Do they have any bearing?
Remember the teacher from the beginning of this story whose wisdom started the entire line of inquiry? What makes someone like her – or Cory, Brittanie and Sarah – the people I defer to? Are these people just born gurus? And, are they advanced practitioners?
Being as humble as they are, none of the people I spoke to would likely be comfortable describing themselves as advanced. What Brittanie did say is, “When someone is far along in their practice, you feel something in their presence. They raise you up.”
Cory similarly said he feels comfortable with the term “Master Teacher” which he would ascribe to those he learns from including his Jivamukti teachers. “These individuals have mastery over the content and are adept at delivering it in a way that makes sense for the student,” he said. “But knowledge in and of itself isn’t what’s going to get you to enlightenment.”
And in the End
Wait, what? So the goal of yoga is not a fancy handstand or twenty hours of meditation or reading the sutras backward or becoming an “advanced practitioner” since that’s apparently not even a thing? So, why are we all doing this stuff anyway?
According to Cory “Yoga is ultimately our natural state. The practices are designed and intended to facilitate connection and awareness of this state in relation to ourselves and every other being.”
Yoga is realizing you are not the ‘do-er’ says Brittanie. It’s about “Being able to surrender all notion of control and having faith” that everything is as it should be.
When I began this quest, I wasn’t able to define what the term “advanced practitioner” meant to me. I am still not entirely sure I have a solid answer. If I were to describe someone as being an advanced practitioner, it would likely be in reference to how well they serve others and the world , their ability to roll with life’s punches without getting knocked out and their connection to something bigger than themselves (spirit, god, the universe, whatever it may be). I can tell you it would have absolutely nothing to do with their amazing arm balances. If I’m honest, I’d still probably be envious of the arm balances, though.
I’ll let Brittanie’s teacher, Dharma Mittra, have the last word, “The goal of yoga is Self-realization: to find out who you are, why you’re here, who God is. God and the Self are the same—exactly the same.”