I’ve been practising yoga for around 14 years, and teaching for about 3 and half years now, but no matter how advanced or adept we consider ourselves, we never stop being students; there is so, so much to learn, and yoga delights in teaching us something new every time we come to the mat.
My classes are mixed experience classes, so I am usually teaching a class that needs to be accessible to someone just starting out on their journey, helping them to feel at home on the mat, in the class, and in their ability, as well as those who have been practising for sometime. Getting the language and the asanas right is only part of the challenge, as the role of the teacher is to continue to enable students develop at the pace right for them. Developing physical practice is just half the story – with physical practice comes that increasing awareness of self, of there being something else to work on: a stilling of the mind, an ability to calm and focus oneself, to sit for a while and be comfortable with stillness. This is just as difficult to master as the most complex and ‘advanced’ asana, yet sometimes we dismiss it as not as important as being able to achieve the deepest backbend or the most advanced balance.
Once we move past those first shaky days as a beginner, it is human nature to want to be better; we are a competitive bunch, and we want to be better than we were last week, last month, last year. Of course, with practice, we become naturally physically stronger, more aware of our bodies, our flexibility and stamina increase, and our bodies start to understand and recognise what we are asking of them. As we improve, and we are holding postures for longer, or going more deeply into them, or perhaps achieving a strong pose that we’ve never managed before, it’s tempting to have a look around the room – are we doing better than the person next to us? Holding for longer? Going deeper?
We want to feel more challenged as we progress, hoping for ‘harder’ poses each week. Perhaps we feel a sense of impatience and frustration when the teacher instructs Tadasana (Mountain pose), or Trikonasana (Triangle) – those are beginners’ postures, right? Not interesting for us more advanced students… and there it is. The start of the real lesson.
Whilst we do become more adept at our physical practice as we progress along our yoga path, there are other signs that signal an advanced practice. Holding postures for longer is perhaps obvious, but a posture should be soft and steady – the breath should be calm, slow and even, not ragged and snatched, and our muscles should not shake with fatigue. Add to this the soft gaze of the eyes, the ‘drishti’; gone is the urge to look around the room to see what others are doing. The focus of an advanced yogi is one’s own practice only, with no need to wonder if anyone else is doing it ‘better’. Being able to close the eyes, withdraw the senses, and be comfortable with stillness, staying present and focused, even in postures you think are not physically challenging – this becomes then the challenge of the pose instead.
But perhaps the hardest lesson of all, the most challenging aspect of each and every yoga practice, is to let go of the ego. This need to be better, to be the best, to accomplish the most difficult asana – this is driven by the ego, the ‘I’-ness. Why do you get a sinking feeling when the teacher instructs a particular pose? Too hard? Too easy? Boring? Not a ‘proper’ yoga pose? Have a think about why you don’t like something – this is your ‘Tapas’ – your self-discipline, the asana you need to work on the most. Just let go of the ego, work on becoming aware of why/what you don’t like, and then let the attachment to this just go. Use the pose to teach you what you need to learn.
On my last trip abroad, I was lucky enough to practice with a great teacher, authentic, with a strong flowing style of practice. The classes were physically challenging, lots of flowing vinyasas, culminating in full headstand. I loved the stretch, the work in my body, the concentration in my mind as I followed instructions and flowed through sequences. The most challenging asana for me that day? Not the headstand, or the never-ending sun salutes to warm us up – it was Trikonasana (Triangle). One of our foundation poses, a pose that I have practised for years and years, and teach pretty much every week.
As I held my Trikonasana, the teacher came around the class, and reaching me, slightly adjusted my alignment. I felt unsteady momentarily , and as my body wildly fought gravity and worked furiously to stay upright, my mind was busy feeling annoyed. Why did he adjust me? There’s nothing wrong with my alignment – I’ve been practising this for years, I’m a yoga teacher, I don’t need to be corrected! I glanced around the class – my Trikonasana is the best here… aha – and there it was! My lesson for the day. The lesson that my teacher and yoga wanted me to learn for today. Let go of the ego. As soon as I spotted it, I let it go, this feeling of irritation. I settled into the pose, I stopped looking at what others were doing, and concentrated on my breath, my awareness, my Self. We are never too advanced to learn. No pose is too ‘easy’, and every posture teaches us something, every time we practice.