Why Advanced Yoga Is Not What You Think It Is

When asking people about their practice, I often hear this response: "I'm not very good at yoga." What's understood here, immediately, is that this person is not flexible and probably not very strong either. What is being "good", really, when speaking about yoga? For starters, it has nothing to do with being able to touch the floor with straight legs. Considering the following eight guidelines, known as the 8 Limbs of Yoga (from Pantajali's Yoga Sutras), you are, in fact, "good" at yoga if you've come close to mastering all eight of 'em! Funny part is that if you are that close to mastery, you are not going to be spewing with temerity how good you are at the practice or how far along you are on your journey. Self-observation isn't even on the same spectrum of egotism.

Here's a quick breakdown of those 8 limbs. Each is worthy of their own blogpost, as the simple explanations here barely touch the surface of their meanings. But it's a good start. 

  • YAMA - Moral codes, ethics

    • Ahimsa - non-violence, harm none

      • The Self is often overlooked with ahimsa.

    • Satya - truthfulness in thoughts, words and actions (aka Integrity)

    • Asteya - non-stealing

      • Though most of us don't participate in the literal understanding of stealing, an example of applying this to your practice would be to stay committed to your pose instead of "stealing away" into the next one without allowing for the experience of the posture. In life, are you allowing your mind to steal you from being present in this very moment?

    • Brahmacharya - celibacy, sexual restraint

      • This goes much deeper than saying, "don't have sex ever again to achieve enlightenment". Are you in control of your desires or do they control you? Are you using your sexual energy toward the betterment of your world and the world around you or are you indulging in lower level, 2nd Chakra pursuits?

    • Aparigraha - non-attachment, non-greediness, non-possessiveness

  • NIYAMA - Personal practices, observances

    • Shaucha - Purification

      • Both externally and internally of the mind, body, and spirit

    • Santosha - Contentment, acceptance, satisfaction

    • Tapas - (no, not the Spanish small plate...) Literally translated as "to burn"

      • This Niyama is about discipline. Tapas is to burn off impurities by remaining passionate and courageous in pursuit of the greatness that you are but don't yet possess because of lack of commitment to that which will tap you into that greatness.

    • Svadhyaya - Self-study, introspections, self-observance

    • Ishvara Pranidhana - Surrender to the divine (whoever or whatever that is for you)

  • ASANA - The physical postures

  • PRANAYAMA - The practice of controlling the breath

    • Prana is life force and the breath is the vessel that carries it.

  • PRATYAHARA - Withdrawal of the senses or gaining mastery over external influences

  • DHARANA - Single-pointed focus

  • DHYANA - Awareness through meditation

  • SAMADHI - Integration, oneness AKA enlightenment

So now that you've had a crash course on the 8 Limbs, perhaps you can better understand that being an advanced yogi has nothing to do with your ability to practice complex poses. In fact, if you have an attachment to your practice in this way, you are not engaging in the fifth Yama: Aparigraha. You can walk into a studio having never done a down dog in your life and have a more "advanced" yoga practice than someone who has been on their mat for years. 

I was drawn to write about this because I'm back teaching in the studio system, which I haven't done in years. Naturally, there are levels stated for each class so practitioners have a better meter to choose instruction that best suits their physical abilities. In this sense, levels are important so as not to put yourself in a position where you feel like running for the hills the second you step into the studio. I'm not blind to the fact that yoga has become about fitness in the West, therefore an obvious need for a levels system. I'm also not going to stay blind to the fact that this is the absolute antithesis of what yoga is authentically about. 

If you are reading this and you have an Asana practice but have limited knowledge in the deeper practices of yoga, challenge yourself by beginning with the first Yama. Research and read more about each of these limbs. In addition to your Asana and Pranayama practices, see how you can incorporate them into your daily life. Whether or not you become proficient in them, the effort in every aspect is what makes you a yogi.

I wish you well on your yogic journey.

Sutra 1.2 Yogas chitta vritti nirodha
Yoga is the control of the modifications of the mind field. - as translated by Swami J.