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The Inquiry and Practice of Advanced Asana

A longtime yoga teacher explores the relevance and benefits of advanced postures in practice, while noting the potential risks of a purely physical pursuit.

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I have always been someone who craves a strong connection to my physical being, and I savor the time I spend on the magical 14 square feet that is my yoga mat. The mat has been with me through change in age, moods, careers, and relationships. I have seen myself broken apart and put back together countless times on my magical mat. And sometimes I’ll get on the mat, and just lay there. But I have also learned how to fly, float, and meet myself at the edges of my psyche where I am most afraid, resistant, and vulnerable. I’ve done this exploring the advanced postures that come with time, patience, and practice.

“Advanced asana” is a relative term, and it does not necessarily imply advanced yoga. An enlightened being might rock a one-arm handstand, but such physical prowess does not imply enlightenment. This is an increasingly muddled distinction, with the onslaught of beautiful people in beautiful and crazy contorted postures seen as way to package, or “sell” yoga. Even I was intrigued when Madonna showed off her serious asana skills and Christy Turlington graced the cover Time floating on her hands in lotus position. Though I was excited, I know plenty who were put off by the display and found it intimidating. Often I see people reject asana photography and ask, “Isn’t yoga supposed to be about relaxing, stretching, and chilling out?”

Chilling out is certainly essential, but sometimes it’s not that easy to do. When someone tells me to “just relax,” I tense up more, whereas if I’m given specific directions on where I am holding tension, how to breathe, or where to focus my breath, the chance that I will relax increases. Asana is perfect for this kind of work; it gives you accessible tools to pay attention to where and what you hold on to, and the time and space to work that stuff out. It also gives you strength. The goal of asana—if there is such a thing—is to embody in each shape a perfect balance between strength and softness, allowing us, the practitioners, to be both secure enough in our surroundings and fluid enough not to get too stuck in them.

Variations and degree of difficulty in asana exist so we have places to go and new challenges to meet, and hopefully we start to make connections off the mat. I like to think that the equanimity I find in Tree Pose helps me find determination when standing on shaky ground. Losing a balanced posture can remind me that it’s not the biggest deal in the world to fail or falter. Learning how to breathe in Bound Triangle helps me find space when I feel stuck, whether it’s on a crowded subway or in the middle of a difficult conversation. The frustration I might encounter while attempting an asana that I am unfamiliar with reminds me that tense states of mind and body are impermanent. When I do eventually attain these seemingly impossible postures, my perception of what my limits are shifts; more seems possible.

Related: What My Yoga Injury Taught Me About Myself

There’s a lot to be said about what we encounter in the process of practicing advanced postures. When I’m on the brink of something challenging, a lot shows up. For instance, there is a moment I encounter when practicing handstand when I lose my connection to my breath. In the space of a split-second, my mind can become preoccupied with the magnanimity of what I am doing: “Will I fall? Can I stay up here? Isn’t this awesome?” If I stay cluttered in thought, I’ll come right back down. If I can get past these thoughts and back to my breath, the preoccupation dissipates, and I get to hang up there for a while. It is an excellent sensory experience—exhilarating to be on the edge of falling, balancing my whole body over my hands.   Body and breath are working together so perfectly that the mind can hang out in the backseat for a while and just go, “Wow.” I become detached enough from the experience just enough to be fully present in it, and then come down ready for the next one.

There’s a different kind of listening we use for the subtle shifts of physical consciousness when the breath untangles the tightness of the body in order to place it into more intricate postures. You become curious to the process, and that inquiry can keep you grounded in reality. There’s an unfolding in the rearrangement. You ask the body if it can go somewhere, and if it doesn’t go willingly, you have to probe, asking yourself, “Is this my ego here that wants to push or can I go a little further?” Ultimately once the ego gets out of the way, you are able to hang on that edge where the mind takes the back seat, and you can savor the moment just enough to not despair at letting it go.

The flip side of a strong emphasis on a physical practice is mistaking the product for the path. There is no advanced asana out there that will “fix” you. Side crow will not make you a better person, father, girlfriend, or wife. Flying up into handstand at every opportunity will not save your soul or your marriage. And if you are just looking to fill up your time on the mat with fancy tricks just to do them, you might want to look into that. Advanced asanas are thrilling destinations for us to create maps towards.   We gain insight every time we tread ground, new or old. Just like our morning commute or trip to our favorite place, we see things that have always been there but never noticed when we begin to really pay attention.

This is all subject to the experience and physical needs, limits, and desires of the practitioner.   Asana literally means to sit and find equipoise in that seat. Any variations from this are merely different opportunities to find this balanced state. An advanced shape could be Mountain Pose for a student feeling their feet on the ground for the first time, or for a more experienced one who might have forgotten they had feet at all. One of the most advanced things I have learned is that all asanas are simply variations of Mountain Pose and Downward Facing Dog. The more intricate shapes are just composites of the foundation. Staying interested in how your body moves in these shapes simply gives you access, over time, to more intricate postures. Little things, like how you spread your fingers in downward dog can translate into arm balances if you allow yourself to see the similarities. We are closer than we think to advanced asana—in fact, we are already there. The way to stay there is to realize that we are only and always just visiting.

Photos by Hailey Wist; Outfitted by YOGASMOGA

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