Recently, and student, let's call her Emma, approached me before class to ask me if she was good enough to stay. What? I was flabbergasted.
Apparently, she had been to another teacher's 'advanced' class and had basically been asked to leave. I understand that the teacher was probably trying to keep Emma safe, since she was at a different level to the rest of the class, but it had the unfortunate effect of externalising her yoga experience. I tried to reassure her that if she was feeling comfort and release in her practice, she was doing fine, but after class she came to me again to ask if she did OK. I asked her how she felt: she said she felt great. "That," I told her, "is how you did."
A lot of the yoga we learn these days is very goal-oriented; we want to achieve difficult or impressive postures, regardless of whether they are actually appropriate for us, or even important. There is nothing wrong with striving in your yoga practice; there is a goal to every practice, and it could be physical achievement. The idea, however, is to practice for the sake of the practice, rather than to reach an end goal. Imagine you are reading a really good book. Do you want to finish as fast as possible, or do you savour every word, and feel a little disappointed when you reach the end? It's the same with yoga – you want to be fully present when you practice, feeling the sensations in body, mind and breath. If you happen to achieve a posture you didn't manage before, and if it makes you happy, awesome. But that's not your main reason for being on the mat. Or, it shouldn't be. The main reason for being on the mat is being on the mat. Or, put another way, the practice is the process.
This is one of those yogic mind-twisters – just as we learn to twist our bodies in asana practice, so the philosophy behind yoga is sometimes simple yet far from easy! In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali says:
Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah (I: 12)
Abhayasa can be translated as dedicated practice, and vairagya as non-attachment to the fruits of your efforts. These two together lead to nirodhah, a state of stillness, quietness in the fluctuations of the mind. This is the whole point of yoga:
Yogascitta vrtti nirodhah (I:2)
Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind, or, according to TKV Desikachar, "Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards one object and sustain that direction without any distractions." This happens because ending unnecessary mental activities can create clarity and one pointed focus.
It seems so simple – we practice the asana, with dedication but without obsession, and we get where we want to go. Except that we have to focus on the journey – keep our eyes on the road, as it were – or we will crash before we get there.
One of the most effective ways to stay present is to observe your breath rather than your body – many people have told me they experience physical breakthroughs on the days they are more focused on the texture and quality of their breath. It's certainly that way for me.
I am a chronic workaholic, chronic overachiever wannabe, and the practice of noticing my breath over the years has given me access to another way to be. Sometimes. Hey, we all slip into old patterns from time to time, don't we?
Ironically, if you bring your full awareness to what you are doing right now, you will do it better, and you will probably find the results come more easily. Another yogic mind-twister!
By that logic, child pose can count as advanced yoga: just being still and observing your breath. So simple. So not easy.