It takes 10 years of steady practice, I’ve read, to become proficient at anything you do.
Think about what you do and enjoy–cooking, painting, gardening, rock climbing, swimming, raising chickens–and you’ll find some truth to the claim.
In the yoga world, people often ask each other how long they’ve been at it. For some people, the asana (poses) come more easily, for others the meditation, for others the system’s ethical guidelines, such as kindness and generosity, are a natural fit.
More than 10 years ago, Michelle Marlahan started a small neighborhood yoga studio in Sacramento. She was ahead of the yoga craze, and its chain studios, that has since swept the United States. It’s All Yoga emphasizes the personal aspect of the practice, the process of getting to know oneself in order to move through the world with clarity. We call this svadhyaya.
Michelle has taught many people, and trained many yoga teachers (including me), so when I got curious about what it means to be advanced in a yoga practice, I asked her to share her experience and wisdom.
We’re talking about yoga here, but the concept of “advanced” is worth thinking about in whatever you pursue.
Thank you, Michelle!
It’s easy to equate growth, or “advancing,” in your yoga practice to doing fancier, more complicated poses. It’s a somewhat measurable factor – you might feel stronger and more flexible, allowing you to achieve poses that were hard in the beginning. The increasing popularity of yoga on forums like Instagram make it tempting to equate “advanced yoga” with photo of a beautiful woman in bright pants doing an extravagant cirque de solei pose. This can be confusing, intimidating and misleading.
Yoga is a life practice.
Yoga philosophy is an invisible support system, like the tree roots of the mighty oak. Qualities like honesty, self-knowledge and present moment awareness are personal experiences on and off the mat, making them harder to measure. So how can we tell when we are making progress?
Here are a few ways you might be aware of “advancing” in your practice:
1. You have contentment and steadiness in a simple pose.
It’s tempting to gauge our improvement in practice to our ability to do technically difficult poses. There are many factors that contribute to our access or improvement in a pose:
Some people are put together with more loosely constructed bodies — more spacious joint sockets, more “flexible” muscles; other people are constructed with more fitted joints and less pliable muscles. (Think stereotypical ballerinas vs. football players.)
It matters what we do the other 23 hours of the day – our posture, habits and activities off the mat create patterns that affect our movement on the mat.
If we have prior injuries or physical considerations like a scoliosis, our options for range of movement might be affected.
Even basic needs like sleep and what we consume will affect our body’s ability to adapt and change.
Conversely, maintaining steadiness and breath in any pose – and the humility and patience it takes to find contentment in a simple pose – might be considered a more “advanced” practice than contorting or striving.
It is also worth mentioning that asana, or the poses, are just one of eight limbs or pillars of a yoga practice. There is a lot of emphasis on the physical poses in popularized yoga, but it is only a small portion of the larger practice. To base our advancement on one aspect out of eight is imbalanced.
James McNeill Whistler, Nude Standing with Legs Crossed, 1878, National Gallery of Art
2. You have more freedom and spontaneity in your breath.
Pranayama, or breathing practice, is another one of the eight limbs of Yoga. There are many intricate and powerful breathing techniques used to affect the energy and mind state.
Before you jump into this refined practice, consider this: Most of us have habits and patterns of holding in the body and breath from as far back as childhood. Activities like ballet, gymnastics and even sports can create postural restrictions that affect our breathing. Not to mention emotional factors that can create subconscious tendencies in the breath.
San Francisco Bay Area teacher Richard Rosen recommends spending the first three months (at minimum) of daily yoga practice simply watching the breath in an easy, restful posture, like Constructive Rest.
Through time and gentle attention, we can uncover the ways we inhibit or force the breath and eventually free the natural rhythm of our body’s intelligence.
If we don’t explore and free those layers of habit and holding before exploring breath techniques, we potentially put more limitation or control on top of something that is already constricted.
Additionally, without truly knowing our natural breath, we won’t be able to appreciate or understand the delicate and often powerful effects of a pranayama.
3. Instead of getting easier, the lessons get harder.
The spiritual path is hard. One way you might know your practice is working is the lessons get harder.
We have to continue to grow, and often growth is spurred by challenge.
Related, you might be more aware of your “darker” emotions like anger, jealousy, greed and judgment.
Being a yogini doesn’t mean you will have only kind, benevolent thoughts toward everyone.
You are increasing your awareness of your humanness and that includes the full spectrum of emotion.
Ultimately, yes, through this practice we become more forgiving and compassionate, and perhaps eventually life has a kind of ease or flow. But initially, many of us go through a period of challenge as we see ourselves and the world more honestly which includes knowing and welcoming all parts.
When I posed the question of “advanced” yoga to my studio community, responses included:
An attitude of openness to what is unfolding around me.
Taking a conscious breath before any action.
Using the kitchen countertop to get a leg up while watching water boil.
Advancing in your yoga practice is a personal endeavor and might not have anything to do with a posture. As the saying goes, it’s all yoga.
Michelle Marlahan owns and teaches at It’s All Yoga in Sacramento, CA, bringing yoga to the community for more than 10 years. Her new endeavor, The Altar of Nature, focuses the timeless wisdom of the earth to support healthfulness and wholeness through the priniciples of Ayurveda, essential oil therapy and good, old-fashioned listening.