What is “advanced” yoga?

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.

Third Spaces

Third Spaces (ThS) are places that are neither home nor work environments and that we go to for companionship, to learn and to have fun. Most television shows feature a Third Space; many are set in them, often a pub. For yoga folk, the ThS is usually a studio.

Before It’s All Yoga was my workplace, it was my ThS, and so it always remained in some ways for me. When I took a colleague’s class, the gold and sage green room metaphorically held both desk and bar stool as I learned and laughed and sometimes cried under the guidance of another. When teaching a class, the space served as exploratorium, the narrow foyer funneling in students curious about what could happen in an hour.

My job: prep, facilitate and let change occur.

A ThS can be as simple as the square card tables my Meditation, Movement and Verse students gathered around. It can be the all-purpose room at an assisted living facility, chairs lined up for seated yoga, or a conference room transformed into practice space, lights dimmed, gym towels spread on the carpet.

We find our Third Spaces and they find us. 

postcard
A favorite space: the American River.

Are you at home or at work right now? Can you picture your Third Space? Or are you in it?

I urge you to take a moment to acknowledge that space and the people, as well as any non-human animals, who make that space available. Maybe your favorite hiking spot, the public pool, your journal or sketchpad, a friend’s back patio? Define it for yourself. Then pull it out for a moment from the hubbub of life, hold it like a jewel in the light. Appreciate.

And if you ever have to say farewell to your ThS, don’t despair.

It’s better to have loved and lost a Third Space than never to have loved one at all.

Receive and release. Receive and release. This is a tidal rhythm of life.

During my transition from Sacramento to Washington, DC, lines from the Judy Halebsky poem “The Ohno Studio” have kept me company.

in this studio

I have laid down my fears

I have been easily hurt

snow melts, flowers bloom

there is getting up off the floor

the third pine

the ground, the sky, the space between

this is where I have danced

this is where I leave you from

After I taught my final class at It’s All Yoga, and the last hugs were distributed to students returning to their homes and work, I stood in the middle of the studio to whisper, “Thank you” from the very bottom of my heart.

And in that final class was a student new to the studio. When she learned that I was moving, she asked a friend from DC to recommend studios then sent me an email with those recs and a well wish. I’d never met her before that night and may not see her again. What was my ThS is her ThS now. This is how it happens.

Room for All

room |ro͞omro͝om|noun – space that can be occupied or where something can be done

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes a hatha yoga practice room as being a certain size and shape with a well nearby and “in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.”

Seated in such a room, yoga practice begins. The text advises that “The following six bring speedy success: — Courage, daring, perseverance, discrimination, knowledge, faith, aloofness from company.”

Everything begins with a space that can be occupied, where something can be done.  A room.

Of asana the Pradipika says, “It should be practiced for gaining steady posture, health and lightness of body.

 

Our Animal Presence

At Summer + Sanctuary at Ratna Ling in the mountains of California’s Sonoma County, we gather at 7:30 a.m. to sit in meditation together. Even as thoughts splash their oily paints on the dark canvas of our morning minds we are in fact meditating. Only moments–nanoseconds, I believe–of awareness are experienced. Maybe those fragments of time are the negative space of the mind’s composition, wherever paint doesn’t land.

In those fractions of time I feel fastened to the broadness of animal presence.

“Come into animal presence,” Denise Levertov writes. “No man is so guileless as/the serpent. The lonely white/rabbit on the roof is a star/twitching its ears at the rain.” 

Sometimes as I “sit,” images of pets loved and lost pass through my mind, the easy breath of their ingenuous resting. My ears open to sounds of doves’ calls and finches’ songs. My skin shivers under the kiss of breeze.

In The Soul of All Living Creatures, Vint Varga combines stories of his work in animal behavior with insights into what other creatures can teach us by their responses to their environments. Animals offer us means to connect our intellectualized, machine-dependent human selves with all that surrounds us and upon which we commonly depend–water, air, earth.

“Instead of running on automatic, relying on words to convey to others everything we think and feel, the animals right by our side can remind us of the other ways to express ourselves….As we accept how we convey our thoughts and feelings beyond words we use–through the tone, pitch, and pace of our voice as we speak; our postures, gestures, and facial expressions; the ways we look into another’s eyes (or don’t)–we more fully relate to those in our lives. And as we communicate with clear intention, while being mindful and sensitive, we more fully embrace our human nature.

Why meditate? To fasten ourselves to the beautiful world of which our lives are a part. And carry that sense of connection into daily dealings.

Start now. Stop where you are. If you’re in a chair, sit to the forward edge of the seat and settle your feet solidly. If you’re standing, feel your feet steady and supportive beneath you. If you’re sitting on the ground, prop yourself with pillows until you’re comfortable. Feel the length of your spine from tailbone through neck. Let yourself ease into the animal presence of your body, eyes closed or almost. Keep company with your breath for a minute, or five to ten full rounds of inhalation and exhalation. Breathing with the rest of earth.

 

Accept the Savasana Dare, Right Now

Guest post by Michelle Marlahan

Be comfortable!
Photo by Vanessa Vichit-Vadakan

At It’s All Yoga, a wall of west-facing windows screened by sheer white curtains  gives me a peek, while I am teaching, onto Sacramento pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers passing along busy 21st Street.

One day, as my teacher trainees lay on the floor in the final pose of the practice, Savasana or Corpse Pose, a couple on the sidewalk walked past the studio windows. I watched them peer through a crack in the curtains to look inside. Seeing the people spread out around the room on their backs, the man chirped, “They’re sleeping!” The woman wisely corrected him, “No, they’re doing Yoga.”

His was a logical mistake. People do fall asleep in Savasana. The pose challenges us to be still and quiet and alert and awake.

Yoga is a practice of many things, one of which is attention – being aware of the felt experience of a posture, eating a meal or having a conversation. But being present and alert when we are active and stimulated is different than when we are still or at rest. This is where Savasana becomes so important.

Some yogis believe in a daily Savasana practice. Not after doing rigorous sun salutations or running three miles, but as an essential stand-alone practice.

Learning to be still, quiet and restful while awake can help create balance among the systems of the body, release areas of habitual holding and bring a sense of calm and clarity in the mind which prepares us for times of challenge.

But don’t take my word for it. Try this five-minute dare:

+ Set a timer for five minutes.

+ Lie down on the floor. Let your body spread out – legs can be apart with the feet rolling out, arms can be to the sides of the body with the palms up.

+ If the low back or hips are at all uncomfortable, bend the knees, feet a little wider than the hips, and let the inner knees rest together.

+ For three exhales, let your body weight go completely, as though you are sinking back into a puffy mattress or cloud.

+ For the remaining time, keep your attention in the experience of lying on the floor. You can feel your contact points with the ground, the air and clothes on your skin, or be with the sensations in your body. If your mind wanders or begins a conversation, simply come back to the feeling of your body.

+ Stay alert yet relaxed. Let your body be breathed. There is nothing to do.

+ When the timer goes off, begin some gentle movement – don’t pop right up. Roll to a side and press up to a seat. Feel one more full breath.

 

When you do want to sleep, you just might sleep better!

Michelle Marlahan is Proprietress of It’s All Yoga in Sacramento. 

 

I want to speak with you

A guest post from Michelle Marlahan

View More: http://mercarty.pass.us/itsallyoga
Michelle Marlahan in the moment. Photo by Meredith Carty.

It is estimated that the average person has around 70,000 thoughts a day, and some studies suggest that up to 98% of them are repeats. That’s a lot of reruns.

So if we’re not paying attention, the mind will replay the past (often with better endings), imagine a future event, or my personal favorite – plan fantastical conversations where I am brilliant and convincing and Right.

But we can think of Yoga as brain training. Like training a puppy to register a direction, we have to bring ourselves back to what is actually happening in the moment over and over. This takes practice. But the good news is, you get better at what you practice!

In “Prayer,” Marie Howe speaks to the enormous challenge of staying – in one place, in the moment, connected to what we might call Center. The poem begins, “Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important/calls for my attention—the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage/I need to buy for the trip./Even now I can hardly sit here….” She asks why we flee from intimacy and breath: “Even as I write these words I am planning/to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.” (Full poem.)

One of my favorite sayings is from the Buddha: Be where you are…otherwise you will miss most of your life.

Watch your mind for even a few minutes and you might be astounded by how little you are “where you are.” Being present might sound cliché or woowoo, but studies abound these days on the positive effects – such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol, decreased anxiety and depression, and balanced hormones – of meditation and mindful practices.

Wondering how to do this? Feel your feet. Be aware of the position of your body right now. Notice this very breath. That’s it. You’re doing it! (And a bonus: often just bringing attention to our physical selves will voluntarily release tension and holding.)

So, when you’re weeding in the garden, be there…doing that. When you’re chopping vegetables for soup, see the colors, smell the aroma, feel the experience of chopping. When you get caught up in your thoughts (and you will), very simply notice your body and where you are again.

Our brains might be on repeat, but we don’t get a do-over of any moment or activity. Best to be here for the real thing.

 

Michelle Marlahan is Proprietress of It’s All Yoga in Sacramento.