The yoga virtuosos

Published on September 9, 2011 by      Print
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 By Alice Riccardi

I sat down with my decaf over breakfast and the Sunday papers. As I was browsing the section called “Audience” — the part of the paper devoted to arts and leisure (my favorite and usually the easiest to read) — the title of an article caught my eye: “In the quest for virtuosity, is enjoyment being left behind?” by Christopher Hyde.

The article spoke about the world of classical music and its focus on the expertise of musicians therein. It discussed the ever-increasing trend toward a mechanistic approach to playing great compositions and the focus on the complicated as opposed to enjoying the simplicity of the music itself — as might be demonstrated in the playing, appreciation, and listening that might occur with a Bach suite.

 As I read this article, it occurred to me that this current situation within the world of classical music is similar to what is happening within the yoga community.

Recently, I have been thinking about yoga: what it means to me and the current community at large. I wasn’t able to quite put my finger on it until reading this piece. In the article, Hyde states, “Today’s musicians do seem to be able to play difficult works at an earlier age. Except for those who are born full-fledged, such as Mozart or Mendelssohn, this is probably a result of vastly improved pedagogy based upon anatomical and psychological realities rather than myths, hero worship, and sadism, which was the norm until very recently.”

More and more yoga students are becoming proficient at asana at an earlier age (see the Yoga Journal feature article “21 under 40”), perhaps due to better teaching and alignment methodologies, along with the fact that human beings are now generally more interested in physical health than they were ten years ago. This current atmosphere is giving rise to the focus on asana as a virtuosic endeavor with a lessening interest in yoga as a practice.

Years ago, when I was a dancer, I remember having the epiphany that just because someone has good technique, does not make him or her a good dancer. It is the content they bring to their dancing — not just their ability to perfect the execution of the movement — that makes their dancing inspiring.

Similarly, in yoga, the continual focus on doing more and more difficult asana or becoming “good” at it has begun to take the pleasure out of doing yoga for the simple enjoyment of doing yoga and reaping the benefits that come from that approach. Instead, we have yet another endeavor at which we need to excel, and if we cannot, we might as well not do it. Or we instead exchange our enjoyment for workshops on how to get better at it and accumulate more knowledge about it.

Now that virtuosity in asana is the goal — and isn’t yoga supposed to not be end-gaining? — the dedication to one person or story, or allegiance to one methodology (for fear of being cast out from community), is slowly changing to embrace a league of super yogis who will lead us to salvation! Just like in the music world.

In the last ten to fifteen years, the commercialization of yoga has led to a larger pool of talent. With popularization, more people become interested in doing yoga, and from that comes more and more specialization and expertise based on technical ability. The current trend of being “in shape” comes from external pressure to keep up, and it is beginning to replace the practice of yoga as a discipline. A discipline that leads to better health and wellbeing. A discipline that dissolves tension standing in the way of personal growth. A discipline that helps us understand our own humanity and the humanity of those around us.

The author of the article writes, “Another thought that is more sobering – that human endeavors, from arts to empires, tend to reach their apogee just before decline or disappearance.” If we, as yogis, continue on this path of good > better > best, what will become of the simple practice of yoga as a life sustaining discipline? So many who once practiced yoga have become disillusioned and discouraged with the world of yoga, as well they should, because it led them away from the very thing that brought them to it in the first place: the desire to understand themselves as an individual and subsequently their place in the world!

“Virtuosity certainly has its place, in the ability to play great works well, leaving room for interpretation and innovation without worrying too much about clinkers.” Hyde goes on to say, “but all to often it becomes an end in itself, an attempt to impress the audience with circus tricks,” and I quote. He goes on to say that this drive can make the best compositions seem lifeless and mechanical, “like a piece of machinery-made jewelry compared to the work of human hands.”

“After all, you can’t have fire without clinkers.”

Isn’t this true of yoga as well?

It’s wonderful to see those who are able to execute physically difficult asana with ease and talent. Yet one can’t help but wonder what will happen to those who teach and do yoga as a life-sustaining practice when what is promoted is just the opposite: more and more challenging asana?

And what about the “clinkers”? If we are practicing daily and becoming more conscious of ourselves, not just trying to get better at yoga, might we begin to see our “clinkers” in life and make changes, rather than just being good at one specific thing, like Scorpion pose?

I know, I know! Those who have stood on their heads in Classical Headstand have experienced a gestalt in regard to their life, but that does not mean that in order for someone to have a major shift in personal growth they have to experience headstand. Instead, it might mean simply walking into a yoga studio for the first time and taking a class. Experience is experience, plain and simple, and comes from the place we are in: not virtuosity but reality.

In the end, Hyde states “that the device of virtuosity widens the gap between professional and amateur musicians.” No one would even consider playing a Salonen at home, although they might be working with pleasure on a Bach suite or Haydn sonata. Isn’t this also true of our yoga? Even the most disciplined yogis who can perform forearm balance and jump back into crow would not necessarily put those poses on the top of their daily practice list. My own daily practice is something that I do to keep me on track, out of spiritual trouble, and grounded in reality. What about those who might never reach physical heights in asana, yet get great pleasure out of feeling their bodies move and flow?

Currently, there is a video promotion online for the Yoga Journal conference that shows master teachers doing more difficult asanas that are not part of the sequences that constitute the daily disciplines of the lineages they represent. This begs the question: what has become of this simple discipline as it has been presented? Perhaps the teacher (guru) has now been set to the side in favor of the asana? And not just asana, but difficult asana that is less accessible to the everyday student.

After all his years of practicing yoga, Mr. Iyengar says that his favorite pose is still Tadasana: Mountain Pose. Sometimes, the simplest things have the most value.

If yoga is focusing more on the asana as opposed to the practice, are we all to become virtuosos? What about those who are amateurs? The origin of the word amateur comes from Latin, meaning “to love,” and the origin of virtuoso comes from the Italian, meaning “skilled.” Are we working toward becoming skilled in practice while leaving behind our amateur approach? Or what about loving something so much that being skilled is less important, because being in love and loving is the experience we really all want at the end of the day? What about the realization that, in essence, life is messy, not perfect, coming together and falling apart with the regularity of the sun rising and setting.

Virtuosos in the world of music and yoga will come and go. In the end, it’s the amateur practice of yoga that will sustain and help to create the change!

About Alice Riccardi

Alice Riccardi is a Certified Baptiste Power Flow teacher and co-owner (with her husband, Charles Terhune) of Portland Power Yoga in Portland, ME. She started practicing yoga at 13 after taking lessons at a hippie head shop in 1972. Her on and off yoga practice led her to a professional dancing career, where she performed in NYC, Boston, LA and at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts with the international Butoh dance company Sankai Juku. So far in her life, she has also worked as a certified beer judge and spearheaded the supplements department at Whole Foods. She trained at the Dimon School for the Alexander Technique in Cambridge, MA and became a certified Alexander teacher in 1998.

Alice’s daughter Sophia was born in 1999, so she took a hiatus from teaching for two years to hang out and be with her daughter (read: best two years of her life, no kidding folks). Having gained weight during pregnancy and not able to lose it and feeling crappy, she went on the well known hunt back to find herself, wherever and whoever that was… and that’s how she landed at the Baptiste studio in Cambridge, where she quickly became a studio assistant, traveling assistant, and teacher. Being naturally independent and not one to follow the rules, Alice left the nest before being pushed out. She landed on her feet in Portland Maine. And now, five years later, Alice is hell-bent on encouraging students to remember it’s the practice that’s important and that yoga can be an unconditional love affair with oneself — not the teacher!


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  1. Joslyn Hamilton says:

    Alice, I love this article so much. Back in our Baptiste days, we used to just cram in whatever class we could get to… with our busy schedules, we didn’t have the luxury of going to just our favorite teachers or the “right level” of class. I often found myself in what they called the “Basics” class, and wow was that eye opening! I remember that the Basics classes were often harder, for me, in their simplicity. Holding those simple poses long enough for the teacher to explain them to beginners was so humbling. And I started to notice how the best teachers are the ones who get assigned to teach the Basics classes. They are a challenge! Even now, back in San Francisco, I notice that the best teachers are the ones teaching the “Level 1″ classes, as we call them here: Rusty Wells, Tom Lee. I’m happy to remain a beginner for the rest of this lifetime… it’s hard enough!

  2. Janine says:

    “Or what about loving something so much that being skilled is less important, because being in love and loving is the experience we really all want at the end of the day?”

    I LOVE this question–it’s how I feel (and what I have questioned) not only about my amateur yoga practice, about my professional years in theater and my years as a pilates teacher–where perfect IS the name of the game…. It may mean I don’t become a superstar, but I am still true to me.

    Thanks for the reminder:)

  3. Caroline says:

    Yes, this is why I quit the yoga class in my area! Everytime I was in that beginner’s place of enjoyment, I was “supposed” to push on…so now I just work with my DVD’s at home, still open to classes but the intent behind them is important.

  4. nathan says:

    This obsession with more and more “difficult” asana is an example of the greater obsession with the physical part of the practice that Western yoga students often have. Perhaps if more emphasis was placed on the other 7 limbs, there might less of this good,better, best mentality. Even if much more emphasis on the Yamas and Niyamas occurred in asana focused classes, I’d imagine at least some of this thinking would be broken down.

    When it comes to asanas in my own practice, I always gravitate back to basics. While I’m open to learning more challenging poses, it’s working closely with simple stuff like triangle or downdog that keeps me going – even after a good decade of practice.

  5. The yoga virtuosos | RecoveringYogi « c h a n g s p a c e says:

    [...] The yoga virtuosos | RecoveringYogi. [...]

  6. Stefanie says:

    This is such an eloquent piece. And it comes just at the right time for me.

    I never started at the beginning. I was a professional dancer and when I began doing yoga I ended my ass up in some Level 2-3 class. I was flexible and body aware enough to follow along. My yoga schooling then led me to study with a teacher who had an arsenal of advanced postures. Over time I could do some of those postures too but began to feel lost. I am not one of those petite, taut, and perfect bodies who bring glamour and glitz to everything. I felt stuck in what drove to me to have an eating disorder as a ballet dancing girl. And I felt like there was too much focus on what the practice looked like from the outside.

    I started practicing two years ago with one of the most Senior teachers in the Iyengar lineage. While we do advanced asana it is always presented from the ground up and honestly we spend WAY more time working on being 1oo% present in Tadasana and Trikoasana.

    I have learned that if you can’t be fully present in a simple pose – it certainly is not going to happen in Scorpion pose. And as my practice ‘advances’ – I strip more and more away. I spend a lot of time finding balance in Tadasana and taking that through other poses and then taking that into my life off the mat. And yes those fancy poses are fun to do from time to time but I find it is not what really serves me as any kind of ‘goal’ since this whole thing is about waking the hell up!

    Thanks again.

  7. Amanda J. Cote says:

    I have experienced both. The striving for better, more, deeper, and being with where/how I am and accepting that fully. The satisfaction of the latter is authentic and way more juicy. I’ll stick with playing the amateur. Thank you for sharing your insight Alice! Spot on.

  8. Jenifer says:

    This really resonates with how I teach.

    I’m not sure if I’m going to say this at all clearly. :)

    I have sort of two ways that I go about things. First is teaching the basics. I want to make sure that the student is safe, and that s/he gets the benefit of the posture. This is not about going deeper, or advancing, but really learning what the individual posture feels like, and how it is uniquely modified for that body.

    Second, I’m often telling students to “not try so hard.” They are so lovely, coming in and putting forth such effort! They want to get it. And, there are times when I challenge them (5 breaths in plank pose with my slow counting! LOL), but overall, trying too hard is not “getting” the posture. So it’s always “just back off a bit, lighten up, have fun.”

    Third, in their first classes, a person is straining to touch toes. Not sure what this is — wanting to show me what they can do? wanting to keep up? whatever, it’s in the head. So, I say “modify, dilute.” And I also say “Look, i’ve been practicing since I was 4, and still 98% of the postures that I do are modified.” This gives permission to modify. If you are day one, and trying to NOT modify, and I’m day 11,315 and i’m modifying, it’s ok for you to modify to. For Serious.

    Forth, I finish up this encouragement to modify, to feel the posture, with “there is always next week.” This means that if you don’t “get it” today, it’s a practice. You’ll get it next week. It’s said with humor, because there are lots of postures that may not really happen next week for a lot of the class. I have a student who works chaturangas while the others are working plank. She’s more experienced in yoga than the rest of the class, and I cued her before class that she’s free to do that instead of plank if she wishes. Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t. It’s cool. But others see her, and some want to try before they are ready. By saying “don’t worry, there is always next week!” it simply encourages them to stay where they are, to feel what they are capable of, and when the time is right, to try new things.

    A lot of this stems out of my own practice.

    I spent most of my childhood doing the postures that my mother preferred — and I also have postures that I prefer over others. One of my teachers once said “There are thousands of postures and modifications. You don’t have to do them all. Do the ones you like, and every once in a while, do a few that you don’t like until you like them.” I thought this was good advice, to be sure, because it encouraged me to enjoy my practice AND explore and challenge myself.

    So, there was and is a lot of repetition in what I practice — which postures — but I find I also like to play with sequencings, and sometimes I just let the body choose which way it’s going to go on a given day.

    In addition, I love detail. I love to see if i’m feeling new things in an old pose, or having a different understanding today than yesterday, or earlier today, or last week or whatever. I am constantly learning about postures — even the oldest, most tried and true — because I’m not just blessed to be able to practice them myself, but to watch others practice them, to help them find alignment, and to observe them modify for their own bodies. I begin to see the uniqueness of practice of asana — and I also pick up some things to look for while I’m feeling out that posture in my practice.

    And here is where things, perhaps, get interesting.

    I love arm balances. I love inversions. I just enjoy them! When I was 20 or so, with the teacher who told me to practice postures that I liked, I told her that I wanted to do arm balances. I’d done crow/crane (kakasana/bakasana), but couldn’t figure out how to get anywhere else. My mother didn’t know, and my teacher didn’t know either. She sent me to an iyengar teacher — who is great — and he set me right into level one to “work out the kinks” in my practice.

    At 20, this was frustrating! I wanted arm balances, not seriously detailed camel. Stop messing with me! LOL But, I decided to submit myself because I figured out that this guy knew more than me AND it was like the Karate Kid. You know, he was my yoga Mr Miyagi. Not only did I have to practice the basics in fine detail, but I also was working in exchange for classes. Wax on, Wax off. Paint this way — up, down, up down. I figured that there was probably something to it.

    5 years later, I still hadn’t done arm balances with this teacher. But, I did learn a lot about postures. I learned a lot about myself and about bodies. And when I moved away, my teacher gave me a little gift: “To learn the more difficult postures, see how they relate to the most basic postures.” And then he gave me Light on Yoga.

    I began to explore the postures. I would spend hours looking at the pictures of Iyengar, reading the instructions, and then contemplating the posture. Scorpion pose — arms similar to downward dog (if forearm balance) with strong external rotation; chest like upward dog with chest drawn forward and shoulders moving deeply together and strong activation of lower trapezius, legs strong similar to bow/camel/or “full pigeon” with internal rotation of the thighs to lift out of the lumbar spine, belly in the bandhas to get the full abdominal stretch, neck long and chin lifting/drawing upward and forward as similar to camel.

    This process began to unlock for me how to do these postures. I began to practice those foundational postures to open my body to try these more challenging ones.

    It is not to be a virtuoso, but really because I love to try, to see myself and feel myself in these postures. To see how gravity affects the movement (after all, that is the experience of practicing bow, camel, and bridge in succession — we feel the way that the body and gravity are working together to change the forces on the posture, and how this — in turn — heals the body in unique ways).

    I still practice these postures — most arm balances — with the wall, with props, and after having practiced the foundational ones to make sure that I’m ready or open enough on that day to go for those postures.

    And, I do teach my students these postures — when I see that they appear to be ready AND after asking them if they are interested, because just because I am, doesn’t mean someone else is.

    As my second teacher (first being my mom) said, “There are thousands of postures and modifications. You don’t have to do them all. Do the ones you like, and every once in a while, do a few that you don’t like until you like them.” So students need to have the freedom to opt out of doing postures that they do not want to do.

    Is that a rather cubist response?

    • Alice Riccardi says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful communication. You have a keen kinesthetic sensibility combined with a realistic approach. There’s nothing “wrong” with more advanced poses, it’s just that, as you mentioned, students need to understand the foundation first. As you have done, yoga teachers both known and unknown need to take responsibility for making sure their students know the basics before anything else…Thanks for your comments and commitment!

      • Jenifer says:

        thanks. :)

        you are so right in your article where you say “Instead, we have yet another endeavor at which we need to excel. . .” This is so *hard core* for people, emotionally. So many people feel this way about 90% of their lives, and thus feel inadequate most of the time. It stinks. I know I have felt this way before too!

        our practice is really an opportunity to just be, and feel, our bodies. the mind’s self judgments can go away, and we can open to just being. it’s awesome.

        i tried roller derby for the first time on thursday. first time i’ve skated in 15 years. I was going in circles and learning the basic stance. I am “ahead” of so many others in the “fresh meat” because they are afraid of falling, and clinging to the walls. One young woman said “how are you doing this? how are you already skating around like that?” And I told her that she can be where she is. She doesn’t have to be me. And, I pointed out, that I feel ready. I didn’t feel ready before. I felt scared. I’d tried on skates about 5-6 months ago, but ddn’t buy any. Then my friend was selling hers, but then she couldn’t buy her new skates, so we made a loose agreement that I would buy hers when she did. That happened to be Wednesday. And the skate happened on Thursday. But I felt ready. Excited.

        I don’t plan on being a virtuoso roller derby girl. :) I want to have fun. I want to feel the wind in the hair that sticks out of my helmet. I want to feel “zooming.” I just want to be with a bunch of ladies from diverse backgrounds doing something for ourselves — not work, not the kids, not the housework, not the cute husband. Just something for me. In red roller skates.

        Yoga isn’t much different, when we stop competing with ourselves and each other. When we just be where we are, do what we can do, and get comfortable with the basics before moving to the next thing — if you ever do. I mean, the astanga primary series can regularly kick my butt. And that’s a good thing.

  9. Bria @ Yoga with Bria says:

    Beautiful post.

    I encourage all of my students to cultivate beginner’s mind. The longer one has been practicing, I think, the more important and challenging this can be.

    Being “good at” something isn’t necessary. And what is “good” anyway? Foundational elements of one’s practice can always be refined and improved, not as part of a pursuit of perfection, but rather as a continual experience of learning, growth, and empathy.

    Take the analogy of dance, ballet specifically:

    No less a dancer than Mikhail Baryshkinov has said he is JUST NOW beginning to understand the plie.

    Yes, “Plie is the first thing you learn and the last thing you master,” said Suzanne Farrell.

    Not unlike what Mr. Iyengar said regarding his love of tadasana.

    Curiosity about virtuosity might get some students through the door, but I truly hope they stay for the other benefits and breakthroughs. These breakthroughs may or may not involve exotic poses. The benefits start at the foundation. The benefits often come from doing less. From trying less. From letting go and realizing that we don’t have to muscle our way prematurely into any of these shapes. Ever. That we get to cultivate our breath, something that’s so mundane yet so miraculous all at once.

    Isadora Duncan said something interesting:

    “There are likewise three kinds of dancers: first, those who consider dancing as a sort of gymnastic drill, made up of impersonal and graceful arabesques; second, those who, by concentrating their minds, lead the body into the rhythm of a desired emotion, expressing a remembered feeling or experience. And finally, there are those who convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul.”~Isadora Duncan

    I say the “luminous fluidity” Ms. Duncan speaks of is available to us all. It’s tapping into our inner light, and that can take many forms. Some virtuostic, yes. Some simple, yet elegant and luminous in their simplicity.

    • Alice Riccardi says:

      Bria, I love the dance comparisons. My inquiry with yoga is why all the hub bub with the fancy stuff? A master in any field knows that the basics always come first. A dancer would NEVER think of doing tour jetes without doing a plie first! Thanks for sharing your viewpoint.

    • Warriorsaint says:

      First off, some really spot on responses to this wonder piece. I especially love the Isadora Duncan quote from Bria.
      There is a push for those of us who come to yoga with a background in the what I call the physical arts (dance,martial arts,cheerleading) to jump in to the more exotic poses. My background is martial arts(capoeira) so some of the more tricky arm balances come second nature to me. They are part of the art. What is difficult for me, and is why I also come yoga , are the basic grounding poses. I love mountain and the warrior poses-so calm yet powerful. It takes a whole lot more moxie to hold a warrior II for 10 breaths than most any moves I’ve done in capoeira.

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  11. Tracie Jansen says:

    Oh, how I love your words, Alice.

    I started to write a comment before anyone else had commented and none of my thoughts were cohesive. So I deleted it. (But posted your piece to my wall.)

    I, too, come from a Baptiste background. I no longer teach in studios, but instead have chosen to focus on teaching to a diverse population in Y’s and schools and places where you wouldn’t think to have yoga. It feeds me.

    But I have been avoiding my own practice like the plague. I think you may have touched on one of the reasons why.

    Yoga resonated with me Way Back When because it allowed me to show up and suck and let it be. Nowadays I feel that less and less when I go to a studio. Almost as though I’m “wimping out” or cheating if I modify my planks or take a random child’s pose. I don’t need that any more. I don’t need any pressure to “keep up,” especially in a yoga class.

    When I teach, I occasionally tell a student that he/she has a “beautiful practice.” Usually they looked shocked, because to me, a “beautiful practice” has nothing to do with the complexity of their physical asanas, but instead with their ability to stay present, breathe and let their practice meet them where they are on any given day. The beautiful practitioners are the ones who don’t strain, who don’t get caught up with their reflection in the mirror and who treat themselves with compassion.

    Reading your piece today shed some important light on what has been a huge roadblock in my practice. Thank you…I think I may go find an Intro Series to take!

    • Jenifer says:

      i love working with diverse crowds, too. :) I’m lucky that my mixed levels classes range from 20 to 66 (currently), pregnant and post partum, athletes and nonathletes, mostly newbiews, and i currently see 5 (known) different races, and of course, men and women (about 1/3 men right now). I use a lot of “beautiful” and “amazing” when talking to them, and things like “ah! you got that right away!” and “you are finding it!” because — it’s true.

      finding your own practice, i’ve been hurt (emotionally) from studio fall-out, and it took me a bit to get back to play/explore. i had to separate the practice from the people and experience. it took a while. i needed a holiday. i meditated instead. it worked until i needed to move again. it opened itself up to me. i just needed time to be.

    • Yogini5 says:

      I am never ashamed of being “the prop queen” in the tougher classes.

      I could not believe it was possible to be “too laid back for my yoga classes” … but at the wrong studio, I certainly had been …

      I could not believe that a teacher just starting at the studio I once went to, said to me “Yoga is all about the process …”

      Before he could finish his sentence, I blurted, “I’ve got THAT nailed!”

      Welcome to the life of a former meditation addict …

    • Alice Riccardi says:

      Tracie, I enjoyed reading your comments. I too am inspired by the students who work their practice with heart and soul. I say the same things that you do to students whose practice is not what we could now call virtuosic but amateur. They too seem surprised. I say the same thing that you do in that they are present and being with themselves in the moment and that’s an inspiration for all of us. Let me know how the Intro Series works out!

  12. Yogini5 says:

    Thank you for writing this. I have returned to old-school-type studios that must be a little milder than my whatever my home practice is. No more supporting drill-sergeant teachers and the studios they begat.

    I don’t have to pay to become more stressed BY my yoga class and feeling centered only on a fluke, EVEN in the so-called Beginner’s class.

    I posted a link to this article on my FB wall. Immediately a yoga teacher (but, despite her young age—teaching mild and contemplative yoga know no age—she isn’t of the ilk that wants their students to advance the day before yesterday) snapped it up and posted it to HER wall.

    Now, I have to wrap my mind around the 32-year old yoga master (in supposedly mellow hatha style) who may take over the one yoga studio I did not alienate. [And believe me, I tried not to alienate anybody. Though I did repeated say I was NOT interested in learning acrobatics in my yoga class.]

    No, this guy is NOT Kino. But any time a 32 year old yoga master is slated to revive an old school place, BE AFRAID!!!!

    Again, my refrain: I’m SO done!

    • Alice Riccardi says:

      Yogini5, it’s a fine line between working the edge and being pushed off, yes? The edge is the growing place, not jumping off without the proper flight equipment. Students must always know that they can rest and go at their own pace. Inspiration with space as opposed to pressure with contraction. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  13. patrick nolan says:

    i really liked this article. if i remember correctly, in judaism there is a concept that god created the laws so people could live with one another in a more peaceful, mutually beneficial way; he didn’t create humans just so they could follow his laws. i feel that this can and should be applied to our yoga practice as well. it is there to help us live better, and should not be a goal in and of itself. keeping this in mind, do advanced poses have a purpose as well. tim miller once explained that difficult poses help keep the mind from wandering. i think that’s a great way to approach them– just as tools to keep you focused. if you’ve opened your hamstrings enough such that paschimottanasna is quite effortless, then maybe trying kormasana will bring your mind more immediately into the present. the inverse is true as well, of course: if you can barely touch your toes in paschimottanasana then don’t even worry about kormasana or more advanced forward bends. i am an ashtangi, if you haven’t figured it out, and although we are often hit hardest (and perhaps rightfully so) with the “type-a drill instructor yoga style” label, i try to keep in mind one of guruji’s oft-quoted sayings– “primary series for everyone, second series for teachers, advanced just for demonstration.” so, what can be done by anyone is essential, and what cannot be done by everyone is not. pushing your boundaries is only a way to keep your mind focused, and not a means to become stronger, more flexible, and prettier.

    • patrick nolan says:

      errata: keeping this in mind, advanced poses do serve a purpose as well

      • Alice Riccardi says:

        Great reply Patrick! I too think that advanced poses serve a purpose and are essential to a strong yoga commitment. And you are also correct in stating that more advanced poses harness a wandering mind. It’s when they become like an addiction for yogis that I wonder at what cost? I’ve had many students ask me recently if we change up the practice we do at our studio or if we offer up advanced poses because they find they CAN’T stay focused without.
        Then I wonder as I am sure you do to. Thanks so much for your intelligent response.

  14. Ann Fogal says:

    Although still new to yoga, I am no longer impressed by anyone’s level of asana performance, but very much floored by the overweight, inflexible mature adult, who manages to stay, as requested for an enitre 90 mins in a hot yoga room, and who patiently, without embarrassment sits quietly to catch their breath every now and then, while the rest of us carry on. And smile sweetly when I see them come back to class the next day!

    • Alice Riccardi says:

      Right on Ann! We can all learn from this expression of human spirit embodied on the mat. This is what brings me back to teaching and practice more often than anything else. Thanks for the reminder!

  15. Yogini5 says:

    As primarily a home practitioner of yoga, I do NOT think studios will lose much business (if ANY) by going mild and embracing THIS, my part of the yoga community. Yes, we infrequent class attendees are out there, and comprise 90% of yoga practitioners in America. A once-in-a-while longing to be out of the four walls and among people drives us to your classes.

    We full well know that these people will not become friendly to us (particularly if we are past a certain age) unless we are part of the teacher training track, etc. But sometimes, class is nice.

    But instead, the studio goes for the 80s-themed playlist and the 90s (WAIF Alert!) themed costumes and the acro and the gimmicks …

    I hope this article was meant to caution teachers, rather than attract (and/or reassure) new, frequent students to your classes.

    I don’t like to eat out in restaurants that over-spice my food.

    I don’t like to practice out in studios that cannot adapt what they teach to my tastes (=level of ability), even when I let them know.

    That certainly does not do so well for public relations with the 90% who are a market for something else–not a “market yet to be penetrated”

  16. snowyogi says:

    I have visited studios that push advanced asanas, and are only interested in the people in the teacher training track etc. Mostly when on vacation or travelling, I like to see the variety that is out there. I practice at home about 75% of the time, but I suppose I must count myself extremely lucky that my home studio is mellow, supportive and more interested in alignment and the personal experience of yoga than the scene. East Meets West in Buffalo NY y’all!

    • Alice Riccardi says:

      Snow yogi, I like the fact that you mentioned personal experience as an important factor in association with yoga practice. If we are pushing to advanced asana as a rule of thumb, it is hard to know what is really happening in our experience in the moment. It’s kinda like jumping out of a plane one day to go to work, the next day riding an elephant, and the next day pogo-sticking. It becomes a bit too much. Thanks for your input!

    • Yogini5 says:

      New York City actually also has a studio like one you mentioned. It’s called Tree of Life. Old-school-ish.

      (And I am hoping they stay that way.)

  17. Isabelle says:

    I remember thinking at first that I had to get to class more often so that I could work on more advanced asanas: one day if I wanted to teach yoga, I’d be really good at every pose and somehow become worthy. Then at some point my husband reminded me that I already had a career, and that I didn’t have to teach yoga to enjoy it EVERY SINGLE DAY if I felt so inclined. After a disappointing episode in India with an adored teacher who turned out to be full of it, I decided that I was going to enjoy yoga for what it was (a fantastic way to enjoy my body and the world around me) without worrying about ever mastering the perfect ____ (insert difficult pose name here which typically involves either choking on my own breasts or being afraid of falling on my eyebrows).

    • Yogini5 says:

      It’s very simple. You may have been going to a wannabe studio that will pay attention in class only to the advanced students (many of whom are on the teacher track). I kept my eyes closed as much as possible, but somehow my ears and the corners of my blinking eyes picked up the lavishing of attention on the high-rolling teacher trainees.

      It is a self-defeating (to the consumer) system that goes aerobics many times better. No amount of “yoga teacher discounts” make up for the windfall profits of the teacher training program. Good for your husband for seeing through this scam!

      Practice at old school, donation classes, and at home like I do. There’s a BIG world out there and it does not end in teacher training.

      • Yogini5 says:

        Oh, I forgot to add that oneVERRY newbie teacher gushed excitedly after class to one of the much more regular students about The Yoga Teacher to the Future Yoga Rock Stars lifting her body up into Pincha Mayurasana. I put two and two together … I HAD heard her grunt during class (I’d had my eyes closed, as usual) …

        I later called her (and the studio) on it. I did not need to HEAR that. Whatever happened to not looking at these things as “accomplishments”? Whatever happened to “beginner’s mind”? And this was at one of the more “spiritual”, if wannabe, studios – with a pervading air of vegan/ascetic superiority so thick you could cut it with a knife.

        Another studio took down its picture – along with a tagline insulting to the reader – of a founder doing handstand scorpion on its website splash. When I told them, I had alienated them. They are supposed to be an “affordable yoga” venue, where I doubt you learn a pose like that unless you pretty much came in knowing handstand in the first place.

        NOT a victory. I’m just waiting for their NEXT yoga master (name I think begins with a “P”) to be put up there instead, maybe him doing ghanda bherundasana or some associated contortion …

    • Alice Riccardi says:

      Now that is FUNNY! Being able to not take ourselves to seriously and just enjoy our practice a little bit is where it’s AT!!! Thanks for your insight Isabelle.

  18. Isabelle says:

    Oh, and lovely article. I posted it on my wall and will reflect on it some more I think . Gotta love recovering yogi ; )

  19. Cookie says:

    Love this. So happy to find others who are pulling away from Organized Yoga and branded rules and just doing yoga. Also, my asana practice was at one time quite “advanced”, but the love, the joy, the discovery was replaced by the desire to achieve, the over-exercising mindset which yoga coaxed me away from in the first place. Asana–just ONE of the eight limbs.

    • Alice Riccardi says:

      Yes, Cookie, it is important to remember that asana is one of the eight limbs. It’s up to us as yoga teachers, if that is our vocation, to bring the light of the other 7 limbs into our classes – not from what we’ve read but from our own self-study and time spent on the mat! Thank you for your comments.

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