Recently I spoke in class about what an advanced yoga practice is and what it is not. One of the traps we fall into in our first 5 to 10 years of yoga practice is attaching too much of our ego to the poses we can do and the poses we hope to someday be able to achieve. So there it is – the trap of thinking we’re advanced – attachment to our practice, ego, and achievement of something. In the talk I gave before class, I shared what I thought qualified someone to believing they’re “advanced”. Before we ever approach asana, we’re to master the Yamas and Niyamas of yoga, the moral precepts. Unfortunately, this approach to yoga asana has all but disappeared. One of the cornerstone texts of Yoga is the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, written about 2,000 years ago. The Yoga Sutras lay out an overall eight step plan to enlightenment, the absolute union with Spirit.
Each of the Yamas and Niyamas contains five parts for a total of ten precepts. Only after we master these first two major steps do we begin asana, the third step. The first of the five Yamas is ahimsa – non-harming. I think of this word as love and compassion for ourselves and others. Satya means truth, but it also means humility and letting go of pretense. Perhaps you’ve noticed how much pretense there is in yoga these days. Asteya means non-stealing, but again, it also means letting go of the desire to acquire and possess. Brahmacharya can be defined as walking with God. Beyond this definition, the word means moderation in all things (if I have more, I’ll be more), personal responsibility, being the change, walking the talk, and behaving like a disciple of Brahma (God). Ethical behavior! Our final yama is Aparigraha – living truthfully and consciously with ourselves as we can and letting go of our possessiveness and greed.
The Niyamas begin with the word sauca – purity – the maintenance of our body and environment as a spiritual duty. Santosa is commonly defined as contentment, but it also means reverence toward others and things being enough. Tapas is our enthusiasm for health – an appetite for life – gratitude – no longer needing to be our false self and the desire to explore the will of God. Svadhyaya is education of the self, non-attachment, inspiring others, humility, and letting go of the results and embracing the process. Our tenth and final word is Isvarapranidhana – surrender to God, practicing reverence and experiencing the joy of devotion.
Of course, we don’t master each word and check it off the check-list – each word itself is a practice and an ongoing process we bring into our daily lives. We take these ten practices onto our yoga mat before we do anything. An advanced practice means we show up for class without expectations and without projecting onto the teacher. We must show up humble. Students will sometimes show up for class having expectations about what the class should be, not having a clue about the physical and emotional issues of their fellow students. Going back to the Yoga Sutras, there are only a few that talk about asana. Patanjali tells us the asanas should be firm and relaxed. I describe this as effortless effort. How we breathe on the mat is of paramount importance. It seems I’m always telling my classes to breathe. If we aren’t in complete control of our breath, we are no longer doing yoga – the breath and the pose are of equal importance. In all the years I’ve been practicing yoga, I’ve encountered very few students who can really breathe. Often, practitioners work far too hard on the mat. Everything done on the mat should be effortless. Striving, pushing, and overachieving is not yoga. There is no gain in pain.
If you go back and take another look at the definitions offered for the yamas and niyamas, you’ll notice that seven out of the ten precepts have a common theme of letting go. In my book Warrior Self, I wrote: We become powerful in whatever we do if our actions are performed for their own sake, rather than as a means of projecting, enhancing, or conforming to some false image. Power comes from aligning with our dharma and not trying to appear greater than we actually are. Unfortunately, yoga can be one big ego trip – one more way to create separation. I love the niyama Svadhyaya, letting go of the results and embracing the process.
Being a long-time professional musician has greatly influenced how I approach yoga. One of the major influences is my daily commitment to my instrument and being on my mat at home. My nearly half-century commitment to practicing my instrument makes getting on my mat fairly easy for me. When I pick up my instrument each day, I take the approach of a beginner, being very mindful of how I sit and how I breathe. I quickly know what I need from those first few minutes and let my practice time unfold. It’s no different on my mat. What does my body need that day to feel better? On my instrument, the highest priority is to create the most beautiful sound possible. On my mat, I want to create the most beautiful pose possible – for my body and abilities. How I play my instrument should sound effortless – how I move on my mat should look effortless. I let go a long time ago for the need to be praised when I perform on my instrument. If someone says something nice, I’m grateful. If someone notices my yoga practice and comments positively, I’m grateful. In other words, I do my best to practice the yamas and niyamas in all areas of my life.
Perhaps you think you have an advanced yoga practice – and maybe you do. So what! Do you in any way practice yoga to create some false image of yourself or to make yourself appear greater than you actually are? That’s a tough question to answer honestly. Maybe the tattoos, piercings, clothes, hair, diets, mala beads, and everything else we see in yoga today is truly who you are – no pretense whatsoever. Letting go is one way to define renunciation. My favorite definition of renunciation is dropping the outside reflections for the reality within. Perhaps the hair, tattoos, mala beads, and clothing are really outside reflections.
Every so often, someone new comes to my class that I know will not be back for a second class. They show up to audition me, to see if I’m worthy enough to be their yoga teacher. They walk in full of expectations and ego. They want class to be all about them – not knowing the other students in class and what their limitations may or may not be. Just the other day I had a student show up who was recovering from a broken foot and another who was seven months pregnant. And then there was the new student who recently had brain stem surgery. The people who come once to audition me who have their own agenda aren’t my highest priority when I have a room full of the issues I just mentioned.
It’s always good to examine and take stock of our studentship and how we approach yoga. It’s a practice, so it’s always changing and evolving. An advanced practice has very little to do with fancy poses and everything to do with being humble and present. If you can do some of the more challenging poses, good for you – but can you go to class and be humble – contributing your gifts to make the class experience better for everyone else?