What constitutes an advanced yoga practice? Is it measured by physical strength, flexibility, or endurance? Or the number of years you have practiced? Or with whom you have practiced? Or perhaps the knowledge you have of Sanskrit or spiritual texts?
Once when interviewing a woman for a course, I asked her what it meant to be an “advanced” yogini (this was in response to her telling me that she was, in fact, advanced). She replied, “That’s a trick question….”
Perplexed, I asked:
“Have you read the sutras or Bhagavad Gita?”
“Do you have a meditation practice?”
After asking her what her practice consisted of, she finally revealed a list of famous yogis she practiced with and listed the myriad poses she could contort into. We continued our chat, and then I finally said she would be much better suited for a teacher training hosted by one of these rock star yogis.
You can find the classical definition of yoga in Sutra 1.2: Yogas cittas vrtti nirodhah which means, “Yoga is the restraint of the mental fluctuations”. By definition, then, mastery over controlling one’s mind would be considered advanced, right? Certainly, I have witnessed yogis practicing asana where focus, calm, and attention to breath elevates their practice and their ability to move gracefully through postures. Isn’t this yoga?
The deepening of our practice comes when we take such beauty and grace off the mat and into the world. Can we remain steady in the face of tragedy, anger, frustration, and disappointment? When our buttons get pushed, can we give attention to the breath and remain mentally calm even when called to respond? Can we respond with the same level of awareness and attention that we assert in our asana practice?
As yogis, it is essential that we examine ourselves and strive to be and do our best on, but more importantly, off the mat. I am asked every day to practice yoga as a mother, or when I’m stuck (and livid) behind a truck that spits out black smoke in my face, or when I haven’t had enough sleep or feel sick. None of these have anything to do with chanting AUM with students or floating up to handstand. How are we when we aren’t on the clock as a teacher? What are we like when no one is looking?
Sutra 1.30 talks about our obstacles in life: disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground, and slipping from ground gained.
According to Patanjali, these distractions of the mind do not lead us towards attaining nirodhah, or restraint, of our mental chatter. Instead we let such obstacles get the best of us, mental disturbances arise, and we fail to do our best. We violate the yamas and niyamas(codes of conduct), hurt others as a result, and more importantly, our karmic habits only grow stronger! Nirodhah, then, is the corner stone of spiritual life. It is mastery of nirodhah that constitutes a deeper, advanced practice.
I will never forget Monika from NYC who joined us for a course in Hawaii. She was not the typical New Yorker. Her contagious enthusiasm coupled with sincere humility and self-effacing nature made her a joy to be around as well as a role model for others.
One day over discussing (the first of) Four Keys in Sutra 1.33 (being happy for happy people), Monika piped up with, “You know, when I am feeling really bad for whatever reason, I do things for my friends. I am there for them in whatever way I can be. And it always gets me out of my head and feeling better.”
It’s not easy being happy for others, especially when there is a feeling of discontent. What I loved about Monika’s sentiments was that she deliberately went out to cultivate happiness around her, thus bringing happiness into her life.
Another key is being compassionate for the unhappy. Monika went back to NYC when the training was over and started teaching yoga to war veterans, a much forgotten part of society. What she shared was how it was they who inspired her, with their courage and enthusiasm despite post-traumatic stress. Sometimes what comes out of compassion for others is a deep sense of humility and gratitude for life as it is. We are more privileged and lucky than we acknowledge sometimes.
Monika inspired me with her kind words and heartfelt sentiments. Yoga wasn’t about wrapping her leg around her head, but rather being an agent of change in the world. And that’s what we need from yoga teachers today, to be inspiration and a light for others on this special journey called Life. She is one of the most advanced yoginis I know. I am blessed to have journeyed with her.