Yes, you read that correctly: The longer I practice asana (yoga poses), the fewer poses I can do.
I used to think that my asana practice was supposed to be linear. That it would be a steady uphill climb from beginner poses to more challenging ones. The popular media seem to support this notion, often celebrating “more” and “harder” as a reflection of one’s progression. My Instagram feed is filled with yoga-lebrities in anatomy-defying postures and some of the most popular posts are the progress ones: the ones showing someone in a complex pose like eka pada raja kapotasana (king pigeon pose) grabbing their foot overhead and text saying, “If you want to do this” next to another picture of them in a much simpler shape, like sukhasana (easy pose), with supporting text saying, “Do this.”
However, if you have ever experienced an injury, had a baby, aged, or, dare I say, are among the 99 percent of the population without Cirque du Soleil-like abilities, you know firsthand that the trajectory of our physical practice is often more of a squiggly line than a straight one and that the concept of beginner versus advanced poses is actually quite relative.
Still, could you imagine if a yoga studio advertised their classes by saying, “The more you do yoga, the fewer poses you will be able to do”? I’m not sure many students would sign up! But as the years have gone by, I have come to understand more and more deeply that an advanced yoga practice has little to do with poses.
Advanced poses versus advanced practice
When I started practicing asana every day, I dove right into the deep end with advanced Power Yoga classes. I am still not sure why I assumed that having done yoga sporadically via VHS tape (though well-taught yoga by Ganga White) qualified me for that level of classes. I would have never gone to a level 3 ballet class if it were my first time dancing. Perhaps it was because I worked in Hollywood at the time, in an industry that celebrates aggressive achievement, and I wanted immediate results. I was highly stressed and at my limit with lifelong anxiety and everyone kept telling me that yoga would help.
So there I was, sweating so much that my mat became a slip-and-slide, and as my head swiveled around trying to follow along, I saw students floating effortlessly into handstand and easefully dropping backward into urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow pose) and I thought, “They look peaceful. I want that.”
I was sure that accomplishing advanced poses would bring me the happiness and ease I so desperately sought. Spoiler alert: It did not.
In fact, by obsessing about getting myself into complex poses and building my life around that pursuit, I ended up creating dis-ease. My body suffered from my overdoing, as I faced numerous injuries and perpetual physical exhaustion. And my heart suffered as I sacrificed spending time with friends and even starting a family for my early morning asana practice. Why would I go on a date and have a glass of wine when I needed to bind my legs behind my head in supta kurmasana (sleeping turtle pose) the next day?
Before I continue, let me be clear: I’m not blaming the poses or saying that having a dedicated asana practice leads to unhappiness. It was not about the poses at all. This is my point. The poses themselves are neutral. It was not what I was practicing—it was how. I was doing advanced poses, but I did not have an advanced practice.
Abhyasa without the vairagya
I was completely off-balance in my approach. I was favoring the disciplined practice, what Patanjali calls abhyasa in the Yoga Sutra, and completely ignoring the essential partner to that approach, vairagya, or “nonattachment.”
According to Patanajli, yoga is the practice of steadying the mind, and abhyasa-vairagya is the very first approach he offers to achieve this. It is the idea that we must be both dedicated to our effort toward something while also letting go of the results of those efforts. The sutras emphasize that they must be practiced together to truly achieve balance. They are often referred to as the wings of a bird or the oars of a boat, and when we favor one over the other, we end up going in circles. When practiced in unison we find steadiness.
Understanding my asana practice through this lens, I began to see that it was not the poses themselves that would help me find peace, it was the path toward them. In shifting my focus away from achieving the physical shapes and more toward the effort to get there, my practice and my life became much richer.
Today’s advanced practice
I have now been practicing asana for over 20 years and teaching yoga for most of those and I cannot do half of the things I did in my early, bendy, eager days of needing to take every single pose to the nth degree. Or honestly, I probably could, but I no longer feel the need to.
I often joke in the classes I teach that you can tell the people who have been practicing the longest by the number of props they grab before class.
Given my flexible body, focusing on alignment has been the great balancer for me. I now place more attention on how to optimally position my body, instead of trying to get into the deepest expression of whatever pose I’m inhabiting. This has led to me continually needing to pull myself back from going too far in a shape. I also use way more props now. I often joke in the classes I teach that you can tell the people who have been practicing the longest by the number of props they grab before class. Instead of reading the rings of a tree stump, you can count blocks, blankets, and straps.
I still have what some may consider a strong practice. I enjoy a mix of both holding poses and flowing with breath. I like to build a lot of heat and am guilty of turning the heater on on some (okay, most) days. I also still try to get on my mat six days a week, but when my Ashtanga practice and advanced poses was my priority, I was actually afraid of doing cardio or lifting weights for fear of how it would prevent me from getting deeper into second-series postures. Now I try to incorporate a healthy mix of cardio (like The Class by TT and indoor cycling) and weight lifting. Now I may sometimes take two days off in a row. Gasp!
And I do still do "advanced" poses…once in a while.
The other day, I took a good friend’s class, which led up to the arm balance mayurasana (peacock pose). Her class was incredibly smart, well-sequenced, and prop-friendly. I tried the pose a few times unsuccessfully, then rested in child’s pose. Whereas in my early yoga days I would have kept trying and trying until I got it or felt I had failed, I focused on the setup of the posture and maintaining my optimal alignment and it ended up being one of my "deeper" classes. Afterward, I remarked to my friend that I had not done that pose in ages, and she responded, “Maybe it will inspire you to do it more often!” And I thought to myself, “No, I’m good.” And I really am.