Advanced Asanas: Are they Important?

by on May 23, 2012 · 0 comments

in Thoughts on Asana

Recently, I’ve been giving thought to the topic of more advanced asanas. Yoga encompasses various bodily postures that range from the passive-restorative, which requireAdvanced Yoga

little to no effort to execute, up through the range of physically demanding asanas all the way to the super-human level that many of us love to aspire to. When thinking about the more advanced asanas, the thought always ends in “Whats the point?” Yes, the greater picture of yoga is supposed to be about getting to know the true you behind the curtain, or yoking body and mind. So, do we really need to stand on our hands to be able to get a better grasp on who we truly are? I think it’s a good question.

I began with my own personal experiences to determine if my moderate ability to pull off some of the advanced asanas in yoga has really had any effect. Surprisingly, I can say it has. Next, I began to question if there are actually any health benefits to attaining some of the more seemingly difficult poses. Yes, there are indeed some positive aspects in regards to health, wellness and strength. So I began to give more thought to the whole point of the more difficult asanas in several different contexts.

From my own personal experience, I can say that wanting to achieve handstand and forearm balance propelled my practice forward. While waiting on an advanced class to end and the beginners class to begin and I watched graceful hand stands being executed by the more refined students in class. It wasn’t what I expected. There were people of all shapes, sizes ages and gender all gracefully stepping from down dog into handstand and floating back down as if gravity had no effect on their movement. After witnessing this exhibition, I began to spend more and more time on the mat. I bravely moved from the front row of the beginners class to the back row of an intermediate class. After several attempts at the inversion, I found myself, feet up, completely supporting my weight on my hands and within two breaths, back to reality. I knew that it was going to be a long journey to learning to love this pose. I also knew that I needed more upper body strength to execute the inversion properly, so I continued to work on my plank pose and chaturanga. When I developed the strength to hold the pose, then I realized I needed more opening in my shoulders to have the right alignment in the pose, so I began to work on more heart opening poses and focusing on shoulder flexibility. Once I had the strength and flexibility to hold the pose, I wanted to work away from the wall, so I knew I needed more core strength to help maintain the inverted balancing action.

The irony is that I really didn’t see what was happening with my practice because I was too fascinated with the goal. When I asked one of my teachers years later, “Do you feel that advanced asanas serve any real purpose in yoga” I was surprised at his answer because not only did it totally make sense, but it also immediately took my thoughts back through the motions of learning handstand. He explained that some of the advanced asanas take months, years or even a lifetime to master. There’s throwing yourself into the pose just long enough to collapse out of it and then there’s gracefully moving into the pose mindfully and just as mindfully coming out of it. To gracefully execute some of the more advanced asanas, you may find that you’re getting up an hour earlier to squeeze in more practice time, or you may realize that you have to shrink a bit in the mid-section to achieve a certain bind. You may even have to focus your efforts on opening up part of the body or a specific joint before you can achieve the first steps of the pose. He went on to explain that before you know it, you’ve developed more stamina from practicing more, and you’ve gotten into better shape from trying to lose your belly obstacle, or other poses have become stronger because you use them to facilitate the prep work for an advanced pose. And all in all, if you’re practicing yoga with the right intention, all your time on the mat is reinforcing your philosophies behind your practice. So in essence, you may have to change your lifestyle or even adopt a new philosophy to work towards some of the advanced asanas.

I began to see that the importance of advanced asanas is subjective. It comes down to “why are you here?” If you feel that the advanced asanas are an important part of your intention, then by all means purusue them. But if it’s not an appropriate asana for your practice, there’s no need to feel that you are missing out, nor should you feel pressured into learning it. You can have a perfectly rewarding practice with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

So if it’s not really a yogic necessity, why do we do it? There are numerous other reasons for advanced yoga poses. In addition to the few I mentioned previously, there are also great benefits in terms of strength, wellness, focus balance and concentration. For example, inversions are great for the body’s lymphatic system. Lymph, or interstitial fluid, really doesn’t move too well on it’s own. There’s no central pump for the Lymphatic system as there is for the circulatory system. The circulation of lymph relies on the movement of skeletal muscles, whether by exercise or massage, and changes in hydrostatic pressure within the body. Increased blood flow from inversions helps to recycle the interstitial fluids back to the subclavian veins. I personally think some of the advanced asanas are just fun to learn and execute. Some people are more serious about their yoga and consider it to be a sign of their dedication to their practice. I have also known of teachers who learned more advanced asanas just so they could teach it to their students who were hungry for the advanced stuff. While some teachers will not put too much emphasis on the harder yoga postures, there are students who will shop a teacher based on their physical abilities and knowledge in the advanced asanas. I have even had one teacher admit to me that if she didn’t challenge her students, they would find other teachers that would, and at least in her class, she operated within a margin of safety from her years of experience with advanced asanas.

So after giving this much thought, I’ve realized that the need for advanced asanas is just as subjective as the need for yoga itself. If you want to learn advanced asanas, ensure you approach them patiently with the proper openings, prep poses and mindfulness. If you decide to teach advanced asanas, it’s your responsibility to have a firm foundation in the pose and to teach the proper alignment for the pose and offer options and modifications along the way for those learning. Advanced asanas can be an integral part of one’s practice, a challenging goal to accomplish or an obstacle along the path. The importance of advanced asanas is a matter of approach and intention in one’s practice.

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