The Big Leagues: Are you ready for level three?
Originally appeared in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine October 2013
For many yoga students, whether you’ve been at it a year or a decade, the idea of going to a level three (or whatever it may be called) class may strike fear deep into your heart. You imagine nightmare scenarios where every student is required to achieve unassisted handstands, drop backs, and yogic levitation. Anything less than the achievement of these practices will result in your automatic expulsion, shame, and/or immediate death. Of course, in your rational mind you know better and know that yoga isn’t about outside achievement, but rather finding ways to move breath and energy through the body to still the manic fluctuations of the mind. However, the level three class still taunts and tempts you. It may appeal to your sense of challenge, or frighten you into a sense of inadequacy.
When you see the class advertised, even if you’ve been practicing for a decade, you may use several excuses to avoid moving up. How you address these worries will decide if you are ready for and in need of more advanced practice.
I’m afraid I’ll hurt myself
From a practical viewpoint, a large reason for class levels should be your safety. Without some experience you’re likely to try poses that your body is not ready for, or poses that are entirely unsuitable. Similarly, without the repeated prep work of simple postures that lead up to more complicated ones, you’re unlikely to build an asana with any integrity. However, if you’ve done the prep work over and over, you know what hurts and what doesn’t, you know what challenges you and what is easy, and you can tell the difference between a day when your body is working well and when it needs rest, you’ll stay safe moving up to the next level. If a teacher offers a pose that you’re uncomfortable doing or do not fully understand yet, don’t do it. This may bruise your ego, but how to manage that may be the most important thing you learn in class.
I’m not flexible/strong enough
I’m not very bendy, at least for a yoga teacher, and laugh when I see level three classes advertised as requiring ‘complete flexibility’ (in other words, deep sea invertebrates only). If you’re waiting around for your hamstrings to magically release or your backbends to go a couple inches further, you may be waiting around for a very long time. Age and natural human variation of ranges of motion will limit you. They may even prevent you from executing some poses to their fullest expression. Similarly, regional weaknesses throughout the body due to any number of factors not necessarily related to laziness may also stop you. But perceived lack of flexibility or strength doesn’t mean you cannot practice some form of the posture and make space in whatever manner your body will allow. Working your edge of strength and flexibility, wherever it is, is what matters. The class you take should help you meet that edge.
I can’t go upside down
Inversions are powerful poses with a strong energetic effect on the body. They are also not for everyone. Like nothing else, the inversion is what can divide a class into yoga ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ It tends to be high on yoga wish-lists of poses to accomplish with rarely a thought on why one wants to accomplish it. As a beginner you will seek the thrill of a handstand, as an advanced student you will seek to build the muscular architecture of the pose and experience the subtle energetic experience it brings. If you lack the ability or desire to go upside down for whatever reason, as an advanced student you can seek and find similar experiences through different postures. A good teacher will help you find that challenging alternative.
I like the class I already take
If the class you are in continues to challenge you physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and you like it, stay there. However, it is very easy to become overly comfortable. You work hard, but not that hard. You get a bit of stress relief, but never have to confront anything that makes you too uncomfortable. However, if your yoga practice is to be an experience of growth and change, you will have to get uncomfortable, confront fear, and push your physical, emotional and spiritual edge. Yoga practice is not meant to be easy, but neither does it have to be earth-shatteringly hard. Find a balance and intensity that is suitable for you and your needs, see how your studio or teacher approaches levels and slot yourself in where you will be appropriately challenged.
Every time we come to our mats, we should come with a beginner’s mind. Even the ‘simplest’ postures offer an infinite amount of refinement and experience. If you’ve gone to enough classes that you know poses by name, understand how to move in and out of them, and are interested in the subtle work within them, you are ready for a more advanced class. It is a fallacy to equate advanced level practice with extreme poses requiring huge ranges of motion and strength. Advanced practice is achieved through mindful movement and subtle experience of the body, not necessarily by getting your legs behind your head.
So stop making excuses and if you, along with your teacher and studio, feel you are ready, try level three or whatever class will aid your growth and confront your edge. Explore poses simple or complicated with depth and subtlety. Worry not, for all of us have physical and emotional limitations we confront in class. Take a chance and let your practice thrive in a new and challenging setting.