Advanced practice • 31 May 2008

People keep sending over this article from the NYT about how a sharp increase in yoga converts the past three years has led to a watering down of the intensity of practice. The writer doesn’t quite trace out the mechanism (increasingly superficial teaching, therefore increasingly superficial students, and advanced yoga’s inherent resistance to commodification because it is so weird and demanding) because she only sees "supply and demand" at work, but she does capture the effects. The gaps she leaves open are pretty thought-provoking.

Anyway, at the end of the article, the NYT lists advanced practice options in LA, NY, Chicago, Miami and Boston. Well, they get Miami right. In LA, they list Yogaworks 2/3 Flow yoga as the advanced option.

Really? Vinyasa flow, perhaps especially at YW, is inherently intermediate practice. That is great, and exactly right for many students; but it puts yoga in a poor light to market 2/3 vinyasa flow as "advanced."

In vinyasa flow, a 90-minute synchronized, led format is the pinnacle. This is a very good format, but no matter how much art and technique it packs, it is always going to deepen the student’s dependence on the teacher. Which is the exact conundrum the NYT article addresses. In terms of institutional history, many would say YW karma is all about not trusting students with their own bodies. The teacher is taught to consider “risk” above all else; and the original creator of the TT program publicly says that most people who finish the YW TT “have no business teaching.” Distrust until proven otherwise is the name of the game both of teachers and of students in relation to their own bodies: an ethos that makes good sense in an environment where everybody wants, a little too much, to be a teacher.

By its nature, vinyasa flow contains no transmission of old knowledge and certainly no initiation. It's dance-infused, post-aerobics group exercise, after all. It’s a very good way to begin practicing yoga, but those who want "advanced" the deeper challenges of advanced practice are just not available within that format.

Vinyasa flow is great–exactly what it should be. YW is a franchise, and should not be doing initiation. The majority of its students want not to be fully trusted, want to be told what to do. Some of its prominent teachers are known for claiming to be students of the lineage (when legitimacy is needed) even as they publicly ridicule ashtanga and students who practice it past a certain age (too dangerous; too demanding; created for teenage boys). That is fine too, but encouraging fear of and hostility to advanced practice is not exactly the mark of an institution where one can learn advanced practice.

And as everybody around here can verify, research shows ashtanga is amazing for practictioners at every age, given that practitioners have been initiated as their own teachers. Without initiation, yeah: ashtanga would be hazardous over the age of 14.

It feels, to me, like the main reason to ridicule ashtanga publicly and tell people it’s physically too hard is that when adept students find out it’s a place where they can finally get away from talking teachers and learn the deeper dimensions of tristana (when they discover it is advanced practice), they will take their pretty postures elsewhere. Ashtanga is so beautiful and badass that it dominates the flow experience, even on the more superficial level of asana. So students get protected from advancement, even though their own teachers probably at some point used ashtanga to nurture their personal home practices.

You can’t even begin to think about “advanced practice” without some kind of initiation into the tradition and self-possession of your own practice. You have to be trusted, and taught to trust yourself. Following the breath and quieting the mind is a whole new game when you’re not dependent on a teacher for every move.

Also, it’s not like you practice supta kurmasana and kapotasana in vinyasa flow. Pish posh on this whole "advanced practice" thing. Don’t deny yourselves.