What is an Advanced Yogi?

Recently I led some yoga students through a rather lengthy series of leg-stretching asanas based on Supta Padanghustasana (Supine Big Toe Pose). I traditionally end the series with a one-legged version of Yoganidrasana (ankles behind the head). Of course, most people in my classes feel pretty flexible if their foot ends up within a few inches of their faces—and honestly, that’s really quite flexible compared to the average person on the street.

The orientation and depth of many people’s hip sockets will never allow the full, Yoga Journal-cover-ready expression of the pose, the ankle hooked easily around the back of one’s neck. I’m one of the few people whose pelvis and femurs are made for this and other poses, like Padmasana (Lotus Pose), that others’ individual structures will not allow. I don’t take particular pride in this; it’s not something I earned through hard work. It’s simply a genetic variation inherited from my gymnast father.

The instructions for moving into Yoganidrasana can be confusing to students, probably because the pose has nothing in common with everyday movement. Often I demonstrate for clarity. In last week’s class I demonstrated the version that most people can accomplish—bending one knee toward the chest, placing the ankle in the bend of the opposite elbow and drawing the leg in toward the chest. As I offered the option—somewhat jokingly—of slipping the ankle behind the head, it occurred to me to do what I’ve often done:  Demonstrate.

For a week prior to this class, I’d been struggling with sacroiliac (SI) pain and sciatica. My genetically loose joints, combined with years of practicing accepted alignment instructions that I later found to be inappropriate for my body, along with youthful enthusiasm that inspired me to try every “advanced” pose I could force myself into back in the 1980s, have produced in me a fragile, hyper-mobile SI joint. My SI joint is the proverbial canary in the coalmine for me now. On one hand, it’s quite useful; it gives me immediate feedback when my alignment is ever-so-slightly unhealthy. I’ve learned volumes about SI-appropriate alignment from living with this extremely sensitive and communicative joint. On the other hand, my SI joint misaligns easily and turns excruciatingly painful at the slightest provocation. Sometimes only a chiropractic adjustment will set it right.

So last week, when I had the option to demonstrate Yoganidrasana, I chose the prudent path and opted out. Not only did I save myself untold SI trouble in a joint that was already inflamed. More importantly, I walked my talk. I would never encourage a student to push past SI and sciatica pain. The only motivation I can think of for sliding my foot behind my head would be to prove that I could do it, to show my students what an “advanced” yogi I am.

Redefining “Advanced” Yoga

I’ve long advocated for a different definition of the “advanced” yogi. Defined class levels (Level 1, 2, 3 and 4) seem artificial, limiting and inaccurate to me. Some people come to yoga with bodies that will do almost every pose on the first day. Never mind that their minds are looking forward to their next social engagement while they rise effortlessly into Urdva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow) with straight arms (the requirement for entering some Level 3 classes). On the other hand, a yogi with 30 years’ experience whose shoulder joint is constructed in such a way that the angle of their arms will never allow them to be straight in Urdva Dhanurasana would be barred from this same class. These parameters do not seem useful to me.

For me, an advanced yogi is one who has a two-way communication with his/her body—speaking and listening. An advanced yogi has the experience to know when he/she is too exhausted, injured or fragile to practice a particular pose. An advanced yogi knows that the degree to which you can stretch, the number of Chaturangas (yoga push-ups) you can do, the length of time you can stay in headstand, or having straight arms in Urdva Dhanurasana matters not at all in the grand scheme. An advanced yogi’s ego is in check enough to know that no one’s character is defined by what poses he/she can or can’t do. An advanced yogi knows that just because you can do a particular pose doesn’t mean that you should.

Donna Farhi teaches that advanced yogis are the ones who opt out of doing the most “advanced” variations of poses rather than push themselves to the point of injury. Advanced yogis are the people who know that Yoga is not about performance, but about freedom from the need to perform. I have to agree. My decision to opt out of Yoganidrasana tasted far more of freedom than wedging my ankle behind my head ever could.