Why practice difficult poses?
This weekend my yoga practice and teaching were assessed, and I passed the assessment. As I wrote on facebook, all this means is that I will be certified to, basically, still be a yoga teacher… so in effect nothing much changes, even though I am suddenly ‘bumped up a level’. The levels of certification in Iyengar yoga are very layered, with non-descriptive names like Junior Intermediate III. Does anybody out there even know what those words mean? Or do they care?
Of course not. A new certificate just means that my practice and teaching have been seen and evaluated by a group of my peers more experienced than me, and they have given me a certain qualification within the system.
Iyengar yoga is methodical, and this is also reflected in the way teachers are trained – methodical and gradual. For each level of certification, the students/teachers learn a new syllabus of asanas, along with a new set of pranayamas and selected parts of yoga philosophy. With each the poses you practice become more and more advanced. Now that I have passed a certain number of assessments and spent time to get intimate with all of those syllabi, it is slowly dawning on me that the sequence of the syllabi, put together by BKS Iyengar, is more meaningful and deeply thought out than I could have conceived before. But the question is: why is practicing more ‘advanced’ or complicated poses necessary? Is it just fun? Do they help you get healthier or more meditative or enlightened?
The picture on the right was sent to me by a friend on the day of my exam, coincidentally – she had no idea I was taking it, or even that there are levels of certification in Iyengar yoga, but it was so well-timed (and how could she have known that this pose – parivrtta paschimottanasana – was also in my syllabus?).
In yoga philosophy, there’s a concept called krama (not to be confused with karma, the universal and lifetime transcending system of keeping tabs…). Krama can be translated as sequence, succession or order. It is introduced in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and talked about often in classes or workshops.
Sutra III.15: Krama anyatvam parinama anyatava hetu
Successive sequential changes cause distinctive changes in the consciousness
- BKS Iyengar in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
I try to think of this as an evolutionary development. In all development, there is a starting state or material, then certain events happen and the original state or material is transformed into something else. Take as a simple example the act of baking bread: you start out with a bowl of flour, some yeast and water. You knead this mixture and let it rest, knead and rest it again and then bake it into a bread. The order of the kneading, resting and baking has influence on the end product – if you would bake before you knead, you would end up with something else than bread. But even smaller and more subtle changes, like the temperature of the resting environment or the kneading time or intensity, can give big changes in the outcome.
Krama is also very applicable in asana practice. The way we sequence asanas within one session can profoundly influence our physical and mental state. And even the order in which we perform certain actions within an asana influences our experiences – not only of the asana, but of ourselves in that asana. If we change the order, the effects will be different. And just like in baking bread, the order can be modified in increasingly subtle ways with different results, not just within one practice but also over a long time of practicing.
Now, back to the syllabi and the question how necessary it is to practice more advanced poses. As I have started to understand, the asanas throughout all levels of certification are built up in a determined, specific order, so the level of understanding of the teachers increases as they practice. So the krama does not only apply to the order in which you do the actions within a pose, or the sequence of the poses in a class, but also in the poses you practice over the years.
Hence we start to practice more complicated poses as our practice advances. Not (just) to look cool, but to research principles in more extreme and simultaneously subtle ways. Eka pada sirsasana – see Madonna here on the right – was in my current syllabus, and even though I’m still not any good at it, it taught me a lot about the actions of the hips, as well as a lesson or two about patience and not working for result. Not the pose itself but the path to reach it brings you understanding about the deeper layers in basic asanas.
For me, working within a clear and methodical system is immensely valuable. This is why I go through the process of assessment and evaluation, this is why I practice the stranger-looking asanas. Even though this moment of ‘touching my toes’ is a reason for people to congratulate me, what really matters is what happened on the way.