Since that time, my students have progressed, so I’ve updated my list for the next stage in their practice...
Yoga is not about feeling good all the time:
Sometimes people get a bit intoxicated with yoga when they start feeling the benefits: less stress, better health, and so on. And that’s great. But as transformative as yoga is, it’s not going to get rid of all your bad feelings and problems. In fact, sometimes yoga cultivates a clarity that brings painful, unacceptable things about your life into focus so that sometimes things get worse before they get better.
Forget about trying to rid yourself completely of sadness, anger and fear. These emotions are not the problem—they are a gift from your nervous system that protect and help you stay on track. The real problem is that we try to deny, run from or cover up these feelings and end up making things worse in the process. By the same token:
Know that your “stuff”—the self-doubt, criticism, intimidation, judgment or whatever your drag onto your mat—is just that, stuff:
Not fact. Not truth. Not permanent or solid. With increased awareness comes the ability to see your stuff for what it is, and to not get caught up in it. Remember: acknowledging and letting go of your junk and refocusing on the breath/body is just as much of the practice as any asana.
Your mat is like a portable laboratory where you can try new ways of being, doing, and relating to yourself:
This little rectangle affords us the opportunity to step out of our usual, autopilot way of going through life. And because so much of our practice is in being aware, and kind, it’s a great place to catch yourself in the act of being self-critical, for example—and to try something different.
What you practice, you get good at:
You know this is true for the physical practice: the first time you try a new pose can be pretty rough, but with enough repetition things start to get easier as you develop skill and familiarity. The same is true for the healthy attitudes and behaviors yoga can teach you, like having the courage to try. Learning to relax. Being nice to yourself. With consistency and effort, like arm balances, these things get easier and begin to feel more natural.
Effort and ease really are equally important:
Sometimes less is more. I know you want to get stronger and I appreciate your hard work and dedication. But when you climb out on that limb and go to a place in a pose in which you can’t breathe or maintain calm, you are risking your safety. And no pose is worth a torn hamstring.
Besides, so much good, honest, hard work is to be found and done at about 75% of your maximum intensity. Often when we pull back just slightly, we can actually work harder, better, and get stronger. Seriously! Try it. Similarly:
The poses should serve you, not the other way around:
I worry when I see you straining to get that bind, your back hunched over and discs screaming uncle. The pose is there to make you healthier, to wake you up, to help prepare your body and mind for something more important off the mat. I admit, I do it too sometimes—viewing poses like prizes for some asana trophy case—but we need to remember that in 20 years we won’t care whether we got into Eka Pada Sirsasana )Foot Behind the Head Pose)or not—but we will care if we need a hip replacement. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of why we do the practice in the first place. If your practice is serving the pose, you are practicing ego yoga.
I know sometimes people get impatient with all this talk about breathing. I felt sad when a friend of mine told me the students in her gym yoga class had complained about her reminders to breathe. “We just want to work out!” they said. I get it, and it took me a while to get the importance of the breath too. But without the breath, you might as well be doing calisthenics. Breathing mindfully helps focus the mind, it calms the nervous system, makes you more aware, and can keep you from getting hurt. Among other things.
Know that none of us (especially me) remembers this stuff all the time:
All of us are (as Pema Chodron says) bat-shit crazy some days, full of self-doubt, unable to focus on the breath or anything else for that matter. You are not alone, and you are no less of a yogi for it. Fortunately, no one said we have to be perfect on this path.
My success as a teacher comes from my connection with you:
It’s exciting for me to watch you progress, and I’m honored to be part of your practice. If I know you’re working on something I love having the opportunity to help you with it. So please don’t hesitate to let me know if you want help, have concerns, or really liked that crazy warm up we did. I value our relationship; it makes me a better teacher, and makes teaching so rewarding.
When you can take your yoga (and all of the above) off your mat to the difficult, messy parts of your life, you are really doing yoga:
Congratulations, you’ve graduated to the real advanced class: life.