January 20, 2015

How to Do Advanced Yoga.

Patrick Savalle on Flickr

Today, I may have met my soulmate from a previous life.

I walked in the door and the man lit up when he saw me. He was leaning heavily on a cane in his right hand, but raised his left hand to wave me hello. He began walking toward me. It took him some time but when he finally arrived he looked me straight in the eye.

“You look very pretty today.” he said. 

“Thanks so much!” I said cheerily, like the yoga teacher I am for half of my day. 

“Is it cold out?” he asked, gesturing to my scarf.

“Yes, and it’s supposed to be cold tonight.” I replied.

He smiled wide. “Too bad! I was planning to go dancing.” he joked. Being the flirt that he is, he asked if I was married and I said yes.

“Tell your husband he is very lucky.” said the charmer. “I’m 96 years old. What do you do, and where are you from?” he asked.

“I was born here in Austin,” I said. “And I teach yoga. Gentle yoga. To seniors, in fact. It’s slow.”

He laughed “It would have to be!” he replied.

We parted ways and he wished me well, never ceasing to smile or make a genuine connection, albeit a flirtatious one. “There goes an advanced yogi.” I thought.

It’s the first week of 2015 and detox mania is abounding—Instagram-ing health food, yoga poses, and crossfit WODs has never been more popular than this, the first week of the New Year.

I’ve noticed a lot of yoga studios in my area publicizing their “power” and “advanced” level yoga classes to draw in new students. This is in order to appeal to the workout crowd, who yearn to feel the burn as they attempt to transform in the new year.

But every year around this time, I begin to wonder why there is such a desire for transformation, rather than self-acceptance.

It seems to me that although we measure success in change and progress, is there not also great success in accepting what is?

I teach advanced yoga but we don’t do headstands or prone backbends. We often stay away from poses like downward facing dog, or others that may cause strain to sensitive shoulders or arthritic wrists. Sometimes, we never stray far from a wall. Somedays, we never leave the chair. But there is a thread that runs through these classes I teach.

A few of these classes are open level, and occasionally we’ll have a guest in attendance. These new students are sometimes younger, and more flexible, and it’s obvious they’ve taken several Yoga classes. They’ll flow through a vinyasa practice in between our holding of poses. I encourage this. I want all of my students to have their own practice, one that is challenging and authentic to where they are. But recently, one of my senior students asked me, “Is that what advanced yoga looks like?” I shook my head. “No, you’re what advanced yoga looks like.”

I call this advanced yoga because it’s where I find my most advanced students.

These are the students with grandchildren and one million true stories of heartbreak and unbearable suffering—they don’t wear mala beads or fancy yoga clothes, and we hardly ever use sanskrit, but we breathe. They are profoundly grateful for the opportunity to move, and breathe, and be alive.

Their goals aren’t to be able to do scorpion pose or even lotus. “I want to be able to get up from a chair” they’ll say. And the celebration that ensues when we accomplish that goal is nothing short of an ecstatic Kirtan.

When we try new things, sometimes there is stumbling and the lack of balance in these classes usually causes laughter and self-depricating humour, rather than frustration.

These are people that have been around long enough to know that balance is hard, and not to be fretted over, but worked on with diligence and a sustained sense of humour.

It’s no secret that one of the largest generations in American history is coming to the age of retirement. This, plus the instability of our health care system has created a great need for accessible solutions to ease minor pains and the symptoms of degenerative disease.

What our current yoga scene seems to celebrate is the antithesis of aging and disease. There is a rebellion, perhaps even a denial that aging, pain, and even emotional distress are inevitable in life. The practice of yoga in the modern era has promoted the idea that these things can be conquered in some way. Through discipline, healthy eating, and meditating, we are told we can conquer the very essence of ourselves, the core of what makes us human.

What my senior students have taught me, is that not only is this a fallacy, it’s the wrong goal to have in the practice of life and yoga.

Anger, heartbreak, suffering, death, disease, pain (both physical and emotional) are all steps on the journey to enlightenment. And that enlightenment does not come from a lifetime of yoga poses or eating well—it can come from a long, thankless life in the workforce, or as a mother and grandmother. It can come from the death of a best friend, or many best friends. It can come from the many hospital visits, and health scares, and battle scars, and deep wounds that life leaves behind. In fact, the most advanced yogi I ever met was my husband’s 90 year old grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor, and who spent her life teaching tolerance and smiling at everyone she met.

Trauma is just another yoga pose and these experiences in life are not to be feared, conquered, or denied.

What my senior students understand is the transient quality ofyYoga. They possess the knowledge that there is no arriving—there is only constant movement and acceptance. What they understand better than most yoga studios I’ve been to is a genuine sense of community and looking out for your neighbour. They’ve given me more inspiration than every picture of “yoga” I’ve ever seen, and they’ve given me a goal to aspire to.

This is yoga.

This is who I want to be.

When I teach seniors, I know that I’m going to learn much more than I can teach.


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Author: Sara Kleinsmith

Apprentice editor: Katarina Tavčar / Editor: Renee Picard 

Photo: Patrick Savalle on Flickr

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