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Maya Devi Georg Photo by Drew Xeron

Nothing makes me crazier than hearing people tell me I’m naturally flexible. Because I’m not.

In 1999, when I started practicing yoga. I couldn’t touch my toes. I couldn’t do a wheel or stand on my head. I wore braces on my legs as an infant and toddler because my legs and hips were twisted. I had failed all four years of high school gym. I never played a sport, and I never worked out.

So when people tell me that I’m naturally flexible I hear two separate things: The first is that I came to each pose easily, without any effort. The second is that they can never have the practice I now have. I think the second is worse.

Now, some folks don’t want an advanced practice. And that’s ok. Doing fancy yoga poses won’t fundamentally change your life. They won’t make you a better person. And they also won’t make you enlightened. But asana is a precursor to meditation – after all, the discipline required to master your body is nothing compared to the will and years of dedicated practice required to master the mind. So, if asana is part of your practice, and you want to advance, here are four ways to do it.

FIND A GOOD TEACHER

Doug at Tahoe
Doug Swenson

I cannot stress how important this is!

I have seen many young and flexible yoga practitioners on social media claiming to be self-taught. That’s great – I also started studying yoga with VHS tapes and books. But without a guide at your side to help you build good habits many poses will forever be beyond your grasp. Without a teacher you won’t know when you are doing a pose incorrectly, or even more importantly, when you may be risking an injury.

A good teacher watches a class, correcting and adjusting students. A good teacher modifies poses for students depending on their need, and encourages them to do their best. A good teacher will help students develop good habits, and thereby avoid the common repetitive stress injuries seen in yogis.

A good teacher may not even be able to do all the poses, but they can show you how to do them.

The best way to find the right teacher for you is by going to studios and gyms and checking out every teacher they have. It’s time consuming and frustrating, and it will cost you money. But it’s worth it!

GET UNCOMFORTABLE 

A woman once walked into an advanced class I was teaching and proudly told me she had been practicing yoga asana for over 25 years. I was impressed and excited. I wanted to see what 25 years of practice looked like. As the class came into their first forward fold I saw that she bent from the waist and not her hips, her hands hovering at her knees. As the class progressed I saw her growing frustration. At one point, she loudly exclaimed “But! You’re not supposed to be uncomfortable in yoga!”

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Yoga: Level Cat

I was taken aback. Not supposed to be uncomfortable? Really? Now, asana is merely physical, but even in meditation you have to face your very worst, and that is far more uncomfortable!

In my experience I have found that growth only occurs when we are uncomfortable. When we are comfortable, we do not strive for anything better, we become complacent. It is only through a desire for change that we can actually achieve it.

Being uncomfortable is not the same as pain. One brings about change, the other brings you to the hospital. If you experience pain in an asana or a class, stop what you are doing. Change doesn’t require an ambulance or surgery.

But comfort does not help you advance, it only hinders you.

TAKE CLASSES FOR THE LEVEL YOU WANT TO BE 

Staying in an intermediate level class is no different than staying comfortable. You have to challenge yourself to grow.

Now, a beginner should not jump into an advanced practice class – that’s dangerous! Once you have an understanding of basic poses, and have developed a strong sense of your own physical body, it is time to start exploring your limits in more challenging classes.

The best way to learn how to do a pose is by doing that pose. Sometimes that means modifying the pose, using props, or relying on a someone spotting you. Pair this with the right teacher guiding you and you can achieve your goals!

DO THE WORK 

A yoga practice (and that includes asana, pranayama, jappa, meditation, puja, etc.) will only be as good as the amount of time you invest in it. There are no shortcuts. You can’t buy it. You can only earn it. And that means putting in the hours.

Yoga is called a practice. Practice means “the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.”

Sitting around and talking about yoga is fun – trust me, I actually do it a lot! But, it won’t give you any kind of practice, advanced or otherwise. The surest way to find advancement in your practice is to show up on your mat or meditation cushion as often as you can, be present, and put all your effort into the work you are doing at that time.

When you find the discipline and dedication needed for your practice you will realize that true advancement happens in your mind and spirit, not just your body.

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