# What does "reaching the next level in your practice" even mean?
A few days ago, a student at our studio was kind enough to describe the effect that coming to class had on her: ”Afterwards, I feel like everything I’m doing is good enough,” she said.
In a society where we’re constantly told to strive for more and to improve ourselves, few things could be sweeter than this: That what we’re doing – and even who we are – is good enough.
The weekend before this conversation took place, I’d taught a workshop on sequencing, and one of the things we’d discussed was how to empower our students through the way we teach and the poses and flows that we offer.
I’m currently teaching my seventh 200-hour teacher training, and since the very beginning of my studio offering trainings, one thing has never changed: In spite of how hardworking, meticulous and focused the students who join us are, they always arrive with at least a hint of a sense of doubt about their own worth.
I know exactly how that feels, as this was also my path for many years, but a consistent asana- and meditation practice has made me aware of this pattern. Which is why it always surprises me when yoga teachers talk about “reaching the next level” or when a system of practice is set up in a way so that you won’t get another pose until you’ve mastered what you’re already doing to a certain extent.
Of course I don’t object to teaching basics before going for something more advanced. If a practitioner wants to work with urdhva dhanurasana, there are a lot of steps to take first: Learning to turn on her lower gluteus maximus and core strength, releasing a tight psoas and/or a tight upper trapezius to be able to access the rotator cuff, etc.
But if a system is based on arbitrary progression – like being able to do drop backs (which most people aren’t, at least in a healthy way) before being allowed to practice something like shalabhasana – a pose that might actually help with those drop backs - it becomes problematic. Because you can chant the Yoga Sutras until you’re blue in the face, but if you’re brought up in a society where merit comes from achievements (and you probably are) then not being able to do something and therefore not receiving the prize is going to hurt. Because it’s going to remind you of what you already think you know: That what you’re doing probably isn’t good enough. And that you need to try harder. But what if you don’t?
Using sequencing to empower yourself isn’t about always being the strongest or toughest or most flexible. It’s about being able to be true to yourself in any given situation. Sometimes we need to be strong. Sometimes we need to feel life circulating through us in all its beauty by flowing through poses. And sometimes we need to be able to be very, very still and even, on occasion, completely relaxed. But never do we need to be made to feel that we’re not good enough, as that is one skill we’ve probably already mastered.
In my 40+ years on this planet, the world has never seemed more chaotic or quite frankly terrifying than it does right now. What we can gain as yogis by being very present to our own visceral intelligence in our daily practice is an understanding of what is needed in every single moment for us and for those around us. We don’t gain this by always referring to our teacher or by blindly following a system that claims to be “correct”, whatever that means. We don’t gain this by practicing in a way that keeps us in a pattern of always trying to be good enough, but never quite succeeding, or only very rarely. (I guess we all remember that elusive one time when our practice was just perfect…)
So the next level could be something that has nothing to do with achievement. It could simply be practicing with contentment so that your own self-doubt doesn’t take away your ability to do good in the world by draining you of energy. The next level could be about learning to use what you have in any given moment in a way that supports you. And ultimately, the next level could be about realizing that there are no levels. That there’s only right now. And that what you’re doing right now is quite possibly good enough.
# Women in yoga - in honour of International Women's Day
The first time I got to pick my own costume for the yearly costume party that takes place in Denmark in February, I went as Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. I was 11, and I probably just really liked her fake jewellery and black lace gloves. But the idea that a girl could be something other than just princessy and cute stayed with me.
After her Billboard Woman of the Year-award, my husband sent me a link to Madonna’s speech. ”When I watched it, I kept thinking that I’d heard all those things before,” he said. ”Only not about music, but about yoga. Then I realized that I’d heard them from you.”
Obviously, the level of abuse that Madonna describes in her deeply moving speech is not something that I’ve experienced as a yoga teacher in quiet, comfortable Copenhagen. But many of the things she says rings true in my line of work as well.
I’ve been training yoga teachers for more than five years now, and I’ve also been an examiner at teacher trainings at another yoga school. In those capacities, I’ve helped graduate about 200 yoga teachers, and out of those 200 not even 10% have been men. While I don’t have the exact statistics to back up this claim, I have a feeling that this is how it is in general. Most yoga teachers are women. Most yoga students are women. Which is why it’s surprising that there are almost as many men as women (and possibly maybe even more) travelling around the world as yoga masters, rock star yogis, celebrity yogis and whatever else the most popular (and highest paid) yogis are called at the moment. While only a tiny percentage of regular yoga students are male, you wouldn’t know that from looking at whose yoga books get published, who gets to be featured on yoga streaming channels and swooned over by yoga students across the planet.
And while this is in no way a criticism of male teachers, I can’t shake the feeling – based on twenty years of regular practicing and going to workshops – that male teachers are revered and followed and praised in a different way than female teachers are. To paraphrase Madonna: “There aren’t any rules if you’re a boy. If you’re a girl, you’ve got to play the game.” And what in a yoga context is that game?
First of all, it’s a fine balance between being attractive, but not being too sexy or showing off your physical asana capabilities (too much), as this will either get you harassed by internet trolls or scorned by both male and female practitioners. Basically, a yogi can throw down the meanest arm balance in the tiniest of shorts and expect praise. A yogini doing the same in a bikini has to steel herself against being called a slut.
Also, age is an issue when it comes to gender in yoga. A male teacher is called wise when he reaches a certain age and he’ll have students of both sexes and all ages flocking to his classes. A woman teaching beyond the ripe old age of fifty had better read up on her menopause sequencing, ‘cause it’s not unlikely that only her female peers will find her relevant.
In short, male teachers are relevant to all students. Female teachers, no matter how knowledgeable, not so much.
As a female student you can also expect your male teachers to bond with their male students, but never ask you out for coffee, unless they’re the kind of teacher who’ll ask their female students out for all the wrong reasons. And while I understand that you might want to stay clear of this pitfall as a man teaching women a spiritual practice, some of us might actually have a deep desire - not for getting it off with the teacher, but for knowledge. And being denied this knowledge because of our gender can be deeply frustrating.
In the case of gay practitioners, I’ve been horrified to hear that they experience discrimination at the hands of traditionally minded teachers. We also need to make the yoga class a safe space for transgender students. As modern research is constantly coming up with new proof that the idea of any kind of unchanged, traditional yoga practice is a modern construct, it’s about high time that we let go of traditional gender roles in modern yoga.
At the moment, I’m part of two yoga communities. My own sangha of gifted, grounded teachers at Prana Yoga Shala that I like to call the Prana sisterhood (my husband, who also teaches at the shala, is our token male.) And the Yoga Medicine community, founded by incredibly knowledgeable and unbelievably hardworking Tiffany Cruikshank. But even if Tiffany is an inspiration, what I love about the Yoga Medicine community is that it’s not about “the guru” at all. It’s about learning and sharing our own knowledge in order to better serve our students. And it’s about getting together with colleagues running yoga studios all over the world and comparing experiences of what it means to be a regular working woman with a slightly less regular job.
Because here’s the thing: All those women the world over working their butts off running small, local studios and just about making ends meet are doing it for one reason in particular – they want to make you feel better.
And I’m not saying that male teachers don’t want the same. They do. But the numbers of students following male teachers compared to the number of students following female teachers don’t add up.
And if you really, truly want gender equality in yoga, it’s your job to fix this. So for every class that you take and enjoy with a male teacher, you should go and enjoy at least nine classes with a female teacher. And the same goes for workshop hours: One hour per male teacher. At least nine hours per female teacher. And every time you swoon over a male guru, I want you to swoon nine times as much over a female guru (if you can find one…) Or actually: Don’t swoon at all. Find a teacher who doesn’t care about you swooning. Find a teacher who just cares about you.
If you’re unable or unwilling to do this, equality and equal pay for women yoga teachers isn’t going to happen. As women, we need to both appreciate our own worth, but also the worth of other women. And if we do, then maybe some day we can stop thinking about ourselves as women or men or transgender. And instead just think of ourselves and each other as human beings. But that day unfortunately hasn’t arrived yet. Not even in the yoga world where you can apparently spell enlightenment without gender equality.
# Growing with kindness
Modern yoga often reads like an old-fashioned fairy tale. A sick/weak/imbalanced protagonist finds yoga. Works really hard on her practice and overcomes many obstacles, such as tight shoulders, too much/too little flexibility, or even a lack of funding for a plane ticket to India. But then one day, she gets it! In rare cases enlightenment, but more often than not the perfect handstand. And then she travels home with an Instagram-account overflowing with followers. Or rather: She travels around the world teaching sold-out workshops, sharing her wisdom: That if you persevere, if you just practice every day (even on days where everything hurts or you just feel like staying in bed) then you’ll get it, too.
And like in all fairy tales, the ones that try, but keep failing, won’t get half a yogaland kingdom. Because honestly: How many accounts do you follow of someone who’s just, like, really, really stiff, slightly overweight, and absolutely incapable of armbalances, even though they try every day? Not that many, right?
Now, I know that many of us find inspiration in people who are good at what they do. I personally don’t really have a problem with flexible yogis throwing down amazing asanas on a beach at sunset – as long as they don’t claim that everyone can do what they’re doing. Because that simply isn’t true. As an example, take advanced backbends. The reality is that spines are so different in the way that the vertebrae are shaped that extreme spinal flexibility isn’t something you can obtain through perseverance: Your spine either has that option. Or it doesn’t. No amount of physical adjustments from even the most well-meaning (or pushy) of teachers is going to change that. And this is where the whole “Yoga as a journey through hardship to attain mastery” is flawed, in my opinion.
Yoga is, in it’s essence, about stopping the fluctuations of the mind. There are many ways to do this, and recognizing patterns is one of them. And perhaps no pattern is stronger at this point in time than this: Work really hard. Gain success. Hold on to that success. And don’t forget to show the world what you’ve achieved.
So evolving our yoga practice along those lines – from hardship to mastery, from shallow to deep backbend - is really just perpetuating a pattern in society that might very well be the reason why we turned to yoga in the first place…! To find balance, peace of mind and a feeling of being good enough the way we are. But by insisting that we’ll only grow by overcoming hardship, by pushing ourselves – sometimes even beyond our physical limits - a lot of what is being taught in modern yoga is actually offering us exactly the opposite of self-acceptance, thus keeping us on a path that’s probably not going to lead to our peace of mind.
But here’s a thought: Might it be possible that we can also grow through kindness? By letting go of the things – and in this case perfect, unattainable asanas – that really don’t work for us? Might we actually start an (at least) mental revolution by stopping those fluctuations of the mind that tell us that yoga is something that needs to be achieved through hard work? What if yoga is something that can be achieved by simply saying: “No. Today I’ll practice with kindness and do only what makes my body feel good. And when I go and teach, I’ll tell my students to do the same.” I’m well aware that yoga is equal parts perseverance (abhyasa) and letting-go (vairagyam). But who says that we can’t persevere with kindness, both towards ourselves, as well as towards others? Isn’t it worth a try?
# Heading towards an understanding of stamina
From around the room, the thuds of people falling out of their headstands sounded like sighs of resignation. “Staying longer in your headstand will build up stamina!” the teacher, who was counting our breaths ever so slowly, told us.
I had heard that sentence before, in numerous other traditionally led ashtanga classes, often with me in a resigned child’s pose. Every time, I would feel like banging my head on the floor: “Stupid, lazy girl. Must build stamina!” Unless, of course, it was one of those very few practices where my headstand was just perfect, where I felt weightless and could stay up until the very last count and then some, in which case my ego would feel, well… Let’s just say pretty good.
But in this particular headstand, I had another way of receiving the claim of the teacher, after having spent the past couple of years really looking at what yoga (and particularly ashtanga yoga) says about the physical aspects of the practice, and how that squares with an anatomically based understanding of the body. And my response this time around was more of a huff than a sigh. Because building stamina in headstand from an anatomical perspective? Probably not the greatest idea in the world…
If you take a look at the spine, it’s pretty obvious that whereas our lumbar vertebrae are quite sturdy structures, our cervical vertebrae are not. Which means that, as the teacher of the led class correctly pointed out, you don’t want to put all your pressure, the full weight of the body, on your head, but rather press into your forearms to remove the pressure from the head (and cervical spine, I assume, although this wasn’t mentioned). Which might actually work in an ashtanga scenario – at least in a group of seasoned practitioners. Why? Because primary series gives you lots of upper body strength from all the jumping and chaturangas while encouraging you to lose most of your muscular tone in the hips and legs in order for you to get into all of those padmasanas and other deep hip-openers. Losing tone in your hips/legs is something that happens naturally over time, when ashtanga is your main (and especially only) practice, as very little strength work for this area is offered in the practice itself, and other types of exercise like running (not great for flexibility) are discouraged.
Which basically means that you gain a body with open, but weak hips and pretty skinny legs, combined with over-developed triceps muscles (and often a pretty strong and tight upper trapezius from all those jump-backs and jump-throughs). So when you get good at headstand in ashtanga, it actually has less to do with stamina and more to do with the new shape that you’ve created in your body.
Is that a problem? Generally, in my own experience, losing muscle tone in your hips while working on extreme flexibility in that same area is extremely problematic. But in this instance, from a headstanding perspective, you might be fine. Especially if your humerus to neck- and headlength-ratio is perfect. But what if it isn’t? I’ve known students with short upper arm bones and long necks and no amount of stamina was ever going to make their headstands work - not in the bound version, at least. And what if – in spite of all your hard practice - your bum or pelvis just doesn’t change into that size 0? What if that isn’t a natural or healthy way for you to be shaped? Then there’s a good chance that your neck won’t agree with what you’re doing, if you try to push yourself into staying longer in headstand than what feels agreeable to your body.
Of course all bodies are different, and this isn’t an exhaustive list of possible headstanding issues. What I’ve come to discover in my own practice is that the main reason why a long held headstand has been unpleasant nine times out of ten for me isn’t my cervical, but rather my thorasic spine.
By letting go of all those vinyasas and spending time on softening my upper trapezius over the past year, I’ve been able to resensitize my upper back, and these days I can really feel how the vertebrae in the middle of my thorasic spine – always an area of challenge in my body - are compressed in a deeply uncomfortable way in sirsasana, something that will usually leave me in pain afterwards. I’ve always felt this in a very vague way throughout all my years of practicing, but never allowed myself to pay any attention to it, because I was, well, building stamina. So I would always push that little bit harder, especially in a group practice setting, even if my body was telling me to stop.
And that is probably the most problematic issue in this discussion: Not just sirsasana in itself, but the mention of sirsasana and stamina in the same sentence. Because who in this constantly competitive society wants less stamina? So there’s a good chance that students will push themselves towards injury, or at least discomfort, like I did, if headstand is claimed to be the place to build stamina.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with gaining a certain amount of muscular endurance. But why not do it in a setup, where you can be almost sure that you and your students will benefit rather than get injured? Most poses that target your stabilizing muscles will be great for this – waking up your serratus anterior in plank, your core in various core exercises (not navasana, where the tightening of the psoas and the subsequent pull on the lumbar spine is often less than helpful – but that’s another story), your potentially weak glutes in a number of standing poses, etc. These are stamina-building exercises that can be done by almost anyone, regardless of shape and size. And if you then decide to have some fun with headstand, use all that stabilizing awareness, and, Iyengar-style, especially the strength of your legs, for a few moments of upside-down time with a playful and kind spirit. And if it still doesn’t work for you, then find another inversion that does (I personally prefer Pincha Mayurasana and Dolphin pose to headstand, because these poses don’t bother my thorasic spine.)
If, on the other hand, you take your cue from a traditional practice like ashtanga and insist on building stamina in poses that can only be done safely by a very small group of people – not because they’ve got great stamina, but because of the shapes of their bodies – it’s a little bit like saying that only the students with green eyes in class will get it right. Which means that you’re setting all your non-green eyed students up for failure. And I’m sure we can all agree that that isn’t fair?!
So do find ways to build up stamina for yourself and your students. But do it in a way that doesn’t lead to resignation, but rather empowerment. And, if possible, avoid doing it with all the weight resting on the head…