Tuesday, 30 April 2013

What is an advanced student?

The term ‘advanced students’ is kind of a misnomer, if one defines ‘advanced students’ as those who can grab their heels in chakra bandhasana or hold a handstand without support. As teachers of yoga the definition or interpretation of what is an ‘advanced student’ has a great bearing on the experience of yoga for our students.

On a purely physical level, after two years of regular practice, I would expect to see from students the kind of results one would expect to see from people who take up some form of exercise e.g. increased strength and stamina, but also flexibility, which most forms of conventional exercise overlook. An increase in body awareness and maybe a bit more confidence, both on and off the mat. But to try to measure the advancement of a student by asana alone would be missing the point completely. 

There are 6 series of Ashtanga Yoga, each series including more advanced asana, but most students will never complete the Primary Series. But this does not means that students practicing Primary are any less advanced that those practicing sixth. It just means that the ‘edge’ of the person practicing sixth has moved quicker/further than the student practicing Primary. It means they have to practice more advanced asana in order to reach their edge. It doesn’t mean they’re any more of an ‘advanced student’.

The classic texts state that asana practice is purely a means to enable the student to be able to sit comfortably for a long time in order to meditate. If one’s hips and hamstrings are tight and one’s concentration is lacking, sitting still for long periods of time is unlikely to happen. So one could say that if one were proficient at asana, then sitting would be easy, which would easily enable meditation. But it is not just about stilling the physical body. You could be the most flexible person in the world, but if your mind is not still and focused when sitting, what is the point? Gymnasts can perform amazing physical feats, but one would not say that makes them ‘advanced yoga students’. A friend of mine worked as a porter in a hospital and says that some of the best yogis he’d ever met were completely paralyzed, unable to move any part of their body.

The more I think about yoga and meditation and the more people I talk to about it, meditation in this day and age is absolute absorption in anything, where time and space cease to exist; painting a canvas, playing a violin, carving a piece of wood, even doing crochet! Hartranft calls meditation “interiorisation”, the shifting of perspective away from externality toward an interiorised point of view. From the outer world of people, things, relationships; to the inner world of the attentional processes with which the external is seen. Or more specifically, interiorisation is the growing sense that awareness is not seeing an object per se, but instead observing a consciousness representing an object. (Hartranft, 2012: 13) Once one gets to this point, we’re getting nearer to being ‘advanced students’.

This interiorisation is a realisation and complete acceptance and meshing with the matrix of the external world, which is a more inclusive and comprehensible concept of the state of Samadhi, for the western mind. Once one feels intimate with their external environment and realises their connection to every other sentient being on the planet, compassion arises and with compassion comes unconditional love, this is true yoga (union) and this is what ‘advanced students’ experience. 

The skill of the teacher is to accommodate and nurture each individual student and their unique development whilst remaining true to the wisdom shared by Patanjali. In my opinion, one can only measure a student’s knowledge and understanding of yoga by the actions of that student once they step off the mat. 

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