Advanced Yogi

Picasso's "The Acrobat"
Picasso’s “The Acrobat”. Someone came to class today with this image on their shirt.

I’m convinced Picasso was a yogi, though it is more his willingness to look at himself that makes me think so. He produced a series of prints and plates just before his death (some remain unfinished), which I believe are titled “Intimo”. In these images, the women, his models, his muse takes over the frame. They loom large, they take control, and turn to face Picasso himself, who is seen as a frail figure confined to the corner. I think this was his way of looking at himself and showing that he had finally managed to do so. In fact, I didn’t really ‘like’ Picasso’s work until I saw these images.

I recently had an opportunity to participate in an Advanced Teachers’ Training Course which was underway at the ashram. I took this course myself 13 years ago, and I really enjoy participating whenever possible since then. The course was very life-changing for me. It is strong practice (sadhana) for certain. I like to challenge myself physically, to help bring up the things in the mind which might need changing. Whereas the Teachers’ Training Course is about learning to teach others, the ‘ATTC’ is about developing your own sadhana and the discipline to undertake it, which is essential for a yoga teacher. The focus on pranayama (breathing exercises) and on opening the hips creates the conditions for negative emotions, and even stored karmas to be released.

Every time I participate, I take away something new. This time I was reflecting a lot on what it means to be “advanced”, or rather, some of the wrong notions we have about what an “advanced” yogi is. It occurs to me that in the TTC we learn how to teach, however in the ATTC we are called on to learn to be a student once again. A reminder that we are always a student in life, and it is never possible to know it all (despite the certificate which says “Yoga Acharya / Master of Yoga”!). Here are a few of my random thoughts on what it means to be an “Advanced Yogi”:

  • Many students who are of an “advanced” mindset come to class to show-off or to show how much they know, rather than to learn. I’ve never understood this. An advanced yogi should model for others how to approach class with an open mind, follow instructions implicitly and not deviate from what is being asked. In this way new ideas or information can be taken in and allowed to percolate. In time this information can be deemed to be of use or not, tested, experimented with, but should not be immediately judged by the mind.
  • Sanskrit does not make a class more advanced, nor does knowledge of Sanskrit make a yogi more advanced. This is often a stumbling block. While I love Sanskrit; the vibration and tone are both a rich and meaningful addition to the practice; use of Sanskrit in class does not make a teacher more knowledgeable and can cause the students to spend too much time thinking and not enough time just being in practice. My teacher has a very good knowledge of Sanskrit (being both Indian and a teacher of Sanskrit) but does not over-use it in class. I have often heard him chastise students who ask for the Sanskrit names of everything. If you listen to Swami Dayananda Saraswati, a renowned teacher of Vedanta philosophy, he uses only the minimum of Sanskrit necessary to introduce a concept, yet his teachings are practical, rich and completely consistent with the traditional teachings. I have seen Sanskrit used to disguise a lack of understanding and real knowledge of yoga. As Krishnamacharya has said, “If you truly learn something, how you express it is different than how you learned it”. Find your own words.
  • When someone is truly advanced they should be able to practice in private, alone, without needing or desiring an audience. It is important to practice alone, and in fact to seek out opportunities to practice unseen. This allows you to take a closer look at yourself and how the mind works, without being influenced by thoughts about pleasing others (or the teacher!) or feelings of comparison or competition. It’s like that eternal question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” When you practice alone you tend to retain a beginner’s mind, free from ideas about being ‘advanced’. Advancement is more internal. Of course, group sadhana is important too, however we need to do so without so many limiting structures and comparisons.
  • Regardless of their physical aptitude in practice, an advanced yogi will tend to see possibility in practice rather than limitation. This stems from a cultivated absence of fear. They trust themselves deeply, and this creates a fearless mind.

I leave the final word to Teresa of Avila from her Interior Castle, “All matters of spiritual progress are susceptible to numerous interpretations”.




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