Advanced Asana - Is It a Gimmick?
**in case it isn't obvious, this pic is not me.**
I've been practicing yoga for just over 10 years now - really not that long in the scheme of things - but I have seen huge changes in the yoga scene during that time. When I first started doing yoga, a typical class would focus on standing poses and stretching. Flexibility was the name of the game. But over the last decade, there has been a major shift towards emphasizing strength over flexibility. Especially with the advent of social media - inversions and arm balances are all over Instagram and Facebook with tags like #handstandeverydamnday and #armbalanceaddict - it seems like the modern yoga world has a veritable infatuation with advanced asana.
An advanced asana is one that isn't accessible to a typical student who is new to the practice (unless they have a background in gymnastics, dance, etc) because of the level of strength or flexibility or coordination required. Advanced asana has always been a part of Modern Postural Yoga but suddenly there's both an obsession and a backlash against these poses - some yogis are completely preoccupied with attaining ever more challenging postures and transitions, while other yogis degrade these efforts as vanity and egoism.
Both views are harmful and not really in the spirit of yoga.
First of all, let's agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with advanced asana. In fact, part of the beauty of regular yoga practice is the experience of doing what you never imagined you could do - overcoming mental and physical limitations. Advanced postures signal the development of inner strength, faith in yourself, and the ability to persist through challenges - all attributes a yogi needs for the more important inner work of realizing the True Self.
So what about taking pictures of it? That must be ego, right? Maybe. Or maybe not. That photo could also be meant to inspire, to educate, to encourage...as I will readily admit I've been inspired, educated, and encouraged by many pics of another yogi's rockin' asana that I saw scrolling through my own IG or FB feed. Sharing your practice can be a beautiful, vulnerable, and selfless way to expose others to yoga or to invigorate their enthusiasm for their own journey. Sure, it might be done out of arrogance - it's all in the intention, and that's something we can't know as observers - so it's not our place to judge. Besides this just being common morality, it's also found in the Yoga Sutras. In Sutra 1.33, Patanjali counsels equanimity towards the non-virtuous. In other words, even if that yogi posting handstand pics is totally showing off, leave them alone, their misguided intention is none of your business.
On the flip side, if you are that yogi show-off, know that becoming preoccupied with ever more advanced asana just for the sake of doing something that you think looks cool is also utterly missing the point of the practice. When I studied Christian mysticism in college, we learned that the mystics sought to develop perfection in spiritual virtues (like charity towards the poor) but that ultimately, getting too attached to the virtues could become a barrier to their ultimate goal of union with the Divine. Advanced asana is a little like that. It's a tool, it's an indicator of consistent practice, and it's a means to an end...but it's not an end in itself.
Like the mystic, the yogi is ultimately seeking a direct experience of herself beyond the ego - coming to know the part of herself that is pure peace, joy, and oneness.
Like Janet Stone said, in one of my favorite yoga quotes of all time, "[when you're working on Hanumanasana - the splits] don't be consumed with getting all the way down to the floor; there's nothing exciting down there, it's only a sweaty yoga mat." In practice, as in life, it's all about your intention and your attitude. And yes, it is possible to be both humble and fabulous. Happy practicing!