Advanced Moves

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Read Dharma Mittra’s Response:

Dear Beth-Aime,

For three decades, asana classes I taught were open to all levels of students. An all-levels class offers many benefits to the students—and presents a greater challenge to the teacher. In an all-levels class, the less experienced students will be able to receive a window into poses they may have never seen or tried to practice. It can also allow each student to work at her own pace, and at the same time all students can be greatly inspired by the level their practices could advance toward. If both the teacher and student have this positive view, there is no need for the student to feel bad.

However, it is important for the teacher not to leave a student behind in a mixed-levels group—in other words, you must help the first-time student while also offering the appropriate variations to more advanced students. By making sure you teach the main posture first, then show an easier variation followed by more advanced variations, you should have a satisfied group. This does take years of practice to teach comfortably, however. You may want to refer to my book, Asanas: 608 Yoga Poses as a resource.

Please do remember that regardless of each student’s individual level, the class should be reminded that being able to do advanced poses, like putting your legs behind your head, aren’t necessary to achieve success in yoga, meditation, or good health. The most important poses do not demand any flexibility or skills. Sirsasana (Headstand), Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), and Egyptian Pose (sitting in a chair, the spine vertical, the feet flat on the floor, and the palms facing down, resting on the thighs) are enough for the achievement of good health, well-being, and even enlightenment. It actually is that simple. If one is already flexible, go ahead and practice the impressive advanced postures, but don’t forget that what truly counts is the amount of effort you apply and your mental attitude while practicing. Students should practice the poses without any expectation of results. Simply do the postures because they have to be done. Make them as an offering to the Lord. This makes the practice better than meditation.

Always encourage the students to keep working to improve their practice. Teach them to stay longer in a pose, be steadfast, stretch, and move their joints well—otherwise their postures will look exactly the same for years from now. Remind them that doing the postures is not a competition. The ability to do fancy, incredible poses is all in vain if the foundation of yoga, the yamas and the niyamas, are not upheld.

By coming to class, all the students get to share the collective benefits of the entire group. Invite each student to see themselves in all the other students’ bodies. I always tell the students that a portion of God became the soul of all living beings, so one Self dwells in all of us. Thus, if you see someone doing a difficult pose, don’t feel envy! Rejoice because in reality you’re in that body, too. That’s you!

Sri Dharma Mittra, who has been teaching since 1967, was the first independent yoga teacher in New York City. In 1984, he created the famous Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures, which has become an invaluable teaching tool. Dharma is the creator of more than 300 postures and is the author of the book Asanas: 608 Yoga Poses. He is also the inspiration for the Yoga Journal coffee-table book Yoga. His Maha Sadhana DVD set (A Shortcut to Immortality, for Level I, and Stairway to Bliss, for Level II), has been widely acclaimed as preservations of the main teachings of yoga. Dharma Mittra: A Friend to All, is a biography documenting experiences of his students from the 1960s on. Dharma Mittra: Yoga Life of a Yogi teacher trainings (200- and 500-hour) are held in New York, San Francisco, Japan, and at workshops worldwide. For more information, visit www.dharmayogacenter.com.