Level, shmevel!

Why does a yoga workshop that invites me to “ take your practice to the next level” make me cringe? I think, “OK. So there are levels. I’m not sure what level I have attained in my practice, but, whatever it is, I should definitely want to go to the next one. What is the next level? How would I know? What if I can’t get there? So if I go to this workshop where everyone else can take their practice to the next level, what if I can’t? How am I going to feel?”  I envision amazing, challenging poses that have no relation to my current practice. Yuck!

The cringe that this phrase evokes in me comes mostly from what yoga means for me as a physical practice. In a world that is fiercely competitive, in which we are all ‘supposed to’ go measurably farther or faster, my yoga practice is intensely personal. It is deliberately separate from a world in which levels matter and someone else judges levels based on observable performance. In fact, my increasingly nuanced awareness of my own body and what it can do is just as important as the particular asanas I practice.

I love that yoga always offers more challenging poses, as well as deeper, more complex, better aligned, stronger, more graceful ways to engage them. Over time, as I continue to challenge myself in my practice, both my body and my awareness of it change. Some of the changes I notice on the inside—how I feel in a pose–may not be observable on the outside.

As a yoga teacher, it is always great fun to demonstrate a pose that students do not believe they can do, to help them do it, and to see their initial eye rolling turn into wide-eyed amazement and pleasure as they come into the pose. It is more deeply moving, though, to witness changes in students as they practice over a period of time, and to listen to what they say about their accomplishments. Though these changes may appear small, experientially they can be life-changing.

Here are recent examples that students have celebrated:

*Lowering slowly from plank through chaturanga onto the belly, rather than flopping down.

*Bringing a leg forward gracefully with the breath when moving from downward facing dog into lunge, rather than moving it forward awkwardly in many steps.

*Coming into a twist with ease and delight, without the cramp related to a years old post-surgical adhesion.

Clearly, these ‘small’ changes in asana practice result from changes in strength, flexibility and alignment that have significant effects off the mat as well. Again, some recent examples:

*A 60-something student happily plays on the floor with young children, while other adults watch in amazement.

*A student who reported many aches and pains when beginning to practice yoga doesn’t even recall many of them now.

*A student finds that very long and demanding work days are made calm and manageable by a yoga practice.

In just this past week, one student who has been practicing for more than two years with always tight hamstrings reported after our session that, for the first time ever, her ‘hamstrings were so happy that they wanted to do more.’ And they shall!

So……for happy hamstrings, just practice! Who cares about the level?



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4 Responses to Level, shmevel!

  1. Gary Proulx says:

    What a great post! Loving the “level shmevel,” on this Sunday afternoon. It’s funny that you write about the idea of going to the next level because the phrase came up during my yoga practice this morning. My wonderful (and often hilarious) teacher frequently invites us to “take it to another level” with certain poses, but she does it in a way that is neither judgmental nor competitive. I used to find myself looking around at what other people were doing in those moments (which would usually result in my tumbling all about), until the day I realized that my practice is simply that…”my practice.” Who cares what everyone else is doing. However, I do push myself when I feel ready and other times I’m just happy to be keeping the pose as gracefully as I can, as long as I can.

    As a school teacher I’m frequently pushing my students to get to the next level, to strive for more, (to know that there is more), so I do think encouraging people to find their next level is genuine and effective. So, you keep on demonstrating those complex and mind blowing poses…so we all have something to aspire to! You’ve got chutzpah!

    Sending love,
    (Side bar…on your next visit you must come to my class!).

    • Karen says:

      Thank you, Gary, for your thoughtful post. You underscore my point when you realize that your practice is, as you say, ‘simply that…”my practice”‘. The pose, the experience of it, and how deeply you go with it comes from the inside and, as you suggest, you make choices from pose to pose, from practice to practice.

      As much as I encourage yoga students to go deeper, to try something new and challenging–and I certainly do–I try not to use the ‘levels’ language. I think it can encourage an inappropriately external view of a yoga practice. When students bring that mindset to a yoga practice it may result in injuries, given how physically competitive many of us are. And, more importantly, that language may interfere with students’ making the deeper connections between mind, body and spirit that are at the heart of yoga. Turns out these are often harder–and scarier–than the physical challenges of an asana practice.

      Meanwhile, I’m thrilled that you have become a yogi with your own practice. Of course, you should encourage your second graders as you do. And I can’t wait to visit your class.



  2. Sigrin Newell says:


    Though your post is about yoga, it could also apply to other aspects of our lives. Learning to let go of competitiveness with the outside world and accept who we are and where we are in a given moment is also important.


    • Karen says:


      I agree totally. And I hope that a yoga practice can help people let go of that external competitiveness off the mat. When the asanas of life come from the inside, their authenticity makes them deeper and more beautiful.


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