What's My Level?

From time to time, a student approaches their teacher and asks if he or she may attend the class of the next level up. While each teacher handles this situation in their own particular way, I believe it is a question worthy of some deeper consideration. Most yoga studios these days offer a variety of classes for students of varying degrees of experience and ability, and Yoga Center Santa Cruz is no exception. On our schedule we make a brief attempt to clarify what we mean by “level 1,” “level 2,” and so on. But these descriptions provide merely a bare guideline to a far more complex subject.

The “tree of yoga” has eight limbs, or branches, and the asanas, or physical postures which we focus on in Iyengar yoga, are in fact the third limb on this tree. The first two limbs are the Yamas and the Niyamas, the universal and the more detailed individual proscriptions for living a yogic life. One of the Niyamas, called in Sanskrit “tapas,” is of particular relevance to this discussion. Tapas is often translated as “inner fire” or “burning desire.” It refers to the deep inner longing for spiritual fulfillment, for the soul's release from the constant cycle of reincarnation or, (if you prefer a less “religious” interpretation) a respite from the daily fluctuations of the mind and the emotions. Tapas refers to a core desire for wholeness, which surely everyone desires somewhere within themselves. But our experiences throughout our lives often covers over and obscures this energy and longing, and many people are unable to feel it at all, except perhaps in those rare private moments, or when death is near.

There is an old cautionary parable for new teachers of yoga which goes something like this: If a new student comes to your class, and they have just a tiny little flame for yoga burning within themselves, do your best to snuff it out. If it goes out, you've saved yourself a lot of trouble. If it does not, it will begin to burn brighter, and you've saved yourself a lot of trouble.

So when a student arrives at my door and asks me politely “do you think I could come to the level 2-3 class?” I consider, how much “tapas” does this student have for the journey of yoga? For it is one of the three primary factors of greatest importance to answer the question “what's my level?”
The other two are physical ability, and depth of understanding. Physical ability, to my mind, is actually the least important piece of the puzzle. Say a student arrives at a level 2-3 class, and she is physically able to “do” all the asanas I teach during that class. If her understanding of the poses is that of a beginner, then she is at risk of injuring herself. If her “tapas” is fiery, this risk only increases exponentially, as she works her body hard to achieve what she perceives she is able to do, but misses the more subtle aspects of the poses which link them together in a cohesive whole to create a practice which produces a “sattvic” state. Sattva is one of the three “Gunas” or qualities of Prakrti, which is the yogic term for all that is matter, all that is subject to constant change and that which is perceived. In other words, all that we think of as “real” and solid. Sattva is the quality of lightness, clarity, and focus, and it is the state which we may experience after a good yoga class and especially after a deeply restful savasana. Hopefully you have felt this wonderful state of lightness and clarity, when the usual daily film of clouded perceptions and fluctuating emotions is temporarily lifted. We feel clean, calm, and at peace with ourselves and the world.

Understanding of the postures is also not a simple topic. As anyone who has practiced yoga for more than a few years will attest, there is still more to learn and experience in a pose as seemingly simple as trikonasana. One day you are doing the pose for perhaps the thousandth time, and suddenly you are aware of the back of your knee in a completely new way. Or you think you are doing the pose “correctly,” and then your teacher comes along and gently places a finger on a vertebra of your spine you had been ignoring, and the pose changes utterly. This is one of the key aspects I watch for as students in my classes continue to attend. Certainly it is exciting and gratifying to observe someone's back begin to be less misshapen, or their legs to become more straight, or their knee trouble to finally disappear, but it is even more so to witness as the understanding deepens and the foundation of yoga takes root. When at the beginning of my class we sit for several minutes of meditation and chanting and I open my eyes at the end to find that people are sitting with straight backs and open chests and relaxed shoulders, I know positive change is occurring without anyone coming up to me to say so at the end of class.

So the three factors to consider when thinking about what level class to attend are:
tapas: inner fire or motivation to practice diligently and travel the path of yoga;
understanding of the postures: how to approach them and what they are intended for, both physically and energetically; and how to apply this understanding to one's own physical, mental, and emotional “bodies.”
physical ability: how much a particular body can actually do at any given moment.

So the next time you find yourself thinking, I want to go to that other level class, the one that says “level 2-3” or even “3-4,” pause and consider these three factors. Ask yourself, why am I wanting to go to the next level? What is my own degree of “tapas”? Do I have a practice of my own, without coming to class? How do I typically respond if I get an injury, do I become discouraged and disappointed, or do I try to discover what may be going on inside which brought this misalignment to the surface? Do I feel able to be open and honest with my teacher? If it is my ego that wants to feel bouyed, can I remain aware of this so I can keep it in check and not let it be the leader of my asanas?

It is surely a positive desire to want to be challenged, to learn and stretch more deeply and intensely on all levels of our being. But as with all of yoga, we seek to find the balance point between striving towards our goal (tapas), and practicing contentment with where we are (santosa, another one of the five Niyamas).

The Origin of the Yoga Mat

You've been going to classes for a while now and you're ready to buy a yoga mat of your very own – but where to begin? Open up any yoga magazine or catalog and you will be inundated by the range of choices - not only of colors, but also types of materials, thicknesses, and, now, even artistic designs for the aesthetic yogi. So how to choose among all this abundance and variation?

First, it is useful to know a tiny bit about the history of the ubiquitous yoga mat. By now the humble mat has taken on symbolic or even iconic meaning in the yoga world; but before the explosion of yoga's popularity in the West, yoga was not practiced on a mat. In fact, mats only began to be used at the time when yoga was introduced to the Western world, largely because most middle class or affluent people in the 1960's and '70's had carpets (shag of course!) covering most of their floors. Mats were necessary to prevent students' feet from slipping on rugs while practicing standing poses. When BKS Iyengar ordered a thin green material which came in rolls from Germany, and was originally manufactured for use as a carpet underlay, little did he know the revolution he was starting!

When you want to buy your own mat, consider this history, and then ask yourself what you intend to use your mat for. If you have a nice wood floor to practice on at home or at your favorite studio, then you do not need your mat for practicing standing poses, unless your feet become quite slippery during your practice. You may want a mat at times, if you are practicing some variations of standing poses which cause the feet to slip, but the firmness and evenness of the wood floor are ideal for communicating with the small bones and tendons of the feet and ankles, and encouraging them to learn to be steady.

So do you need a mat at all? If you are practicing inversions (headstand, shoulder stand, elbow balance) the mat is quite helpful to provide a bit of padding for the skull in sirsasana (headstand) and to help keep the elbows closer together in sarvangasana (shoulder stand). But again, too much padding causes instability, so the mat should be thin.

When new students purchase a mat, they are often unaware of the effects of the mat on their practice. Many choose a mat that is thick and "cushy" because they want the added comfort for their sitting bones in seated postures. This is a reasonable desire, and in fact we often do place blankets under the buttocks and sitting bones for seated poses (although the main purpose of this is to aid in releasing the spine from tight hamstrings, rather than provide the comfort of padding). But herein lies the best clue to the mat-seekers dilemma: if it is extra padding you seek, get a blanket rather than a mat. Use the mat primarily to prevent slipping, rather than padding.

Another "new" issue with mats nowadays is the type of material they are made from. Of course a yoga student would want to cause less harm to the world (practicing ahimsa, non-violence, is the first of the Yamas) and thus use a mat which is environmentally friendly. But I have seen mats which purport to be easy on the environment, yet they have a terrible smell. Consider asking about the "off-gassing" of your mat when you purchase online or through a catalog, as you will certainly be putting your nose very close to the mat many times and attempting to "breathe deeply".

There is also the choice of texture - many of today’s commonly-purchased mats (they get left at our studio frequently) are in fact not especially "sticky". These are often about a quarter of an inch thick and their surface is almost smooth - not the best for stopping slippage. There are also some mats now that offer an "earth-like" texture; but again, you will you be able to learn to balance better with an even surface underfoot.

Since the mat’s weight can also be a significant factor for many people, consider whether you intend to carry your mat around with you, or whether it will be a "stay at home" mat. You do not want to be slinging a heavy mat around wherever you go, on your bike or on your back.

The best route may be to go to a store that sells several types of mats and check them out with your own hands, feet, eyes and nose. This is the best way to get a good idea of what different mats actually feel like, and how well the one you choose will serve your purposes. You can also always contact the friendly people at online yoga-supplies retailers like Huggermugger, Gaiam, or Yogapro, and ask them to describe their mats to you and discuss the considerations I've mentioned here.

At Yoga Center Santa Cruz, we purchase mats that are very thin and sticky (except at the very beginning, they have to get "used" a few times), only off-gas for a few days, and last many months with lots of use. They are also relatively inexpensive, which is why we can affordably sell them to our students. They are even machine washable, which is a great added benefit.