Yoga for Everybody

What’s My Level

What’s My Level

Maya Lev

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).

Yoga Center Santa Cruz

Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.
B.K.S. Iyengar