Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

The Level 2 Question: Can you challenge yourself on the mat without "wrecking" your body?

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Last month's New York Times article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" certainly threw the yoga community for a loop! I've given the article a lot of thought over the past few weeks and have written several responses to the reactions I've heard from students and teachers. In the aftermath I've had conversations with colleagues who have practiced daily for years, and for many dedicated yogis the question still lingers: is it possible for intermediate practitioners to find a challenge on the mat without "wrecking" their bodies?

To me, the answer is a qualified yes. If you are a beginner who stumbles into a Level 2 class and you try to crank yourself into a complex backbend or muscle your way through a long headstand, or if you are a continuing student who tries to pretzel your way into those poses at the back of Light on Yoga without the guidance of a qualified teacher, you will very likely do yourself some damage.

But if you have been practicing consistently in order to gain a deeper understanding of your body and mind, you have developed the intuition to help you know when to pull back rather than push through. You are taming the ego every time you resist the urge to show off your awesome yoga skills when the teacher calls out your favorite pose. If you opt for a rest in child's pose as the class whips through yet another vinyasa, you are practicing humility in caring for your own needs rather than following the crowd.

So what makes an intermediate practitioner? What does the Level 2 designation mean?

Many people would cite the extreme asana variations and long holds referenced in the NYT article. My take is a little different.

To me, Level 2 means maintaining the ujjayi pranayama, or victorious breath, throughout every single pose. It means more complex transitions between the poses as a way of developing greater concentration and balance; if you've ever moved from tree pose to half moon and then back again, you know that creative transitions amplify the intensity of any pose. It means working towards a deeper experience of a backbend (with the help of props or not), with constant reminders from your teacher to pay attention and stop if you find you are not breathing deeply or feel discomfort in the pose. Like anything else in yoga, Level 2 means different things to different people. In my opinion, the safest way to provide students with a challenge is to offer many ways to experience more intermediate poses. For example, if you were to look around the room (which, of course, you would never do because you are a yogi and do not compare yourself to other people!) during the practice of an arm balance such as side crow pose, you would find students working at a variety of levels in the pose: some with feet still firmly planted on the ground and others in full flight.

At Bloom, our take on Level 2 moves beyond the typical harder + faster = better equation. We believe there is a way to explore a physical and mental challenge on the mat without "wrecking" yourself; we encourage students to remember that the process of trying these more advanced pose variations is more important than the final shape of the pose any day.

Most of the time I keep my own practice simple, soft, and gentle. But as I've learned over the years, it can be incredibly valuable to shake up old habits, to get out of the rut of a comfort zone, to carefully go where you have not gone before. That's when I roll out the old yoga mat in a Level 2 class, and I'm grateful to have a dedicated, knowledgeable teacher to provide me with both a challenge and the requisite cautions and reminders to keep me healthy as I work.

Kerry is the Founder & Director of Bloom Yoga Studio, voted Best Yoga Studio in the Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and Citysearch. As a practicing yogi, writer, and mother of three, Kerry is all about making the principles and philosophies of yoga real and accessible for day-to-day living. You can find Kerry on Google+.


  • Scott Baltic Friday, 03 February 2012

    "We believe there is a way to explore a physical and mental challenge on the mat without “wrecking” yourself …"

    Maybe there's a connection between this approach and that poll that Bloom recently topped. :-)

    One of the things I've learned to truly appreciate about yoga is "There's always a way to make a pose harder, and there's always a way to make a pose easier."

    Six hundred (or whatever) poses are not a checklist to work through, but instead terrain to explore.

  • Kerry Maiorca Thursday, 02 February 2012

    In theory I agree, Michele. But practically speaking, I have overdone it on the mat many times in my "yoga career" and each time I have learned something very important about myself on a mind-body level. No one is perfect and that goes for yogis, too! But as you said, if you consistently overdo it and push too hard you are missing the point of yoga or doing something else altogether that just happens to use yoga poses as a vocabulary. That goes for injuries or physical restrictions, too. We can't just override our bodies and expect them not to punish us for it. Thanks for the comment!

  • Michele Thursday, 02 February 2012

    If you hurt yourself doing yoga at any level, you are missing the point of yoga or you already have some significant physical or health issues that would cause discomfort during other types of exercise.

  • Kerry Maiorca Friday, 03 February 2012

    Indeed, Scott! It's funny how the longer i practice, the more intense the basic poses feel. You're definitely right that you alone can make the pose harder or easier for yourself. Sometimes the hardest pose is the basic one that you do with full attention and deep breath. Even Tadasana (mountain pose) can be a really demanding pose when you do it consciously.

    Thanks for your kind comment. I like the way you worded that last sentence - the many asanas are not just things to check off the list but a place to learn and grow. I'm glad that yoga has made a difference in your daily life.....keep up the great work!

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