Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What is an "Advanced" Practice

The other day I was with some fellow yoga practitioners and one said she didn't want to go to the advanced class because she couldn't do a handstand yet. Coincidentally I had just had a conversation with the advanced class teacher. She had told me quite clearly that I was welcome even though I wasn't "there yet" with handstands (which I can't do). The whole thing got me thinking about what constitutes and advanced practitioner of yoga or martial arts.

Mastery - The first thing I should do is distinguish advanced vs. mastery. There are people who practice mind-body exercises every day for hours. These people, with the right combination of talent, skill and instruction reach a phenomenal stage of achievement. When I use the term advanced, I am not talking about these professors of martial arts and yoga. My use is more akin to someone moving up in elementary school (more on this later.) For the purposes of this article, I am talking about someone who operates in this modern world and practices mind-body exercises on a regular basis.

So in our culture, what constitutes an advanced student?

Not Ability to...- In yoga advanced is not reflected in your ability to achieve a certain posture. If it were, then 16 year old gymnasts would be the best yogis. Similarly, your ability to break boards or beat people does not distinguish you as an advanced martial artists. There are people who can do both that I would characterize as macho men, street thugs or just tough...but not advanced martial artists.

Sure an advanced martial artists are powerful warriors, and an advanced yogi can do things many can not. However, I believe these abilities are a reflection of their advanced state, not the reason they are advanced. The ability to... is the fruit of practice, but not what defines the tree that is the practitioner.

The qualities I believe constitute an advanced student are:
  • knowledge of self
  • low injury rate
  • unstoppable
  • self assured
  • humble
  • open minded

An advanced student may have a rank in a school, or a certificate on the wall, but in the end, each of us must decide, for ourselves and others, what advanced is.

Knowledge of self - an advanced practitioner knows exactly what she can do, and is constantly pushing that ability. They know how to walk right up to the edge. A Yogini will twist her outer leg in Pigeon Pose until her IT band burns. But she will not harm her knee. She knows her edge, and she pushes it. A martial artist will block with the bone 100 times until his forearms are bruised, and little micro-fractures form to toughen the forearm. But if the wrist tendons are in danger he will back off, putting his ego in check so he can advance.

Low Injury Rate - Closely related to knowledge of one's self is a low injury rate. I see new people come into a martial arts or yoga class and "go for it". They push themselves hard, ready to quickly master something. If they feel that tweak in their knee they tough it out. They make no allowance for swollen toes, full stomach, lack of sleep or any other impairment. Consequently they get hurt, sometimes seriously, and never come back. In martial arts these people are especially dangerous because they are reckless and can hurt others. If you see these wreckless practioners in a martial arts class be very careful doing two person exercises.

Unstoppable - One of my teachers told a story of a woman who was in the black belt club. While most black belts, regardless of size were kicking the hell out of targets, her kicks were...moderate. She was slow in form, and a little wobbly in her balance. Not at all what one would see in most black belts. Even her Keeyap was funny. But my teacher learned later that she had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, and that the doctors had said she would be disabled at best. We all agreed she was the best black belt on the floor. I see this all the time. People with cancer, in their 80's, children, and people who decide for the first time in their life to exercise--this unstoppable fire is a thing of beauty.

Self Assured - I am just starting to teach and find that nothing can be more humbling. At first I was flustered when I made a mistake, and terrified of teaching something wrong. What if I made a fool of myself in front of these talented students? But as I watched I saw that even good teachers made mistakes. In fact, they constantly made tiny little errors in their teaching or motions. But they recover and continue. In testing we tell people not to show frustration if you mess up. Either continue or ask to start again, but don't groan, make a face and throw a mini tantrum. In yoga I see those people holding their breath, grunting and groaning and looking around to compare themselves to the rest of class. Advanced students may look, but they are always in a place of calm self assurance.

Humility - when we practice martial arts and yoga we undertake the study of some very complex systems that have been developed over thousands of years. The people I know haven't lived their lives in an Asian temple, practicing morning noon and night since childhood. And even those who do will attest there is still much to learn.

At one point in my practice I realized that I there was so much to know. I had learned the basics of hundreds of techniques, postures, principles, over years of practice. And I yet I still find things to correct in my long stance. As you get more advanced, you are adding to a bigger and bigger list of things you can't do. It is overwhelming, and humbling.

Intermediate students often make the mistake of thinking they know something a teacher is showing them. You will hear them correcting other students, even arguing with the teacher about the "right way" to do something. They have learned enough to know the basic technique, but not enough to see subtle variations.

Beware of overly proud intermediates; they may have certificates, trophies and awards, but if you are not careful they will waste your precious practice time. I advise listening to them, but don't let someone who is "in the teacher training" be the final word in your practice.

Intermediate students are easily recognizable. They are accomplished and able in their practice. Sometimes an advanced student is indistinguishable from a beginner. Think of the classic martial arts movie where the maintenance man is a master of Karate, or Guru who looks like a beggar. An intermediate student will list their accomplishments. They take offense when someone tries to show them something; an advanced student smiles and listens, tries it out and moves forward.

note: I am not pointing fingers...very few people skip this stage of development, and most of us cycle through it repeatedly as we advance. An advanced student will recognize this attitude in themselves and correct it.

The Open Mind - so the open mind is, in my thinking, the most important quality of an advanced student. Despite an advanced students many accomplishments and wealth of knowledge, they realize how little they know, and eagerly approach each new lesson with a beginners mind. This is why an advanced martial artist can adapt to a variety of fighting styles. It is why they are hard to trick, they see things as they are, not as a repetition of something they have seen before. Advanced mind-body students are able to learn under any circumstance. I knew a student who came from a bad teacher. My teacher confided in me his amazement: "When I saw that teacher practicing Tai Chi, I couldn't tell it was Tai Chi, but his student had had taken his instruction and did the moves correctly!"

When a student is advanced they learn from those less skilled, they learn from obnoxious intermediates, they learn from beginners, they learn from nature. Their practice extends beyond the mat, and their practice off the mat comes back to the mat for exploration. When you see this quality in a student, they are probably advanced.

I saw this quality in my friend, who can't do a handstand, but is,

I think,


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