10/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Yoga Highs And Lows: What's With All The Competition?

I've had a righteous streak since as long as I can remember. I never tolerated bullying from kids or authority, no matter the case. I got into trouble for calling things how I saw it in my early years at Catholic school, but I couldn't help myself. I was good at embarrassing authority. It was fun. There's a fearlessness that goes along with being a kid. I empathized with Ellen Page's brilliant performance in "Hard Candy" maybe a little too much. Unlike Ellen's character, I never convinced anyone to commit suicide, or performed a fake castration, but I did my fair share of leveling the playing field.

I learned that school had little to do with books and lots to do with life training. I also learned that people who felt they hadn't amounted to much in their lives (in their own low opinion of themselves) tended to take it out on others. Teaching wasn't about learning and growing. It was daily lessons in your own worthlessness, and behavioral training in learning your place. It's a common practice in authority figures still. The cycle continues until we break it. Everyone has a story. What's yours? Through my spitfire point of view, it was all a bit ridiculous. My Grandpa Al told me when I was a kid I was meaner than dirt and tougher than nails. I'd tell him that you've got to be. I wasn't going to put up with any hoo-ha.

I haven't changed much over the years. My righteous explosions over anything I see worth the effort remain pristinely intact. My gravitation toward yoga happened early for me, during the beginning of my mini-revolutions. A positive discovery, considering that my limit-pushing was maybe in part just to see what I might get away with. I could tell pretty quickly that yoga was a way to help myself and others live happier, healthier lives. I started to feel more sympathy for the authority figures I had attacked, and gained a little more understanding about suffering and anger. Still, my strong opinions remained out in the open. So I started to tell everyone I knew to practice yoga.

There are plenty of things to get fired up about. But when I see people trying to overpower or claim advantage over someone else, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, it gets me every time. There is a lot of talk in yoga about "advanced practice." This class is advanced. This student is advanced. Maybe even this person is "advanced spiritually." And there's some feeling that you'll get there after you do these practices. To me it just reminds me of my school growing up. Another method of confusion and control, keeping people down.

A lot of the people that I've reached so far with yoga hadn't tried it yet because they were intimidated, or felt bad about themselves because they weren't flexible or strong enough. They knew yoga would be good for them, but were too threatened to walk into a class.

I read an article in the Times a few months back on the topic of "advanced yoga," quoting frustrated "advanced" students who weren't able to find classes to suit their needs. It said that yoga has become so popular that beginners were over-crowding their coveted classes. No wonder people get intimidated. Yoga, a great physical practice, a spiritual path, a way to long-lasting health, turns out to be a little tainted by some elitist bullies!

My uncle Norm, who runs our family farm in Illinois, has started practicing yoga and sees benefits. He is less stiff, and feels a lot better overall. They used to call him Oscar the Grouch. Now I think that title might have to be removed. Uncle Norm will be the first person to tell you that he's not advanced, but to me he's onto something, just the same as any city slicker in the front row of each night's advanced yoga class. And definitely for him, it's not a competition.

What is advanced yoga anyway? Maybe you're more advanced than me if you've been to India? Am I more advanced than you because I can hold a headstand for more than five minutes? It would be nice to try defining advanced, just so we can see it's really a little silly to label!

The Times article explains it to us. "There are some generally accepted markers for what makes a student advanced. Barring injury, they are comfortable holding a headstand (considered an advanced beginner's pose) for several minutes or more. They work on freestanding handstands, and attempt deep backbends, forward bends, twists and other arm balances. If they're truly advanced, they don't radiate smugness as they practice difficult postures."

It's a great thing that yoga is so popular. The "exclusive" secrets are becoming accessible to more than a just few East and West Coasters. Everyone can use this stuff! I think it's good for a student that is stronger or more flexible to be next to a student that is struggling physically. There are a lot of lessons in that. In any classical training they teach you that going back to a beginner-level class once you've advanced is helpful and perhaps more difficult. So it's encouraged. I didn't understand this when I was studying ballet as a teenager, and would see professionals in my classes. I thought they were there to make me feel bad about myself or put me in my place! But when I later became the in-demand performer, I saw the value of soaking up basic instructions a second time around.

Annie Carpenter, a senior teacher at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California, is quoted in the Times article. I think she gets it right: "Lots of young strong people want crazy tricks, and that's fun and part of it, but in my view that's not advanced at all." Right on Annie!

It's really exciting for yoga studios to see their classes full, and to be able to encourage newcomers to progress. This is a positive thing! And the truth is, everybody can find their edge, a place that is challenging for them, in every class. So any class can give you great benefits and things to work on. It really doesn't matter if it's labeled basic or advanced.

Labeling people advanced when it comes to yoga brings me back to my days of bully fighting. The bullies always act like they are in charge, more advanced, but really they're angry and suffering for it. I've seen people do great handstands in the middle of the room, then walk out of class and yell at someone who gets in their way. I've also seen people who can't touch their toes possess an endearing humbleness. It works all ways. People are people.

Dharma Mittra is one of my favorite teachers. He says it how it is so simply. I remember one time he was talking to us about meditation and how to observe ourselves. And how to observe ourselves observing ourselves. He said it much more eloquently, and with his own quirky humor. Then he said it's time for calisthenics. He meant it was time for Asana, the moving around part of yoga. He called it calisthenics. I thought this was brilliant! Nothing fancy about it. He always explains how each pose specifically brings radiant health, prevents disease, and where the focus should be. The fact that he used a word everyone in that room associated with their high school gym class took the burden of seriousness off of Asana. With one word, calisthenics, he made any labels of advanced, beginner, or intermediate seem really silly.

Yoga, the physical part, brings health in your body; meditation works on the mind, realizing your self. And they both can be practiced at the same time. Asana is also a preparation for your body to sit in meditation. The poses are designed to tire you out enough so you can be fully relaxed and calm. It's simple, right? Are you better at gym class than someone else? So what? Does that really matter?

Dharma Mittra does have a pose to aspire to if you don't already have it down. Headstand, he explains, is the king of all poses. He tells his students in each class that if you're only going to do one pose, do headstand because it has the most benefits: calms the brain, relieves stress, improves digestion, strengthens the lungs, arms, legs, and spine, to name a few.

So work toward a headstand if you haven't got one yet. Not because you'll be more advanced, but it will help you be healthy, feel great, and able to inspire others.

And while we're going about losing the intimidation . . . let's rename yoga classes as "yoga calisthenics" and trade the idea of levels for something more basic about what's happening in class. Maybe it's just: pretty easy, sort of hard, and getting tricky. What do you think?

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste.