Why We Prefer Teaching Beginners Over “Advanced” Students – (“Bend Your Damn Knees!”)

What is an advanced student in yoga? Someone who can do a handstand split and then float back into downward dog with his/her leg behind her head? How about someone who can be in the present moment completely without ego? How about someone who can listen to his/her body (and their teacher) and create a new experience in each class? Isn’t this how we progress?

We’ve all heard that sometimes in order to progress one must regress. Makes sense right?  But can you live it, particularly in a yoga class? One noted difference between yoga and regular exercise is the potential to gain personal insight (personal insight can most definitely be an added benefit of any physical practice, but this should particularly hold true in yoga, as it is written in the sutras). So, in what is supposed to be an ego-less practice, why is it SO hard to get students to back out of poses that they are not doing safely and properly? Why is it so hard to let go of pre-conditioned ideas? Yes, you may know how to “do” a headstand, and I’m sure other people around you are impressed, but if you are wondering why your neck or back hurts the next day, maybe you should actually listen to what the teacher is saying and come down and learn to do a proper downward dog first!

Disclaimer here:  This is not in reference to all dedicated and long-practicing students, just some.

It has been our experience, more often than not, that we will give a cue for an asana that seems too “easy” for some.  For instance, maybe we’ll suggest bending the front knee while in triangle pose or letting your knees bend while in a forward bend or even rolling up from a standing forward bend as opposed to hinging up from the hips with a straight back. Straight legs and hinging up are not wrong, but there is a time and place for everything. There are many reasons for going along with these less traditional cues, even if they seem to threaten one’s sense of yoga practice “progression”. But the key to true progression, on both a physical and mental level in your practice is… SUBTLETY. Can you articulate through each joint? Can you feel the difference between hip flexion and spinal flexion? Do you know where your body parts are in space?

A lot of the times in a forward bend, particularly in a person who has “tight” hamstrings, straight knees means a rounded back and a tilted pelvis. That’s fine if you want to stretch your low back (which most often is not the intention, but the result), but since the upper attachments of your hamstrings are on the ischial tuberosities, those are glossed over in this scenario. This can also lead to a compensation pattern in a standing forward bend. With extended knees, the hamstrings are at a relatively long length. Since muscles generally do not like to do work at a long length, this can mean that other muscles will compensate for what the hamstrings don’t want to do, which can lead to relatively weak hamstrings and a quadriceps/ hip flexor dominance. It’s no mystery to us when we see a seasoned “yogi” who can fold himself/herself in half but then is unable to stand on one leg without easily losing balance. Also often times in triangle pose. the work of external rotation of the front femur bone is hidden by an extended knee. Bending the knee allows you to see if your leg is in the proper alignment. People have actually injured themselves by doing this pose improperly. Bent knees or straight knees are both fine, as long as you know what you are doing and WHY you are doing it.  If you are just doing it because that’s just what you have known to do, then you are limiting your body from exploring its fullest potential.

So often we will give cues to seasoned practitioners that are entirely ignored, simply because students are stuck in their usual routine, or they are attached to an idea of what is the “right” way to do yoga.  Being stuck in your ways can lead you to be… stuck. Your practice will eventually plateau, because nothing new is being introduced. What more is there to learn when you “already know everything?” On the other hand, we have taught beginners, who don’t have these past affiliations, who progress much faster than the “advanced” students and have potential to go further with their practice, because they are able to discriminate the subtleties and listen to their bodies (and their teachers). This is a concept known in yoga as the beginner mind. This is the ability to let go of any pre-conditioned notion of the practice to experience it as new in each moment. This is really how we progress in our practice.

Bottom line is: if you are paying a teacher money to teach you, you probably would benefit from actually listening to what he or she has to say. If you don’t, what is the point of paying them to teach you in the first place? Why don’t you just stay home and teach yourself? So next time we ask you to bend your knees, maybe you should listen.