Last updated on 08/09/2023
I don’t appreciate the term “extreme” to describe advanced yoga āsanas because it’s often used in a pejorative sense by people who don’t have any personal experience doing them. And anyway, they don’t feel extreme to me.
That’s not to say I recommend these poses to other people. And when I post videos of advanced āsanas I feel a responsibility to contextualize what I believe is happening, to avoid fetishising or promoting them.
It’s true that simple āsanas — when approached with mindfulness and proper coaching — are indeed more than enough to prepare and aid people to attain Samādhi — the goal of yoga. (Anyone interested in Samādhi should check out our recent podcast episode, which looks at the subject from Buddhist and yogic perspectives).
Given that I could get the same benefit from a simple version of this pose like, say, ardha baddha padma paschimottanāsana, why push my body into an admittedly unnatural and potentially dangerous shape. Am I just showing off?
To me, these strange positions are art and showing them to others isn’t much different from publishing a poem. I hope people get some enjoyment from it, just like I do from looking at other people’s practices.
However, there are added benefits from making more intense, screwy shapes with your body. The subtle experience of bodily energies is fathomless — so why not dive a little deeper?
The intense sensations — subtle and gross — roused by āsanas are understood in the traditional yogic literature a process of cleansing the nāḍīs, conduits of subtle energy similar to the meridians in traditional Chinese medicine. The more intense āsanas, in theory, lead to a deeper cleansing of these channels allowing for better movement of energy in the body, which is “a tremendous support on the path to Samādhi” as guru Krishnamacharya said.
The actual need for this kind of cleansing will differ among individuals. There are many examples of yogis who only ever need to learn one seated āsana to attain awakening. There are others who have a background of self abuse who may require a stronger type of spiritual detergent.
This shows that, for some practitioners at least, there are added benefits to doing advanced āsanas. These poses have the ability to bring deeper cleansing to individuals who may need it, or feel drawn to this type of practice.
Besides the sense of a deeper cleansing, rather like reducing the width of a hose to create a powerful jet, advanced āsanas can also help some practitioners release attachment to their bodies. It sounds counter intuitive. How could learning to put your leg down your back, or do a one-armed handstand help you let go of identification with your body?
When I first started yoga, I reified advanced poses and practices, fascinated by their strange beauty. Surely, they would make me better somehow. Maybe they would give access to a place where, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
So I practiced for 11 years until I could do all the āsanas I wanted. And I learned that the shapes you make with your body, while useful in many ways, are actually not worth reifying, or being regarded as anything other than shapes. And judging so-called extreme poses as any better or worse than simple poses is like criticizing a square for not being a circle.
These advanced poses are not necessary for the vast majority, but they’ve been part of my journey and remain part of it. They do offer a more intense experience for those that need it, and the journey to get there may be the magic ingredient in gaining the gold of non-attachment.