What is the difference between a beginner and an intermediate practitioner? Say you’ve been at the practice for a number of months but don’t trust yourself to jump into a level two class yet. Or you’re a stay-at-home yogi and wondering what the next steps are in refining your practice. Perhaps you marvel at the strength and finesse of your teacher or fellow students and wonder how they’ve arrived at such grace. How do we take the practice to the intermediate level?
The first step is showing up on your mat consistently. The beginner is sporadic—sometimes you feel full of vim and vigor and hit the mat 5 times a week. One month later something shifts—the weather, stress levels at work, the phase of the moon—and suddenly you can’t drag yourself to class. The intermediate practitioner has a routine and she sticks to it no matter what. The trick is finding what works for you—an early bird class that you can get to before your day spins out of control, a home routine with an online platform that you can work into your evening...whatever it is that fits. And then learning to show up, even when you don’t really feel like it. Because meeting the mat when you don’t really feel like it is where most of the magic begins.
The beginner is satisfied with just enough information to get through the class. He needs to know where to put his right foot, what to do with his left hand. He needs to be reminded to pay attention to his breath. He might like to learn simple mantras or a few accessible arm balances. But too much information may overwhelm him, and might even discourage him from coming back to the practice.
The intermediate practitioner is thirsty. He wants to know the deeper wisdom of the body: how muscles and bones and breath cooperate, how energy is guided and moved and efficiently used. He is hungry for philosophy and mysticism and storytelling, he begins to see that the practice extends far beyond the borders of his yoga mat.
The beginner may not yet have the experience to know bullshit when she sees it. She may be inclined to believe everything she is fed in a yoga class. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, the beginner may be overly skeptical and suspicious. The intermediate practitioner finds the balance between open-mindedness and asking intelligent questions. She explores various perspectives—perhaps testing different styles of yoga, checking out a variety of studios or online options, or reading material from a wider range of credible authors. Or she delves in by participating in workshops, immersions or retreats. She knows too that each body is unique, and ultimately she is responsible for shaping the practice that will best suit her own needs.
The most fundamental physiological difference between a beginner asana practice and an intermediate one is an ability to stabilize and move from the core. The intermediate practitioner understands a strong core not as a rock-hard lump at the center of the body, but rather as a sheath of various muscle layers which wrap around the abdominal cavity. She is able to feel the differences in core engagement which support the spine in it’s various positions. Her core stability allows her to safely perform movements such as Chaturanga, Handstands and deeper backbends. Core engagement keeps her asana practice light and efficient, so that she is able to do more with less effort.
The beginner believes either: the difficult poses will be immediately available and the practice will always be comfortable; or: the difficult poses will never be accessible to her body and she shouldn’t even bother trying. The intermediate practitioner knows that everything arrives in its own time. Difficult poses require a great deal of disciplined effort, and time. They rarely appear overnight. Extremely advanced postures may not be available to every body, but with effort and care most poses at the intermediate level can be achieved. In fact, often we’re surprised by how much we’re truly able to do with the right commitment and the ability to wait.
In the beginning, we’re just struggling to keep up with the motions, put our left foot in the right place, and not topple over. As we refine the practice, we learn that the breath is central to everything that we do—that attention to breath helps us to move through the practice without getting winded, that the breath helps us to place the left foot exactly, that the breath helps us to maintain balance and concentration. The intermediate practitioner works with breathing techniques such as ujjayi breath, alternate nostril breathing and shining skull breath. He knows how to use the inhales to find lightness and expansion in the body. He knows how to use the exhales to find both stability and softness. He is focused on his breath for the better part of his practice, using breath to inform movement rather than the other way around.
The intermediate practitioner is not in it just for sport. She is interested in exploring consciousness. She gives time and attention to developing a meditation practice. She feels that meditation will inform her physical asana practice, will improve her focus and concentration, and will affect her general quality of life. Through meditation she begins to learn about her particular attachments, fears and illusionary ways of thinking. Her meditation practice helps her to think, communicate and act with more thoughtfulness and compassion.