So, you’ve been practicing yoga for a while and have well and truly caught the ‘yoga bug’! Amidst a sea of classes and yoga styles, you may be wondering how best to elevate your asana practice.
Whilst a truly ‘advanced’ practice will encompass all these aspects, for many of us, as modern Western practitioners, our yoga is often anchored in the physical and therefore we want to practice ‘hard‘ yoga poses.
Personally, I have found that my own asana practice has not only allowed me to build a stronger, more flexible body but helped me to understand and apply the other seven limbs of yoga.
My asana practice has been a vehicle for growth and learning that has extended way beyond the physical.
In this article, we will explore 8 key advanced asanas that will help you elevate your practice, and, while this does include physically difficult yoga poses, some of the following suggestions may surprise you!
8 Advanced Yoga Poses
Contrary to its name, Sukhasana is anything but easy for some of us!
One of the oldest recorded asanas, this simple crossed-legged posture was intended as a seat for extended periods of meditation.
True Sukhasana is an exercise in discipline and grace.
As practitioners, we know there is a fine line between discomfort and pain, and no posture will show you more truly where this line is than the simple act of sitting cross-legged.
Sukhasana requires flexibility through the hips and lower back and a surprising amount of core stability to be able to remain comfortable whilst being still.To train Sukhasana, begin by mobilizing your hips and lower back with Pavanamuktasana (Wind Relieving Pose), Sufi grinds, and gentle seated twists. Support your body by sitting cross-legged on a rolled towel or cushion and prop your knees with blocks if needed.
Then, settle into stillness and simply listen to the sensations within your body without judgment.
Sitting in Sukhasana is a wonderful opportunity to practice Aparigraha (non-attachment), one of the fundamental concepts in yoga. As sensations arise, feel them, acknowledge them, and then let them go – returning to the present moment.
Often practiced as a ‘transition’ in vinyasa flow and power yoga classes, Chaturanga Dandasana is really a posture in its own right.
In its correct alignment, a low plank is incredibly challenging but provides a gateway to many advanced asanas.
Ponder this for a moment … almost every arm balance we practice in yoga starts as a very simple asana on top of chaturanga arms.
So as you can see, in arm balances, the triceps in Chaturanga act as a shelf for the lower body.
In most arm balances, ideally, we are aiming to create a 90-degree bend at the elbows so that our ‘shelf’ is stable. This technique can be easily and effectively trained in Chaturanga Dandasana, especially when we hold for a few breaths!
Level up your Chaturanga by bringing your chest no lower than elbow height as you descend, then hold the low part of your push-up with a 90-degree angle at the elbows for an extra breath before moving into upward-facing dog.
3: Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)
On many a yogi’s ‘wish list’ is the mighty handstand. An impressive-looking asana, handstand is another gateway to some of the most advanced yoga poses and is arguably a safer inversion than a headstand or forearm stand (as there is less risk of injury to your neck).
It is important to remember, however, that not all handstands are equal! Wildly kicking up into handstand will only get you so far and while you may catch a little ‘air time’, you’re missing out on mastering the fundamental skills needed to keep you there.
Holding a handstand requires full-body isometric contraction plus proprioception to orient your body upside down.
To train for a controlled, embodied handstand, begin holding a static handstand facing the wall without ‘banana-ing’ your back. Work on drawing your ribs in and down and pressing strongly through your hands to engage your shoulders, slowly increasing your hold time.
The next step is to balance with just one foot touching the wall, working towards a freestanding handstand. Eventually, as your journey progresses you will learn how to move in and out of handstand without momentum by ‘pressing up’ without kicking or jumping.
4: Astavakrasana (Eight angle pose)
The first arm balance in our list, this beautifully complex pose is perfect to utilize when sequencing arm balances together.
My personal favorite sequence is:
- Astavakrasana (Eight Angle Pose)
- Koundinyasana 2 (Hurdlers Pose)
- Ganda Bherundasana (Chin Stand)
Moving between arm balances will help you to understand how to redistribute your weight with your body off the ground whilst simultaneously training your deep core muscles (TVA) and the Serratus Anterior to make your practice lighter and stronger.
In particular, Astavakrasana is a one-armed arm balance and requires the practitioner to begin upright with straight arms before levering forward into Chaturanga arms.
5: Visvamistrasana (Sage Visvamitra’s Pose)
The first time I saw this asana I thought “wow”, quickly followed by “how on earth do I get into that?”. It certainly looks like one of the most physically challenging and hard yoga poses.
An advanced variation of Vasisthasana (Side Plank), Visvamistrasana works with many different ranges of motion combining a lateral side bend, hamstring stretch, hip opener, shoulder opener, and spinal twist all elegantly arranged on top of a side plank.
Like all complex asanas, there are several steps to master before attempting the full variation which works to train patience (Santosha) and discipline (Tapas).
Visvamitrasana is a wonderful pose to explore within a vinyasa practice especially as a ‘level up’ for Patita Tarasana (Fallen Star Pose).
The king of all backbends that requires so much more than spinal flexibility. In Wheel Pose, we experience a big opening through the whole front side of the body along with strengthening and contraction through the back side of the body.
In the full expression of Wheel, the shoulders and chest are open and the hip flexors are in full extension all while the glutes and hamstrings are contracted.
To train a stronger Urdhva Dhanurasana, begin with your feet hip-distance apart, close to your glutes, and hands planted by the ears. As you press strongly through your arms, drive your heels down and forwards into the earth and contract your glutes to open the front of your hips.
For many, Wheel is inhibited by tight shoulders and thoracic spine.
If this resonates, try Wheel Pose at the end of a full body yoga practice and spend time mobilizing your shoulders and opening your heart space in supported Matsyasana (Fish Pose) before attempting full Wheel.
7: Lolasana (Pendant Pose)
Ever wonder how your yoga teacher floats ‘effortlessly’ from Downward Facing Dog to seated without her feet touching the floor?
Lolasana is one of those postures that seems to defy gravity, the result of a big isometric contraction of the front side of the body.
Lolasana is a challenging asana but when practiced regularly will translate into so many other postures including inversions, arm balances, and strength-based asanas including Side Plank and Chaturanga.
To practice Pendant Pose, begin with hands on blocks and toes on the ground, focus on squeezing your inner thighs together and energetically draw your heels to your glutes, even if those toes stay rooted to the ground.
I promise over time this one gets easier!
From day one, my yoga teacher’s words have been imprinted in my mind “never skip Savasana”.
Corpse Pose represents the death of the practice. It’s where you get to let go of attachment to the results of your efforts and allow your body to absorb the benefits of the practice.
Savasana is one of the most advanced yoga poses in my opinion; it is in the space of Savasana that we remember that physical practice is simply a tool for growth and a vehicle for awareness.
The yoga is not in the asana or in the pursuit of ‘advanced’ postures but in how mindful the journey is along the way.
WHAT IS AN ‘ADVANCED’ YOGA PRACTICE?
It is easy to assume that an ‘advanced’ practitioner is one who can perform the most complex and difficult yoga poses.
But without mindful practice, asana is little more than gymnastics and therefore it doesn’t matter how many of the ‘hard’ yoga poses that we practice.
A truly advanced practice emerges when we are able to integrate the ancient teachings of yoga, not only in our physical practices but in our lives ‘off the mat’.
When we can live and practice with empathy, curiosity, and patience, the true gifts of yoga become clear.
For those of us who practice asana, this could mean stripping back the physical practice and re-learning basic alignment as often, the simplest of asana require the most dedicated practice.
A mindful and therefore advanced practice also invites us to practice in a balanced way, honoring rest, taking modifications when needed, and, of course … enjoying that well-earned savasana!
If you would like to explore advanced yoga poses with senior teachers, I would highly recommend Kino MacGregor.