Going to the next level is mentioned a lot in yoga. The inference is that if you study with this teacher or attend that workshop you will, almost by transference, amp up your asana practice to some mystical height. You will be given something you did not have before and very likely would not attain on your own. This appeals to our tendency to want to accumulate things and to find the people who might get us what we want. It also appeals to our competitiveness.

I too spent several years “accumulating” asana and wanting to “get the pose.” This was especially true when most of the other people I was studying with were already very accomplished asana practitioners, endowed with tremendous athletic gifts. They were the benchmark. I worked hard to step up to that mark. I worked hard to win my teacher’s approval and the recognition of my peers. I would go to workshops or retreats, absorb all I could then go home and practice everything for the next few months until the next time I attended some event.

While I made quick progress in the asana practice, my understanding of myself at a deeper level was not keeping pace. At times I got injured trying to push for something I didn’t quite understand. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have a great time in the process. It’s fun to discover that you can do things with your body you never imagined you could. I also met many amazing people and made many wonderful friends. At a certain point I began to ask myself what “the next level” really was: What did that mean to me?

What I discovered is that you might be able to get your foot to your head or do 108 sun salutations – you could achieve all this and much more – and still have no idea how your behavior is causing havoc in your life. You may practice asana all day long yet continue to engage in habitual, unconscious behavior that causes both yourself and others pain.

In modern hatha yoga, with its apparent physical emphasis, it’s easy to get very wrapped up in the body. While this aspect of the practice is important and works at a certain layer, yoga recognizes various layers of human experience. These layers or “sheaths” are termed the five koshas[1]. Asana practice is on the level of the first two koshas: the annamaya kosha or “food body”, the body of flesh and blood, and the pranamaya kosha, the “energy” or pranic body.

To reach the deeper levels of the mind and spirit, our practice needs to be less about asana at a certain point and more about self-observation, self-awareness and reflection. It takes courage to look at our habits, the quality of our thinking and perceptions and be clear and honest about what we see. To reach our deepest layers, it takes a desire to seek the sacred in all we do. This sort of work is not so much about rising up some scale of achievement as it is about going inside, toward ourselves. Our practice goes from being a work out to a work in!

It becomes more about waking up to how we perceive ourselves, what we perceive as our shortcomings and talents, our limitations and strengths, the roles we play and the stories and dramas we perpetuate. Being willing to let things fall away rather than attaching more to us. It’s about softening and being relentlessly curious about the confusing mystery of being human.