Rethinking Beginner, Intermediate, & Advanced Yoga
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | August 25, 2023
I was visiting another yoga teacher trainer who lived out of state so we could work on a project together. One morning he suggested that we go take a class. He had a friend who kept inviting him to her class, but he hadn’t yet taken her up on it, so my visit was a good excuse to finally check it out.
When we got to the studio, we slipped into the back of the room. He didn’t introduce me because the class was about to start. The teacher was friendly, young and flexible. As the class progressed, I found ways to explore her sequence that worked for my body.
But several times during the class she approach me and said, “This is how to do that if you’re a beginner.” Other times she said, “You can skip this pose if you’re a beginner” or “Advanced students can do the pose this way, but you should use a strap if you’re a beginner.”
But at that point I’d been practicing yoga regularly for more than 15 years and teaching for more than 10 – and not just classes, but workshops and teacher trainings – I’d written manuals and published articles. But she didn’t know me. So she assumed I was a beginner – probably because I’m not very flexible.
After class when my friend introduced me to her as a trainer, she was noticeably taken aback. I thanked her and we chatted for a little while and then said our goodbyes. Frankly, it was a little awkward, and it left me wondering: Why had she been taught (or unconsciously internalized) that people with less flexibility are automatically beginners?
In the 90s and 2000s, it was fairly ubiquitous to label classes “Beginner”, “Intermediate”, and “Advanced”, or “Level 1”, “Level 2”, and “Level 3.” It was equally common for students and teachers to believe that if they started with a beginner or level 1 class, that within a few weeks or months they could progress to intermediate/level 2, and after a year or two, to advanced/level 3.
One time I was in a class and the teacher said, “Just keep doing this and you will eventually look like me.” That’s patently untrue – she was hypermobile. But it was common to hear that kind of statement back then. The yoga trend was new, there were tons of people just getting started, and there was a lot of misinformation.
Things are changing – trauma informed best practices are much more common, and so (if they haven’t already) most studios and gyms need to rethink how they title and describe their classes. With all the discussion over the last 10 years about trauma, hypermobility, injuries, accessibility, etc. you’d think that it would be almost universal – unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Just last week I saw these from an account that has hundreds of thousands of followers:
Labeling yoga poses or classes or people as beginner, intermediate, and advanced is problematic for several reasons.
First, it reduces yoga to asanas, and it reduces progress in yoga to the accomplishment of difficult asanas. But yoga has 8 limbs, asanas are 12.5 percent of the system – there’s another 87.5 percent to explore.
Secondly, since when does being hypermobile automatically make you an advanced yoga practitioner? With that logic, just about everyone in Cirque du Soleil should be enlightened by now. The guy in the photo above is less mobile than the woman next to him, probably genetically, and probably because he played soccer or ran as a child. He may never comfortably do what she’s doing even after he’s been practicing for 20 years – does that mean he’ll still be a beginner?
Third, this kind of labeling engenders poor teaching. Working only with mobile elite athletes means you don’t have to learn how to teach to the more typical-bodied person. You can simply call out pose names and maybe sprinkle in a “lengthen your tailbone”, “don’t lock your knees”, or “engage your core” here and there and call it a day.
But a class exclusively full of mobile and/or elite athletes is rare – typically there are lots of people in the room with a wide range of mobility and strength.
For many years I was labeled a “beginner” teacher because, as someone who was not hypermobile and didn’t teach many hardcore poses, it made sense in terms of the beginner-intermediate-advanced paradigm. The thing is that although I love working with many different kinds of people with different kinds of bodies and I’ve learned a lot, it feels uncomfortable to impose a label on my students – many of whom have been practicing for years. There are plenty of long-time practitioners who want to attend a variety of yoga classes – but if the only class that fits their needs or wants is titled “beginners” is that an appropriate term for those students? Even when they’ve been practicing for longer than the teacher?
While anachronistic class titles are beginning to fall away, we still have work to do in developing better ones – and better descriptions. Perhaps some “Advanced” classes might be better described as:
“Difficult Yoga Posture Class – to safely enjoy this class, you should be able to do postures, including one leg balances, with binds (arms threaded through one leg and then wrapped around your back and hands clasped), deep lunges, and arm balances in the middle of the room without assistance. Be prepared to move quickly and sweat. If you have injuries or limited mobility you will be expected to take care of yourself because the class moves too fast for the instructor to be able to assist everyone.”
I think being clear is helpful. And if there’s concern that people won’t show up because they’re scared off by that description…well…that’s food for thought.
If the class consists primarily of sun salutes and their derivations, then there needs to be some care around using titles like “Yoga for Everybody” or “Flow for Everyone” or “Mindful Flow” etc. – These classes may not be appropriate for folks with more moderate mobility – beginner or not.
We need to craft alternative class labels and descriptions that go beyond beginner, gentle, Yin, and restorative, and get more creative (and accurate) about how we talk about what we teach.
Save the date! My next live, online teacher training, Sequencing for the Nervous System is coming up Oct. 21.
• Help students use yoga specifically to improve their mental health
• Gain a deeper understanding of the logic and science behind it
• Craft sequences that have a profound, intentional effect on the nervous system