I have taken classes in three styles of karate. In all three styles, students began as white belts and with time and practice progressed through multiple color belts to become black belts. In one set of classes, I was part of a large group of students who began as white belts at the same time. All of us aspired to become black belts and would talk before and after class about the different stances and advanced skills we saw the other belts practicing. One evening as we were leaving class, one of the students came across a black belt someone had left rolled up on a bench when he went to change. The student picked up the black belt and commented how easy it would be to take off his white belt and become an instant black belt. Much to his chagrin, the top instructor, a high-level black belt who had spent over 30 years practicing karate, walked in right at that moment. He stared silently at the student for over a minute then quietly said that if the student wanted a belt that was black that badly, he could just dye the white belt he was wearing and be done with it. If he wanted to be a true black belt, he would have to earn it. The next week he gave a short talk about the meaning of the belts, how they symbolized the learning process and the skills learned at each level, and how a belt without the process of learning was meaningless. I appreciated his distinction between the outer trappings of accomplishment and the process that brings one to it.

At HAYC we have levels as opposed to ranks or belts, but the purpose is to group people of like skills to teach concepts in manageable poses and for safety. Though upper level poses may be more physically challenging, the process of doing the poses is what is considered important. So someone who is naturally flexible or can balance easily in handstand is no more advanced than someone who cannot do the same poses with the same physical ease. Whether you can touch your toes or do a handstand is not as important as the practice of the poses.

When you have done yoga poses for several years, chances are you have practiced some poses hundreds if not thousands of times. This can be seen as boring repetition, or it can be viewed as the chance to find something new. Our bodies feel very different in the morning than they feel in the evening and they change hour by hour, and minute by minute. If you watch your breath, you will notice that even each breath is a little different than the previous breath. It may be a different length, the ratio of inhalation to exhalation may change, or your breath may flow to different places in your lungs. If you explore each pose with the idea that it is new and different because you have slightly changed since the last time you did the pose, there is always something new to explore. The fun part is that you never know what you will find. You may find you are more flexible or stronger than you expected to be, that you have more or less patience with a pose, or that your mind is particularly focused or active that day. Though yoga poses can increase in difficulty, what is learned cannot be quantified and compared; each of us will have our own experiences.

It is the ability to practice and to experience our practice day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year that is the true yoga. When we begin to experience our lives with the same focus, curiosity and awareness as we do when we practice our poses, we become true yoga practitioners.