There's a saying: "This affects me on so many levels."
When a person says this it is a signal that there are multi-dimensional cause and effect aspects to whatever is happening. An example would be a combination of personal, relational, economic and political levels that someone is dealing with.
In other words, it's complicated.
In yoga training we also utilize levels. Beginner, intermediate and advanced, to name a few basic variations. Levels are used to guide students to appropriate classes - the right class for each student's skillset. This being so, you would think that these class level descriptions would all adhere to the same standards, like a common language that is used by all yoga teachers, students and studios everywhere.
However, this isn't true. For example, a beginner class in one studio might actually be better described as an intermediate class in another studio. A teacher could describe her class as advanced but another teacher would describe the same class as intermediate. And yet, the reality is that every group class (2 or more people) is multi-level, even in the most advanced class that you can imagine.
Those who have trained with me in Yoga Dharma have heard my comments about this - actually, more like musings on the topic. Describing a class level and the skills required to participate in it are often determined by the studio or school that hires the teacher but I feel that it's the teacher and the students she attracts who are the real determining factors as to what the true class level is.
For example, a teacher could offer a class for beginners but the day and time of the class attracts more experienced students than true beginners. The teacher then has to decide - should she teach foundation skills only as advertised or could she offer additional skills that are a little more complex and challenging for the students that attend this class every week? If she is responding to her experienced students, her beginner class will begin to morph into something else that is harder to describe.
The other alternative is an all levels class.
An all levels class opens the door to the possibility of having beginners, including those with significant movement or learning challenges, along side experienced students who have fewer obvious challenges but who desire to learn more techniques for practice. Mr. Iyengar was a brilliant master of these kinds of teaching situations - he knew how to build up the beginners and challenge everybody else in the same class.
Even though it is daunting, teaching an all levels drop-in format class is a fantastic training ground for strengthening a teacher. If the teacher can learn to gracefully handle all the variations and the unpredictability, she'll become wise in ways that can't be easily duplicated in teacher training.
When I studied with Judith Lasater in San Francisco she had two levels only. Level One was an open door to all students, including inexperienced beginners (students with no yoga training at all). Level Two was a class for experienced students who had trained for several years. The way you initiated the process of getting permission for level two was to attend level one - after observing a student at level one, she would say yes or no to attending level two. Everyone who studied with her went through level one, no exceptions. It was a very clear policy.
The first year I attended level one even though I had two years of training in NYC with an excellent teacher. Level one was a large class and I learned that many had been there for years. Nobody felt held back. It was a level of study that methodically strengthened us and was a friendly, joyous class.
During one class we were working on jumping with two legs into full arm balance at the wall. This skill is not a typical beginner skill but Judith must have felt that some of us were strong enough to attempt it. She gave a variety of choices to us - some would try this jump into the pose with two legs while others would happily concentrate on Down Dog. I was ready and I managed to do it. After that class she invited me to Level Two.
The next week I went to the level two class. It was equally friendly but in a quieter way. As I looked around I could see some Yoga Journal 'models', students whose pictures appeared in Yoga Journal, the print magazine. I also saw students who obviously had physical challenges - when they weren't in the postures you might think they were beginners who had landed in the wrong class but when you saw them in asana, their practice was clearly advanced. Their postures were executed with discernment, intelligence and precision. When they modified a pose to suit their personal needs, it was fascinating to observe. They might not reach the end point of a pose but what they did do was beautiful.
I studied at level two for another year and then moved back to NYC. I learned so much from this experience with Judith and it continues to inform many of my practice and professional orientations today.
There really is a difference between experienced, well-trained yoga practitioners and those who are beginning the training. One Indian teacher said, "The first 10 years are the beginner years" and I agree with his statement. However, one level is not superior to the other.
To be a beginner is to participate in the most difficult level, actually. It is ironic to me that beginner implies easy when, in fact, to learn the ground rules of any complex skill is challenging and requires education, practice and patience.
This new year I am playing with describing my classes in a new way. I only teach 2 public classes per week. If I use Judith Lasater's approach, Level One will be on Fridays and Level Two on Tuesdays. And, yet, my personal inclination is to not use the word level at all. Wish me luck.