Coming into a yoga class for the very first time is intimidating for many students. There are new words to learn, new people to meet, a new environment, and a lot of vulnerability. Often, there is a mindset that they must "be good at" the postures.
In my early years of practicing and studying Hatha Yoga, I encountered the idea that there are four stages of learning Yoga. In some traditions the four stages are used to describe the learning of asanas or postures. In others it is used to describe the stages of learning pranayama (breathing exercises.) In yet other traditions, these four stages are used to describe the process through which the yogi is absorbed into "nada" or sound vibration during meditation.
I found these stages extremely helpful and I would like to share them with you! Please remember that these stages are not something to be achieved. They are simply a model for how the process of yoga generally unfolds. Making these stages your goal is not the way.
Stage 1: ARAMBHAVASTHA
In the first stage, postures are practiced at the level of anatomy alone. Students focus on understanding the basic nature of the posture - its shapes and movements, without losing themselves in the finer details. They work with the physical body (strength and flexibility) to attain stability and comfort within the posture. This provides a strong foundation that will allow a deepening of practice over time. This stage is important and should not be hurried through.
Stage 2: GHATAVASTHA
In this stage, the body is under control and students now attempt to still the mind and practice the postures with a greater level of observation. They use the mind to touch every part of the body. A greater sense of focus means cultivating awareness when it comes to the breath, muscles, and alignment/orientation of the body. At this stage students learn to bring their awareness to the internal flow of energy. They give greater attention to the breath, actively cultivating and managing their life force energy (prana) within the shape of the posture. Practice begins to take on a more reflective and meditative tone.
Stage 3: PARICHAYAVASTHA
This is the stage of intimate knowledge, when the mind brings the body in touch with one's intelligence. Wisdom/intelligence and the body become one. Breath, body and mind are functioning together as one dynamic entity. Our innate wisdom gives us deeper insight into consciousness and greater self-knowledge. Before students can attain this stage, there must be a recognition of the trappings of the intelligence, namely the ego. In this case ego refers to the collection of stories that create our unique identities in the embodied state.
Stage 4: NISHPATYAVASTHA
This stage introduces the atman, the eternal, infinite, unchanging soul. This is the stage of liberation - where the mind, body and soul are experienced as one. At this stage, the postures are like an effortless, moving, dynamic meditation. Once we have traveled through the various layers of our being (physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and wisdom layers) and established harmony within, the "anandamaya kosha," the bliss or divine body awakens, allowing the spiritual self to radiate throughout our entire being.
Progression through these various stages comes automatically, albeit gradually, with committed and sustained practice. An impatient student cannot experience any of these stages through occasional practice. Care should be taken in the observance of the Yamas and Niyamas (the ethical principles of yoga.)
I hope this is model serves as a helpful guide to helping you understand the stages of yogic learning! Feel free to comment or ask questions. I look forward to seeing you in class.