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Making Progress in Yoga

Well hi! It’s been a looooooong time since I’ve written a proper blog post. It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been fortunate enough to have received some paid writing assignments for articles on the subject of yoga philosophy and yoga practices like pranayama and meditation over the last several months. And now, with a little break in those writing assignments, I’m back here and very happy to spend some time reinvigorating this blog. 

Just a few days ago I sat down to gather up everything I need for my accountant to do my taxes. It dawned on me just how wild a year it has been. I have undertaken some serious life changes, complete with lots of deep soul searching and big moves in relationships and in my work. As I looked back over last year and started gazing forward to what’s coming in the year ahead, the concept of making progress took up some real estate in my mind.

Are we making progress in yoga?

How do we know?

I sat for an almost embarrassingly long time considering this question. It was a real time experience of what the internet tells me is the wisdom of Aristotle:

“The more you know about something, the more you realize how much you really don’t know.”

Of course the philosophy nerd in me cannot let this incorrectly attributed quote slide. It seems this “the more you know…” misquote is a mix up with when according to Plato, Socrates said: “I know only one thing, and that is I know nothing.” What Aristotle actually wrote (and I’m paraphrasing this one) is that all things are knowable but sometimes we get overwhelmed by how much there is left to learn.

That actually makes me feel a bit better considering I’ve been practicing yoga since 1999 -  25 years! - and if my yoga teaching career were a person, she would be eligible to vote in the upcoming election. As frustrating as it is that I was struggling with how to explain what it means to make progress in yoga, I could at least reassure myself that it was simply a moment of overwhelm at how much left there is to learn. 

Nonetheless I was still fixated on answering my own question. Like one does when they are stuck, I turned to Google and looked up the definition of progress. Google's dictionary told me progress is "forward or onward movement toward a destination." But that definition created more confusion than it cleared up. According to this definition, there needs to be a destination.


What is the destination of yoga? 

Is there even a destination in yoga at all? 

Across all styles and schools of thought, it is agreed that the destination of yoga is freedom. Freedom from what is where the real juicy debates arise. 

Some of the texts argue that we need to be freed from the confines of the physical body.

Others try to convince us that we need to find freedom from the ever churning fluctuations of our mind.

Still other texts advocate that we work to be free of the unpredictability of our emotions.

Some yoga schools tell us that our desires are the chains that hold us down.

But if we can get out of the weeds on these points, it’s clear that the end game of yoga is to alleviate suffering.

Is progress to freedom from suffering in the poses?

What are the markers of progress on the way to liberation from suffering?

As is sometimes the case, defining something by what it is not can come more easily than defining something by what it is. This is a classic philosophical device known as apophasis. For example, in yoga philosophy the texts of the Sāṃkhya school take great pains to identify everything that is not part of pure awareness or consciousness - known as prakṛti - in order to explain what is - puruṣa

You've probably already heard the story about my many years long quest for a middle-of-the-room handstand. The short end is that when I finally was able to do it, nothing magical happened. I had finally "arrived" at my so-called destination and that was it. I was just there. I could do a handstand without the wall. No instant enlightenment, as I often quip. 

Joking aside, I had worked really hard for a long time to “get” this pose and the corresponding disappointment that nothing special happened when I made it there was a deep and unsettling feeling.

By all accounts there was progress in achieving this handstand. I had a goal, I worked towards it, and I got there. I couldn’t do the pose and then I could. The common sentiment seems to be that progress is a positive experience. It’s something to be celebrated and pursued. So why was I so disheartened when I achieved my handstand goal if that was truly a mark of desirable progress?

I know now it was because my intentions were misplaced. Back then, I thought that if I could do a really impressive handstand, I would finally be a legitimate yogi. I sincerely thought that my physical capacity to perform this pose would alleviate my feelings of imposter syndrome self-doubt.

Part of this is because I grew up in a yoga school that celebrated the ability to do very hard poses while making them look easy. While no one explicitly said if you can do a particular pose, you will be a more worthy human, that did seem to be the undercurrent.

I want to acknowledge the feelings of empowerment that can come from knowing you can do hard things. There is a sense of satisfaction in the accomplishment of working towards something difficult and then executing it skillfully, especially when you have to work at something over a long period of time.

I’m not being cheeky or sarcastic when I tell you it will make you feel like a badass to be able to do a peacock pose (mayūrāsana, if you are keeping track of the Sanskrit) on the edge of a table, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did in this photo from back in 2013.

If you have been working towards a particular pose - your equivalent of the middle-of-the-room handstand - and working in that direction makes you feel inspired, motivated, and satisfied with how far you’ve come, please don’t stop doing that work.

Also. Let me be as clear about what I am always trying to communicate with my students: 

Your ability to do a pose has nothing to do with your worthiness as a yoga practitioner.

Your ability to do a pose has nothing to do with your worthiness as a human. 

Furthermore, we can’t really consider our ability to do a pose that we couldn’t before as a mark of our progress because what about all of those poses you used to be able to but can’t do anymore? Does that mean you are no longer making progress in yoga?

Is it about alignment in the poses?

Do we relieve suffering when we can do the right alignment of our body in the poses?

Just before Christmas I wasn’t feeling well at all. I was on the verge of losing my voice, I had a wicked cough and after one of my kids came home from school with a fever, I started seriously lamenting illness. “I don’t have time to be sick right now!” I grumped. My oldest reprimanded me in his classic deadpan: “You are not a machine, mom.”

It can be really tempting to engage with our body as if it is a machine. And as a student once pointed out to me, there are machines in our lives that we treat better than our body sometimes!

Playing with biomechanical principles of the body in yoga poses is not unlike exploring how a machine works. Understanding how our body works - which muscles and connective tissues interact with which bones and joints, exploring how we engage or release in specific ways, connecting our attention with action in the physical form - can keep our bodies from feeling pain and discomfort.

You used to be in pain when you did a certain thing, then you learn something about how to position your body and now you are pain-free. Progress, right?

The body has an incredible amount of innate wisdom. There are messages for us in our body that we can tune into as we explore moving in the direction of a particular shape or position. This is the kind of alignment that is the most supportive in yoga posture practice.

“Correct” alignment in a pose isn’t about the angle of your knee or the degree of rotation in your spine. There is a difference between external alignment where we match the shape of our body to some idealized version of a pose and inner alignment where we explore the shapes of postures that allow for a more free flow of energy. 

However, I don’t even think the mark of progress in yoga is in the inner alignment of the pose.

There's a better question!

Here comes the mic drop…

A few weekends ago I unexpectedly reconnected with a beautiful soul named Laura Banks. She facilitated one of the most impactful programs I've ever taken called Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT.) It was an international group of total strangers and under Laura’s expert facilitation, we formed deep and powerful connections as we explored our personal relationship with compassion. 

In our final session of that training, one participant offered a compelling reflection on the practices of self-compassion we were learning. She shared that she had been so focused on healing from her traumas, making so-called progress, that she wasn't being truly present for herself today. She felt like she was constantly working for the next best thing. "Am I not already enough? Have I not done enough?" She asked us all hypothetically. 

Recollecting this moment sealed the deal for me. 

Yoga in all of its forms, with all of its techniques, is a tool for accessing self-compassion for today’s version of ourselves. If we want to experience freedom from our suffering - physical, mental, emotional, interpersonal - we do it by saying yes to the repeated invitations yoga offers us to come into relationship with ourselves with more presence, more self-awareness, and more compassion.

Yoga is about being exactly as we are in this moment with curiosity and allowances for the shifts and changes that will most certainly occur. This may or may not look like forward movement. 

It’s not even about whether or not we feel like we are suffering more or less. 

Turns out my original question about how we know we are making progress in yoga isn’t even the question I want to answer.

What I really want to know is this:

How do we use yoga to say YES to ourselves?

If you are ready to reconsider what it means to make progress in yoga...

If you are ready to say yes to yourself...

If you are ready to be inspired and empowered whether or not you can "do" fancy poses....

Join me on the mat so we can explore together!

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