I’m sometimes asked “So, how do I know when I’ve progressed in yoga?” “Am I doing it properly?” “Am I getting better?”.
Gosh, where to start? Well, I believe that it’s not for me to judge a person’s progress – it’s for that individual practitioner to feel and reflect upon.
However, I can give my personal reflection on what progress means to me. So here it is!
What is progress?
On the face of it, you might assume you know when you’ve progressed in your yoga practice when you can touch your toes when you couldn’t before, or you can hold Downward-Facing Dog for 10 breaths, whereas you used to feel like collapsing in a heap after barely one.
Or maybe when you notice your core feels stronger or your hamstrings seem longer.
Or maybe when you can safely and comfortable achieve a headstand (though, for the record, this isn’t something I practice.)
Yes, that’s a sign you’re physically stronger and more flexible.
But is that a sign you’re progressing your yoga practice? Well, it depends on why you’re practising. If you’re purely looking to improve your physical flexibility and strength then yes, you could say you’ve progressed.
But yoga isn’t just about the body. That’s not how or why I practice it, or how I teach it.
For me, yoga is as much about how I am off the yoga mat, than what I do on the mat, although the two are completely interconnected.
Yoga connects me to my body and helps me release tension before it gets gnarled up in my muscles, tissues and joints and makes me cranky and inflexible.
Yoga connects me to my breath so I can breathe in life and energy, and breathe out whatever is not good for me and is holding me back.
Yoga connects me to my emotions so I can appreciate that they are fleeting and can change at a drop of a pin, enabling me to stand back and observe then and not get pulled in and drowned in the whirlpool.
Yoga connects me to my mind on a deeper level; to the intuition and wisdom which instinctively knows what is good and true.
Yoga connects me. Full stop. It connects me to a sense of a delicate web of association which links all living beings. And it connects me to a sense of a universal flow of energy, light, healing and wisdom which is eternal.
So, to approach progress in yoga just on the physical level is to miss out on a whole wealth, depth and beauty of layers of experience.
Yoga isn’t simply a journey from A to B: from being stressed to relaxed; from stiff to flexible; from weak to strong. Maybe you practise yoga because you want those things. And that’s fine.
But yoga will gradually reveal different layers of experiencing your body, your mind and your spirit.
Taking yoga off the mat
The ancient wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras teach us that there are Eight Limbs to yoga practice which affect all areas of our life:
- Ethics (in Sanskrit, Yama) – ethical standards by which to live life with integrity: non-violence; truthfulness; non-stealing; moderation; non-grasping.
- Observances (Niyama) – ways to bring a practice of self-discipline into your life: purity / cleanliness; contentment; austerity; study; surrender; and non-attachment.
- Body work (Asana) – which we practice through yoga poses and sequences. These enable you to strengthen your body and increase flexibility, and to encourage the ability to concentrate, which are needed to practice the remaining limbs.
- Breath control (Pranayama) – techniques to learn to work with our breath enjoy the benefits which come when we can control our breathing e.g. to re-energize or to calm our mind and body.
- Withdrawal or control of the senses (Pratyahara) – making a conscious decision and effort to withdraw our focus from the external sensory world, for example, as we practise yoga postures and notice every sensation which arises within our body and mind or in the relaxation at the end of a yoga class, we are withdrawing our senses and letting our mind and bodies relax.
- Concentration (Dharana) – where we move away from physical practices and move inwards. We practise stilling the mind by concentrating on a single object, for example, a candle flame, our breath. Or washing up, cleaning your teeth, or cooking. Bring a single-pointed focus to what you are doing in the here and now.
- Meditation (Dhyana) – where we contemplate; an uninterrupted flow of stillness in our mind.
- Bliss, or connection to the divine / higher consciousness(Samadhi) – where we transcend our sense of body and individual mind and realize inter-connectedness with all beings and consciousness and experience a boundless sense of peace.
This is my approach to yoga. I endeavour to I live yoga; to bring all of those aspects into my life every day as a way of life. I wish to live a rich, full, life with meaning, understanding, connection and authenticity.
So I don’t attach a sense of progress to my yoga practice in the traditional, judgmental sense.
For me, it’s not about an accumulation of practices, skills, time or knowledge.
I would go as far as to say that perhaps you “know” you’ve progressed in yoga when you realize you “know” nothing. That life is all change and all we can control is how we act, breathe and think.
So, I would counsel you that when you are in a state of awe, wonder and curiosity about life, your body, your emotions, your connection with others and all living things, you know you are experiencing yoga.
Progress? Maybe that’s over-rated…
What do you think?
Do you agree? Or is this not how you experience yoga? I’d love to hear!
Also see “How do YOU practise yoga?”
I’m Stella Tomlinson and I teach slow, flowing Dru yoga in Southampton & Eastleigh (Hampshire, UK) to improve posture, flexibility, spinal health … and to help people to get to know themselves.
Dru yoga is characterised by graceful movements, directed breathing, relaxation techniques and working with affirmations and visualisations.