I was a sprinter and a long jumper in high school. In track practices and meets, the goal was always to sprint faster and jump farther. When you made progress, the evidence was absolute, even if you’d only beaten your last personal best by a tenth of a second or a half inch.
After high school, the sports I engaged in—bike commuting and hiking—were not so easily quantified. Still, I often compared my “performance” to the last one: How long did it take me to get from Point A to Point B? Did I tire out more or less quickly this time? How well did I keep up with my hiking partner? And so on.
So What is “Progress” Anyway?
Yoga asana being a physical practice, I approached it the same way early on because this is the paradigm I’d grown up with—as have most of us. We look for results in the form of how far the body can move, compared to the person on the next mat and compared to our last practice. When I first started asana practice in 1982, touching my toes in a forward bend was but a dream. Six months in, my inborn flexibility had returned and I was nose-on-floor in seated forward bends. Progress, right?
If you approach asana practice from our familiar Western paradigm, you could definitely interpret it as progress. But as I came to find out over the years, the concept of progress is a completely different animal in yogic thought. I came to find out that progress in yogic terms was not the continuous push to go deeper into poses—to rest my nose on the floor in forward bends, move ever higher in back bends or stay longer in inversions. Progress in yoga is exactly the opposite: to rest more deeply in the pose that you are already in, because this is where you find yoga’s greatest promise—the settled mind.
I often tell my students that there is not some pose somewhere out there in the future—one where you look more like the bendy gymnast types that post on Instagram—that’s better than the one you are in now. The pose you are in now is, in fact, the perfect pose for you in this moment. And since this moment is all we truly have, our choice is this: to wish it was different, and push to make it something different, or to relax into it right now just as it is.
When All Effort is Relaxed
Many people are familiar with the first of Patanjali’s three sutras about asana practice: 2.46: The physical posture should be steady and comfortable. The second one is not as familiar, but just as important. Sutra 2.47 says: [Asana] is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.
Hmmm. Nothing in there about rocking fancy poses or about pushing your edge. I think what Patanjali is suggesting is to relax into where we are right now. In releasing effort, we cease doing the pose. When we cease doing the pose, we are free to be the pose. If the definition of yoga is “the settling of the mind into silence” (sutra 1.2), then to go deeper in the yogic definition is to cease struggling against what is and to instead settle into the vast peacefulness that is available in each moment when we stop struggling. It doesn’t matter whether the asana you’re practicing is active and challenging or quiet and restorative. Can you relax into the truth of this pose, right now?
Of course, as Western yogis the competitive paradigm is deeply woven into our conditioning. It takes time to rewire that pattern so that we can begin to practice yoga asana from a completely different intention. That process is another challenge we can relax into—the truth that the pattern of struggling and striving still has power, and probably will for a while. But that is what is present. Relax into it.
Be patient and kind to yourself. After three decades of meditation practice, I can attest to the fact that the mind is even more stubborn about changing its habits than the body is. With patience and softness around the process, your experience of what it means to go deeper in yoga will evolve. Meanwhile, enjoy the present process, because that’s all there is.