We all want to see visible, quantifiable progress in yoga practice. This is the predominent question regarding our yoga practice; am I getting better or not?
Indeed, if the answer is no, there can be no rational reason as to why we are keeping on. It makes no sense on a material level as to why we would do something that doesn’t lead to a similarly obvious, that is to say goal of embellishing ourselves somehow.
Which, is indeed, quite the opposite case with the deeper dimension of yoga. It is the very project of being able to give up the hope of a better future – the, wholly irrational belief that we are working through desire towards somewhere in the future where it will all work out. On the other hand, if we deny hope and its tenets of progress and development in a sense that we can agree on, see and discuss, it’s hard to see how yoga might be worth doing, how yoga might make us happy, when it doesn’t promise adding anything extra to our current state, rather taking it away.
We may know we’re not satisfied in living through desire, but why dispense with the source of a little hope and pleasure, for a complete unknown in yoga.
Moreover, a method of achieving clarity that on a preliminary level, at least, is exactly what we spend all our time trying to avoid. For, we would rather not see clearly, that for the individual-self we are so attached to, our progress can only go so far.
This is where the myth of progress derives its value, in keeping us motivated in life to carry on living with the vigour, interest, dynamism that life requires from us. In which case, yoga makes use of this general myth also, the important difference is that it expects a graduation from the myth to the admittance of the true order of ourselves and reality.
But, at first, it is quite instrumental that a bridge is created between the goal of yoga that does not even accept the separate individual-self that could achieve anything in the first place, and where we currently are with assuming life to be about a most evident progress of this same ‘self’.
The idea of progress is then the stepping stone between ‘regular’ life and yoga. For practice to happen to dissolve our source of suffering in our perceived separation in the individual, there needs, at first, to be a perceived goal worth aiming for, for this individual.
Yoga may ultimately promise a final resolution to our troubles in the peace that prevails in the absence of self, but we are found most unwilling to consider this as a reasonable aim at first.
Rather, we need to be coaxed into it slowly, through the integration of a number of methods in yoga that finally transform the outlook of the practitioner. In this way, we all come for one thing with yoga – a more obvious aim, and end up (if the method has worked) with something we never, originally, would have hoped for.
This is done through a yoga-method that comprises a whole range of techniques that serve to build an alternate structure within which to conceive the world.
Having generated an alternative ‘support’ for our experiencing; one which is not based on the unstable foundations of the individual self, we can let go of this more unsatisfactory one.
All these methods, however, have to be based on familiar ideas at first to be understood to the degree that they can be entertained, furthermore, grasped in a way that they can be begun at all.
To this end, we have in Patanjalis’ Yoga Sutras an initial structure of quite measurable, pragmatic, standards to start work with. We have terms and concepts, things that we can make effort to achieve in the assumption that simply a better version of what we already know will be made available through yoga.
Indeed, in the Ashtanga Yoga of Pattabhi Jois we also have, along with a whole range of his aphorisms; ‘practice and all is coming’. Perhaps, this is indeed purposefully vague – we are not told exactly what is coming.
Nevertheless, it still suggests to a mind that cannot look outside its only self-affirming structure of perceiving, that a greater pleasure in the way we know already, indeed, for the being we ‘know’, will shortly be forthcoming. However, at some point, indeed, hopefuly sooner rathe than later, it ought to be acknowledged in the practice of yoga its unimaginably more radical intentions.
This is where the myth of progress serves a dual function – efficient as far as it gets us into practice, but unhelpful, even catastrophic at the same time. It offers yet another source of distraction in the hopes that yoga will satisfy the individual in a way that material-life, perhaps, hasn’t’.
On the other hand, yoga is really the further problematisation of this individual structure, and in this, its hoped-for dissolution somewhere down the path as a way of experiencing life.
Here, it doesn’t need to be said that yoga is an inner-journey, this worn out cliché is more than familiar to us most probably. Yet, in it lies the root of the endemic mistake to practice; that the individual, ego self, will be further strengthened in this journey, in contrast to the journey towards a quite different perception of life outside what this personal self my gain, accomplish out of it.
Even so, how does this align with our intent on making physical progress in yoga as part of our practice? Indeed, the postures demand an exertion of effort to be made, moreover, the series of Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga promote this idea of achievement.
This paradox is not usually given much thought; quite understandable when we acknowledge that the mind cannot think about its’ own non-existence. Instead, we can only think in the positive; as to what may be actively done, added, achieved.
Then there is the idea that progress only means something in the struggle and effort expended; that through facing our challenges and seeking to overcome them we attain a deeper understanding of ourselves. Whilst this is not inherently untrue, it’s highly unlikely if we don’t, at some point in building our framework of yoga through practice, generate the strength and context enough to let go of this old structure of the ‘individual self’ and its ‘journey’.
Yoga, to be worthy of the definition, is seeking to help us abandon the need for the myth of progress, through developing instead the wish for clarity. Its only desire is to allow us the strength to honestly look at life as it is. At which point, the material conclusion having been reached, the internal-conclusions can be drawn by the now yogi.
In contrast, the opposite seems to happen so often. For, it’s all too easy to re-confirm the familiar boundaries of obstruction and achievement that present the conventional structure of the world to the individual ego-self.
Strangely enough, we are further ‘ingrained’ in the fiction of this separate self and its progress when continuously exert the effort in pushing against our limitations that progress in yoga apparently demands. Here, we experience small moments of breakthrough that offer the glimmer of something that keeps us going, making all this effort at pushing appear to be leading somewhere.
It is in this manner that yoga is incorporated into our conventional attitudes to life. We seek for the constant obstacle to push against assuming that the resolution of the sense of lack this sets-up lies on the other side of the next obstacle.
However, as we have already mentioned, if there is no ‘understandable’ aim in progress (that is, rational, meaning something that makes sense in the world and to others), then yoga practice is seen as absurd and we would never start and maintain it.
Indeed, this does demand a great deal of effort, discipline, in other words pushing ourselves. The hope is, however, that the hidden-face of yoga will, at a point, reveal itself when we are ready for it.
Having been convinced of a more conventionally understandable way to commence with our practice, yoga technique ought to facilitate a refining of our perception through the means of settling and aligning the very energy of the body. For, it is here that we are provided the light in which to see it is clarity that we are seeking in the absence of any reasonable idea of material progress.
It is the trick of the practice, where the wish for progress gradually transforms itself, the emphasis of effort dramatically shifting in its focus although the obvious, literal look of what one is doing may remain unchanged.
For this reason, it may seem safe enough to assume that we ought not to concern ourselves too much, along the Pattabhi Jois lines of ‘practice and all is coming’.
Yoga Works In It’s Own Way
Yoga will do its job on us; we will slowly turn within, wish to simply live life in all honesty over the myth of progress. We at least know this much of yoga philosophy that we ought not to be using yoga as one more method of self-definition, ego, yet, this is almost inescapable, it seems.
It is hard to fathom how our pushing for progress, albeit using yoga techniques, will then naturally transmute into its opposite if this is the sole resource we have at our disposal.
This then requires, in fact, makes absolutely essential, the use of the yamas/niyamas as most practical tools in daily life for self-inquiry. They must be used to inform and guide our formal yoga-practice, otherwise it will never make the leap it needs to from a kind of exotic gymnastics to something quite other.
If this is the case, the original ‘stabilising’ effect of asana will be understood and further sought after, as opposed to the actually destabilising attempt at pushing against our limitations. In this, once progress in asana has been defined as steadiness, and our aim as clarity, in the light of this new view, it becomes self-evident that our happiness is found through the letting-go of the fictitious ego-self and its constant struggles in the idea of ‘progress’, not the attempt to arrive at an imagined end to this progress.
For, indeed, there is no end. Something we say we know all, but, all to clearly, don’t often manage to really accept. Because, in the struggle against our obstacles in order, in a perverse kind of way, we are distracted from our lack of need to struggle, indeed, the ultimately ambiguous and ephemeral nature of experience.
For, in constantly perceiving our limitations, we are re-habituated and made comfortable in our boundaries avoiding the fear that is our underlying enemy.
To conclude then, the difficulty with the myth of progress, even though it gets us started and motivates us at the most familiar level we need when we begin, is that it actually leads us in the opposite direction of yoga if it isn’t seen through. Which, indeed, it most often isn’t.
This attitude of pushing in our practice, relating to it upon the familiar lines of material-life we are used to, as if it is the same worldly kind of thing, is a profound obstacle modern yoga faces. The idea that yoga will allow us to achieve for us personally something we are lacking, not only confirms the idea back to us that we are indeed lacking, but distracts us from the more careful work required.
It only ends up encouraging our own familiar sense of who we are and what we imagine would benefit us, setting up the precedent of turning our focus away from ourselves in trying to achieve some outcome that makes rational, that is, material sense.
In contrast, clarity can never be the result of distraction. This means the end of yoga can never be achieved, if practice is the attempt at adding to an unconsidered, but perceived as lacking state.
In other words, that yoga is the process of learning or achieving something, rather than giving something up that was never really real, ours in the beginning. I would finally suggest in this case, that it is in the use of the yamas/niyamas as providing the context, or literal structure for practice, that will, if thoughtfully applied, result in our ability to relate to the asana for stability and clarity and not a more obvious sense of progress.
Yet, if the context and framework is not created carefully enough, if Patanjalis whole perspective in the 8 limbs don’t function inter-dependently as they ought, we will remain, quite futilely, on the ‘yoga-treadmill’.
Unfortunately, this is only to make yoga a further, extra sufferance in life as if it doesn’t involve enough challenges already. We may punish ourselves in yoga, push against that familiar, invisible enemy, once again, to no avail. Instead, practice must transcend to a level beyond progress, wherein, to the onlooker our intent is, as we mentioned in the beginning, quite non-sensical.
In this aim, there is nothing to get, nothing more or better to be, nevertheless, the true student of yoga keeps up his effort to going nowhere, or, more intriguingly put, the peace of becoming no one with nowhere to go.