adam keen ashtanga back bend

The Myth of Progress in Yoga

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 logically as to why we would do something that doesn’t lead towards the goal of embellishing ourselves somehow. Adding on to our state so as we might amend the sense of lack that keeps us wanting this progress.

However, the deeper dimension of yoga sees the whole thing in reverse. It is the very project of being able to give up the hopeof a better future – the,  wholly irrational belief that we are working towards somewhere where it will all work out. If we deny hope of progress and development it’s hard to see how yoga might be worth doing. If it doesn’t promise adding anything extra to our current state, nor make us happy in an obvious way; what the point of practice?

So, we need the idea of progress for a while.

We may not be satisfied in living through desire, but there is little reason why we should dispense with this for a complete unknown, yoga, until we are ready. Of course, when we see more clearly, the guiding force of our desires for the future is not necessary. But, before this, we need a method in order to arrive at this clarity. In which case, the aim of most visible and literal progress in asana is still a reasonable starting place.

This is where the myth of progress derives its value. It provides us with a motivation in life to carry on living with the vigour, interest, dynamism, until we find another reason to do so. At first, it acts as quite an instrumental bridge between the goal of yoga and where we’re at.

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 to want to begin.

Whilst making this progress the method is showing us something else

The student is led into yoga gradually. This is through techniques that utilise stability and steadiness as their foundation. With this achieved, our perspective on progress starts to shift.

All these methods, however, must be based on familiar ideas to be understood. It is only when we have stability, that we no longer need the familiar so much. We then may not need this progress – basically, if the present is found less lacking.

Indeed, in the Ashtanga Yoga of Pattabhi Jois ,we also find this idea that ‘practice and all is coming’.  This is purposefully vague. For the longer we practice, the less the goal matters and the more the practice becomes the focus. Indeed, practice for the sake of practice.

Hopefully then, sooner rather than later, yoga starts to reveal its more radical intentions. This is where the myth of progress serves a dual function. Efficient as far as it gets us to commit to practice, but unhelpful, even catastrophic, in that it may prevent us from going deeper. It offers yet another source of distraction in the hope.

The linear journey of progress ends up as the greatest obstacle

We don’t need to be reminded that yoga is an inner-journey. This worn out cliché is familiar to us. Yet, in it lies the root of the endemic mistake to practice. For the belief is still that the individual, ego self, will still be further strengthened in this journey; the journey still relates back to our conventional individual.

The journey is towards a quite different perception of life outside the notion of personal gain that defines the individual. This paradox is not usually reflected upon. Quite understandably, when we acknowledge that the mind cannot think about its’ own non-existence.

Yoga, is a kind of sorcery or trickery then. It helps us abandon the need for the myth of progress, through developing instead the wish for clarity through a taste of stability conveyed through its method. Its only desire is to allow us the strength to honestly look at life as it is.

In contrast, the opposite seems to happen so often. It’s all too easy to re-confirm the boundaries of obstruction and achievement that present the conventional structure of the world to the 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. 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.

We seek to push through

In this manner yoga is incorporated into our conventional attitudes to life. We seek for the constant obstacle to push against. We assume that the resolution of the sense of lack lies on the other side of the next obstacle.  

However, if there is no ‘understandable’ aim in progress then yoga practice is seen as absurd. 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 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 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 naturally transmute into its opposite. If this is the sole resource we have at our disposal.

This requires 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.

There is no end

For, indeed, there is no end. Something we say we know all, but, all to clearly, don’t often manage to really accept. In the struggle against our obstacles we are distracted from our lack of need to struggle. Indeed, the ultimately ambiguous and ephemeral nature of experience. In constantly perceiving our limitations, we are re-habituated and made comfortable in our boundaries. Thereby 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.

Finding Clarity

In contrast, clarity can never be the result of distraction. Thus 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. It is in the use of the yamas/niyamas as providing the context, or literal structure for practice, that will, result in our ability to relate to the asana for stability and clarity. Rather than a more obvious sense of progress.

Yet, if the context and framework is not created carefully enough, if Patanjali’s whole perspective in the 8 limbs don’t function inter-dependently as they ought, we will remain, quite futilely,  on the ‘yoga-treadmill’.

Don’t Make Yoga The Enemy

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.

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