Progress in Yoga: What to Expect

If you’re an Instagrammer you’ll likely have seen the hundreds of beautiful ‘progress update’ photos from some of the most followed Instagram-yogis out there. They usually show two beautifully lit, well-put-together posed photos showing just how much ‘progress’ the yogi has made in a particular pose over the last few months or years. Some of these photos show a remarkable difference in poses such as Natarajasana (lord of the dance) or Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (king pigeon). It’s easy to see the progress: how close is their foot to their head? Can they ‘flip their grip’? etc etc.

Other poses, however, it may be much harder to see the difference, particularly when the yogis posting these photos seemed to have a perfectly good forward fold in the ‘back then’ photo and it seems to be just as perfect in the ‘now’ photo. Yet they felt they had seen enough progress in this pose to make a post about it and shout about it to their thousands of followers on social media.

So, what do we mean when we talk about progress in yoga? And what about the rest of us? The ‘normal’ yoga practitioners, (and I mean ‘normal’ in the loose way it is generally used, none of us are actually normal and that’s a wonderful thing) but what can we expect in the way of progress in our practice, and how should we measure it?

These photos are a year apart, there are some slight improvements in the physical form, but is that really what we're aiming for?

I was in a private class this week when my client, who is new to yoga, asked me ‘how long until I can touch my toes?’. It’s a common, and a difficult question to be asked as a yoga teacher, and one that really makes me think that these Instagram progress photos might actually be doing more harm than good. Yes, it can be inspiring for beginner, or even more advanced yogis to see how their alignment can change if they dedicate themselves to a daily practice, but is ‘looking perfect’ in a pose really why we are practising yoga? Shouldn’t real progress be measured not by how we look, but how we feel in a pose? Every single human is different. We are all beautifully unique in so many ways, and in particular how our body is built; how long our bones are, our muscle make-up, the length and elasticity of our tendons and ligaments. To quote a fabulous book called “Your Body, Your Yoga” by Bernie Clark: “There is no pose in yoga that everyone can do, and no one can do every pose”. What is more important than creating a perfect shape with your body, is creating a shape with your body which works the body in such a way that it creates a stronger, more flexible and healthier version of that body; to create a pose that makes you feel good, unblocks unwanted tension and negative energy and leaves you feeling refreshed and happy.

For some, creating a ‘picture-perfect’ image might be what makes them happy, which is fine, but if you’re truly looking to practice yoga for the physical and mental benefits, then pushing yourself into a position which your body might not be designed to make, is only going to cause injury in the long run.

So, if you’re not planning on taking photos of yourself during every practice, how can you measure your progress in yoga, or more importantly, what should you expect as a beginner?  As I mentioned, a lot of it is going to be how you feel. That might be why when looking at a ‘progress update’ photo on social media it might seem like there’s not progress at all (the aforementioned forward-fold being an example); it’s actually how the person feels in the pose which is the progress, rather than their position. I responded to my client about touching his toes “you could probably touch them today if we spent a couple of hours working on it, but it would probably hurt and maybe even injure you. Instead, we want to practice in such a way that when you are able to touch your toes, it feels natural and comfortable”.

If you’re a beginner yogi it’s important to create an awareness within yourself of how your body feels. What hurts, what feels tight, what feels strong, how does your breath feel when you practice (long and deep or short and ragged?), how do you feel in the hours, or days, after a yoga class? The more awareness you create, the easier it will be for you to recognise improvements as you go along. Flexibility and strength take time, and progress can be months and years, rather than days or weeks, but the more in tune you are with your body, the more likely it will be that you notice the physical and mental benefits of yoga much quicker than without that awareness. Focus on small improvements, like softer, more controlled breathing in downward-facing-dog, instead of trying to touch your heels to the ground, which might take years (I’m four years and counting!!).

Let’s just be clear: this is not an easy route. The practice of yoga is a life-long journey and one which never ends. We will always be learning, and our flexibility and strength will change throughout the years of our life, and even from one hour to the next in a single day. What you can do today you might not be able to do tomorrow; and accepting this as a practice is far more important and valuable to how you live the rest of your life than whether you can touch your toes or not.