In my private yoga sessions, clients are always wanting to know, "WHEN?"
When will their hips open up, when will they be able to touch their toes, when will they be more flexible, open, strong, etc. The funny thing is that they ARE more open, more flexible, more balanced and strong, than when we first started working together — they just don’t realize it.
Enter the role of a yoga teacher.
In yoga psychology, we talk about the importance of having a teacher for many reasons. Students often can’t see for themselves, the progress they have already made, for instance. We all tend to become so focused on the end goal — where we’re trying to get, what we’re trying to cultivate and how we aren’t “there” yet — that we often don’t notice just how far we’ve already come.
More so, it is important to remember that big changes just don't happen overnight. Small incremental changes take place every time you step onto your mat; so small that you may not even notice until maybe one day you’re magically deeper into a pose, without even realizing it. But as the teacher, I can see how much my students’ bodies have changed or their understanding or perspective has shifted — and I make it a point to tell them so as a reminder.
Sure, we all want to feel accomplished; to realize we’ve made progress, and to know that we are getting something out of the work we’re putting in. In our yoga practice, we often focus on the physical progress, committing ourselves to working on certain poses or gaining more strength or flexibility, and then feeling accomplished when we experience a breakthrough. But that is just one sliver of the growth to be had by practicing yoga regularly.
Yoga as a spiritual path is about cultivating our inner self as much as (or more than) our outer practice. It’s about balancing our inner and outer worlds — discovering our true selves so that we can act in integrity from our place of truth in everything that we do. The true measure of your yoga practice is not whether or not you can do more advanced postures, but how you treat others, as well as yourself — the kind of person you are and the life that you want to lead.
Asanas aside, here are five signs that you’ve already made progress on the path through your yoga practice, and deserve a pat on the back:
1. You feel and notice more.
The practice of yoga, whether it’s asana, pranayama, self-study or meditation, expands your awareness levels — you will feel and notice more. You’re more aware of the way your body feels in a pose and can make the appropriate adjustments, and you notice the subtle differences between the two sides of your body. You’re conscious of when thoughts and emotions arise, and you often catch yourself when you're not paying attention more readily. You’re more sensitive to the subtle shifts that take place throughout your practice, and rather than falling into unconscious patterns, you know what you’re doing and why, by making conscious choices in all aspects of your life.
2. You respond rather than react.
Rather than being jerked around by your reactions, you begin to choose your response to certain situations or triggers, more consciously. You’re less impulsive and more deliberate with your actions. On the mat, you choose to stay in the poses longer by taking a few more deep breaths, instead of exiting out of the pose the moment your conditioned mind tells you it’s too difficult. Working with the breath, you begin to recognize that you are indeed stronger than your mind will ever allow you to think.
3. You’re willing to be uncomfortable.
Along with holding the poses longer, you’re willing to take more risks on and off the mat. Perhaps when you first started, you weren’t ready to attend class solo, and now have no problem walking into a studio where you know no one. Or maybe the thought of going upside down scares you half to death, but now you’re willing to give it a try under the guidance of a trusted teacher. Through yoga, you become more familiar with being uncomfortable and are more willing to put yourself out there, by trying new things and standing firmly in your truth.
4. You’ve stopped judging yourself.
Well maybe not completely, but that critical inner voice isn’t quite as loud as it once was. You don’t automatically judge every time you jump forward to the top of your mat, or critique every pose. You allow for imperfection! You no longer let one challenging arm balance undermine your entire practice, either. You’ve also stopped comparing yourself to others in class and can appreciate working and doing your best wherever you’re at.
5. You actually like Savasana.
Believe it or not (perhaps you even remember when!), Savasana is a challenging pose for most beginner yoga students. Many aren’t accustomed to lying still with their eyes closed for any length of time. Yoga teaches us how to sit quietly with ourselves and turn inward. Actually being able to allow yourself to stay comfortably in Savasana, is progress on the path.