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Let’s face it: Many of us are drawn to yoga by the promise—or at least the possibility—of change. Whether our focus is physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, we return again and again because yoga is touted as such a transformational practice.
But no matter how carefully we consider which style of yoga to take or what studio to attend, no matter how much enthusiasm we bring to our practice, we don’t always progress the way we expect. We can still feel like we’re in the exact same place in our practice day after day, whether our objective is to ease tight hamstrings, learn a challenging arm balance, manage stress, or quiet our minds. The more hopeful we are regarding the promise of the practice, the worse we tend to feel when things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes yoga just doesn’t seem to “work.”
Does this represent a failure of yoga? I don’t believe so. When is anything in life simple or straightforward? Perhaps an apparent lack of progress isn’t reason to give up, but rather an opportunity to revisit our assumptions. When yoga isn’t having the desired effect, it could come down to one of countless scenarios, although they quite often fall among one of the following four.
Our bodies and brains are incredibly adaptable and change constantly in response to the demands placed on them. We challenge ourselves physically to build muscle strength and improve cardiovascular health. But one run or one gym session is not enough to prompt change. It’s the same with our yoga practice.
Imagine someone who seeks out yoga for help with their sleep. They have struggled to fall or stay asleep for years, and have heard that restorative yoga and meditation can help. They attend a weekly class, and after a couple of sessions they feel settled enough to rest more deeply one night following class, but the night after their sleep quality is back to baseline.
Is this a failure of the practice? Or is the amount of practice simply insufficient to counter years of patterning in the body and mind? Obviously for yoga to create lasting change, it needs to be done consistently. Not all of us bring sufficient patience or understanding to our practice. Even in ancient yoga texts, the sage Patanjali emphasized the need for abhyasa, or persistent and diligent effort, sustained over a long period of time.
When we come to yoga practice seeking change, especially in long-standing patterns, we need to be prepared to commit to regular and ongoing practice for a reasonable period of time. Just how long will vary on you and your objective, keeping in mind that yoga is about how we hold ourselves along the way, and not just what is at the end.
It’s natural to want an instant solution to our problems, whether in yoga or elsewhere. A quick fix seldom exists, especially in relation to ongoing health concerns or awareness of the role we play in our own lives. Improvement isn’t always predictable or linear, and might look or feel like two steps forward, one step back. As we resolve one aspect of a problem, others can come to light. All of which can be frustrating when we had wanted instant relief.
In this scenario, it’s essential to cultivate more realistic expectations about what improvement might look like and how long it could take. Our minds adjust constantly, and as a situation slowly improves, it’s easy to forget where we started. That’s where objective evidence, like a journal, can track and highlight changes that are so subtle or seemingly insignificant that they would otherwise go unnoticed.
Let’s return to our previous example—a student using yoga practice to improve their sleep. Perhaps when starting yoga practice, the student was taking up to an hour to fall asleep, waking four or five times a night, and feeling sluggish in the mornings. They noticed slight improvement the night of a restorative yoga and meditation class, and began to practice their favorite restorative pose each night before bed. After a couple of weeks, it still took little while to fall asleep and they were still waking two or three times a night and feeling slow in the mornings. Sleep quality was still a major issue in their mind, and their perception might be that no improvement had occurred. But imagine if the student had kept a journal of their yoga practice and sleep quality: that objective external witness would allow them to see that change actually was occurring, slowly but surely.
Again this situation is not unique to modern life. Another relevant concept from yoga philosophy is viveka —intelligence, understanding, or the capacity to discern what is true or real in a manner that is unclouded by our limited perception.
When we revisit the fact that our bodies and minds adapt to the demands of our lives, it becomes apparent that the things we do outside our yoga practice are as influential as those we do in it. If we aim to change our posture, for example, even daily yoga practice won’t be as influential as the position we take when we work.
Consider our student who wants to sleep better. Imagine that they settled into a daily routine of practicing a restorative posture before bed, in a quiet room with dimmed lights, perhaps while listening to a meditation app. They maintained this daily practice for several months, and were still seeing only small improvement in their sleep. It would be worth considering the possibility that other practices—whether it’s a late-afternoon coffee to stave off an energy slump, a glass or two of wine at dinner, or a final glance at email before turning in for the night—could be counteracting the effects of their yoga practice.
The physical practice of yoga can be incredibly powerful, but it isn’t magical. There’s a reason why the sage Patanjali set out a system of practices in which asana (poses), pranayama (breath), and meditation were only small parts; we are, in many ways, a reflection of the habits that make up our daily lives. However, the mindfulness that we learn in yoga could help us identify habits running counter to the influence of our practice.
Everyone is different. The approach that works for one person, or even the majority of people, doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. So no matter how popular your practice, how well it is supported by research, no matter how dedicated and diligent you have been in application, it still may not have the desired effect. So if you have been practicing diligently for a while, with an eye on the impact of off-mat practices, and still not seeing realistic benefit, it’s probably time to change tack.
Yoga offers a wide variety of practices, so taking a fresh approach could simply mean changing up the poses or practices you’ve been using, shifting your focus to a different muscle or anatomical action, or seeking advice from different teachers or yoga styles. In the case of our sleep-deprived student, that could mean trying gentle movement or breath work in place of restorative yoga and meditation. It could also mean looking to another modality or to a healthcare professional. It could also be worth seeing a sleep specialist, doctor, or even a therapist in conjunction with their night-time yoga routine.
True yoga practice is much broader and deeper than what we do within the confines of a mat. Patanjali balanced the diligent practice of abhyasa with the equally important cultivation of vairagya, a concept mentioned in many yoga philosophy texts that means non-attachment. So we practice, patiently and persistently, seeking change without gripping too tightly to the methods we use to find it. We might even need to leave space for a change in our perception of a successful outcome. For example, our student might continue to wake once or twice a night, but be content with having the energy they need to function effectively each morning.
The practice of yoga is one of transformation, but it’s not always the quick and easy kind. Sometimes it’s not even the transformation we thought we wanted. What started off as a quest for improved sleep, flexible hamstrings, challenging our fears, better posture, or managing stress might turn out to be a journey somewhere else that’s entirely unexpected. Whether we consciously realize the benefits of the tools we learn on the yoga mat or not, the practice might quietly teach us to change our routines, our methods, our expectations—and even our perceptions.