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As rational and practical people we invest efforts and resources (time, money, and so on) in things that will bear some fruit. This is absolutely reasonable! Why should we invest in something we have no faith in. This applies also to the field of yoga, we are practicing because we believe, consciously or not, that there will be some fruit from this practice. However, we usually don’t bother, or even think it’s appropriate to state our goals in yoga practice. We tend to feel that defining goals is somehow against the spirit of yoga. I argue here, that having explicit goals is very important to our progress in yoga, and discuss the pros and cons of this matter.
I think it’s very important to explore and contemplate the following questions:
- Do I have goals in my yoga practice and studies?
- If so, what are these goals?
- Are these goals aligned with the goals set out in the tradition of yoga?
Contemplating on these issues regularly and trying to come up with answers can orient our practice and align it with the goals set out by the ancient yogis.
While contemplating these questions, it’s also interesting to reflect upon another issue:
- What is my reaction to this kind of contemplation? What comes up in my mind when I think about the goals of my practice?
The tradition of yoga defines quite clearly several goals. Yoga is aimed to remove the delusion (avidya) about the nature of reality, in order to decrease, and eliminate our dukkha (existential suffering). More practically, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali defines yoga as the restraint or cessation (nirodha) of the mental modification and reaction (vrittis). The Bhagavad Gita defines yoga as evenness of mind or equanimity (smatvam, see II.48) and also as skillful action (karmasu kaushalam, see II.50). These definitions give us guidelines to determine whether our practice is in the lines of the tradition we consider ourselves to be part of. Once you define your personal goals in your practice, you should consider if these goals are compatible with the above goals, set out by these texts.
For example, if your goal is to be able to bring your leg over your head (in Eka Pada Sirsasana), or to do any other physical feat, then these are not exactly what the great sages and teachers of yoga had in mind. Not that such goals are bad in themselves, but if this is all you aspire to accomplish in your practice, then it’s not exactly yoga that you are doing. Gymnastics and acrobatics have their role and value (as long as you don’t scarify your health in order to impress or compete), but yoga has a much wider scope and range.
Patanjali clearly addresses the subject of goals in his yoga sutras. One of the obstacles that Patanjali mentions in Sutra I.30 is the non-attainment of a yogic state or the non-attainment of the goal of yoga (alabdha-bhumikatva). We can therefore see that the concept of goals is relevant, and the inability to attain them is considered an impediment.
Reacting to Setting Up Goals in Yoga Practice
Now I come to the last question: how do you react to the idea of setting up a goal to your yogic path? You may find this talk about goals stressful and even un-yogi, because a yogi isn’t supposed to be attached to goals. However, setting up a goal doesn’t mean that we need to be attached to its achievement. Orienting your practice toward a goal doesn’t mean you need to cling to the fruit.
Usually, in our practice we are obsessed with what we can or can’t do: ‘I can do this asana!’; ‘She can do it, but I’ll never be able to’, and so on. We have a judging and comparing mental state. We think in terms of success and failure. We are constantly occupied with evaluating ‘how good we are’, and ‘how well we do’ in relation to others. This attachment to succeeding and aversion to failure stems from our ego. We can have a goal and work toward it without being attached to its achievement.
We don’t need to feel bad or to see ourselves as failures if we don’t reach the goal. We can evaluate our progress without unnecessary emotional reactions. We should also remember that the path is long, and there will always be inevitable ups and downs on the way. But there are many benefits from just walking on the path. It is already an achievement to walk on the path; to come back daily to our mat and practice! And there are many small achievements that we get every day when we practice. We can find joy in them, without clinging to success and without constantly judging and measuring ourselves.