Is It Good to Set Goals in Yoga?

Let’s all take a good, long moment of introspection. Honestly, how many of us have resolved to master a certain yoga pose in a certain amount of time? Rather than just relax and practice, we strain, grimace, and wonder why it’s taking so damn long.

Not only do we torture ourselves with this kind of yoga goal-setting, but we are also constantly bombarded with messages and advertising that egg us on in it: check out this 2010 post on lululemon’s blog, for example: Or, think about the subject matter of the yoga workshops you’ve seen offered around town recently- how many of them are about mastering forearm balances and inversions, versus less glamorous subjects like basic alignment and breathing? We all love the big poses, the legendarily difficult mountains to climb.

It’s ironic because yoga is supposed to be something we practice over a lifetime, not a semester-long course you take for credit. Like most other things, yoga rewards slow, steady persistence, and simply showing up. In fact, if you do practice somewhat regularly, then improvement over time- maybe not Cirque du Soleil bendyness, but improvement- is almost guaranteed. Surely, then,extremely specific yoga goals are too competitive and impatient, and should be discouraged?

I would cautiously say that they should not. Setting goals in yoga can serve a real purpose, if done with a little finesse, rather than plowing ahead in a quest to become some kind of arm-balancing yoga-bot. Setting goals is good because our common condition is that of weak and fallible human beings, and basically, it’s in our nature to want to have these flashy poses and be admired for them. We should work with and around these tendencies, rather than against them.

In fact, imposing on yourself the requirement to immediately shed all pride and envy is a kind of yoga goal-setting of the mind and heart: you have your entire lifetime to work on your inner nature, so why demand immediate perfection from yourself and then despair when you don’t achieve it? Self-improvement, like yoga, is best when practiced over the long haul.

This tendency towards vice in our human natures is mentioned in many of the world’s spiritual traditions: in Christianity, it’s called concupiscence; in Judaism, the evil inclination is called the yetzer hara; and in yoga, the Sanskrit term samskara is often used for our repetitive patterns of behavior, although it can actually denote either a good or a bad habit.

By setting goals in yoga, we can cleverly appeal to the baser elements in our nature as a way to trick ourselves into starting out on the path to improvement. Why beat ourselves up over our evil impulses when we can harness them? Besides, you have to start practicing yoga from whatever condition, both physical and mental, you happen to be in at the moment. If yoga can’t meet us wherever we are, then it will never work. As any teacher (yoga or otherwise) knows, it doesn’t matter if you have all the specialized and profound knowledge in the world, if you can’t make that learning accessible to your students.

It’s like this famous Hasidic story of the Turkey Prince: Basically, a prince goes completely crazy and is convinced that he’s actually a turkey, until his father, the king, hires a wise man who promises to cure his son. The wise man proceeds to win the son’s trust by taking off his clothes and acting like a turkey alongside him. Little by little, the wise man coaxes the prince into re-adopting human behavior by saying that turkeys can also wear clothing, eat normal food, sit at the table with people, and so forth. By incrementally acting more like a human, the prince realizes his own humanity and eventually is completely cured. In other words, change happens bit by bit.

Now, when I advocate setting goals in yoga, I don’t mean that being able to do advanced poses is all there is to yoga (it is rather nice, of course). In fact, the further you go, the more advanced poses seem like a bi-product of how good you’re feeling in general, and if your practice is causing you recurring pain, you’re doing it wrong. Rather, setting goals is like a game we play with our egos, using the idea to shock ourselves into setting out on a path that may wind up taking us quite different places than those we originally intended.

Nonetheless, even though our destinations might change, we’ll never get anywhere if we don’t start. It’s like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit (another of my favorite stories): when he ran out of his hobbit-hole without a pocket-handkerchief late one morning, he knew that he was going to the Lonely Mountain to burgle some gold, but he never anticipated the adventures he would have along the way, or how the dwarves’ expedition would eventually turn out. So start, even if you don’t have the whole course plotted out.

It’s better than sitting under the table pecking at crumbs like a turkey, at any rate.


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