Yoga is an ancient practice that started in India. As a practice, yoga is a little bit complicated. It follows various ideas, techniques, and beliefs that contradict each other. When Patanjali collected all 196 Yoga Sutras in the book Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yoga became somewhat systematized. This system described yoga as an eight-limb path.
Because of this eight-limb path, each yoga practitioner has a different experience. As a result, Yogis often wonder if there is a way to measure your yoga progress or if you need to assess your progress at all.
Should You Keep Track of Your Yoga Progress?
The yoga sutra 1.12 states, abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah.
Abhyasa, which means practice, and Vairagyabhyam, which means non-attachment, are essential foundations of the yoga principle. It means that to control the mind, you have to practice without attachment to the outcome. This principle makes yoga complicated and contradictory.
If the philosophy of yoga is to practice without minding the outcome, then you shouldn’t track your progress. But as mere mortals, how do you know if you’re improving in the eight-limb path if you’re not tracking your progress? Another thing that makes it complicated is that yoga has eight limbs. So, which limb should you follow if you choose to track?
As a yoga teacher, I say track your progress but without judgment. So you can keep practicing any limb of yoga and track your progress without the need to judge if your progress is too slow, too fast, enough, or not enough.
To quote Sally Kempton, “The very heart of yoga practice is abhyasa steady effort in the direction you want to go.”
Practice the limb of yoga you want to focus on consistently, whether it is the yama, niyama, asana, or the pranayama part. As you always practice with steady effort and mindfulness, you will notice if you are progressing or not. If not, who cares? You are practicing, not perfecting yoga.
How to Track Your Progress
Yoga is a mind and body practice. So to track your progress, you assess your physical and mental ability. Here’s how you do that:
Practicing the asanas is an essential limb of yoga. While yoga started as a spiritual practice, ancient gurus added postures to prepare the body for prolonged sitting meditation. Thus, the primary goal of yoga poses is to strengthen the body to stay in proper alignment while doing breathing exercises and meditation.
With this as a primary purpose of yoga asanas, how can you check if you are improving your strength?
Come to your most comfortable seated position. Any meditative posture will do. Then answer these questions:
Is your back rounding? If yes, you may not have enough strength to keep sitting in a vertically upright position yet. That’s fine. You can continue your effort by modifying your posture without judgment by using a meditation chair or putting blocks under your knees to avoid rounding the back.
Once you modify your posture and your back is neutral, can you keep doing it for at least five minutes while meditating? If yes, the duration is 60 seconds the next time you meditate.
Of course, not all yogis have the goal of sitting in meditation for more extended periods. If your goal is to improve at another yoga pose or flow, the way to track it is to see how many rounds of breath you can hold the pose or how many times you can do the flow and then increase it next time.
Another simple way to track your progress in terms of strength is to assess if you can now do certain poses you cannot do before.
Flexibility and Mobility
Tracking if you’re progressing in terms of flexibility and mobility is the same as monitoring your strength.
Sitting in a meditation posture requires flexibility in the hips. To check if you’re improving, see if you don’t need to use props to elevate your hips to the spine tall and erect anymore. If you have not used props or don’t use props because you can keep your spine straight without these, see if your knees are now closer to the ground.
Here are some other ways to check your flexibility or mobility:
Sit and Reach (For Low Back and Hamstrings)
The sit and reach test is similar to a seated forward fold. This test will assess the flexibility of your low back and your hamstrings. You need to put a ruler on top of a box or a step to do this test. The rule should be at least 26 cm extending over in front. Then follow the steps below.
- Sit down and extend your legs in front. Your feet should be flat on the front of the step or a box with the toes pointing up.
- Slowly hinge from your hips so you can fold forward and slide your arms over the top of the box or the step. Keep reaching as far as you can go without bending the knees.
- Record how many inches you reached and repeat the test three times.
- Get the average of your tests.
Refer to the table here for your score.
Supine Pigeon Pose (For Hip Rotators)
Many of us have a limited range of motion in the hip rotators because we sit at a desk for a prolonged period. To test the flexibility of your hip Rotators, here’s what to do:
- Start lying down on your back. Bend your knees with the feet as wide as your hips.
- Bring the right ankle over the left knee or thigh. Clasp the fingers in front of your shins or under your left thigh. If this is not possible, it indicates that you have limited flexibility in the external hip rotation.
- Repeat on the other side
To improve the external rotation of the hip, you can do this exercise by placing the foot on the wall. Then, as you continuously practice your pose and improve your hip flexibility, you can start doing the full variation of a pigeon pose.
Trunk Rotation Test
The trunk rotation test measures the flexibility of your trunk and shoulders. To do this, you need a wall and chalk or pencil. Then follow the instructions below:
- Draw a vertical line on the wall. Stand arm-distance away from the wall. You should be directly in front of the line while facing away.
- Extend your arms forward. Twist to the right without moving the hips. Bring the right fingertips as close to the line as you can without compromising your alignment.
- Measure the distance away from the line.
- Repeat on the other side. Compute the average of the two scores and refer to the table here.
Forearm Reach (For the Shoulders)
Having flexible and stable shoulders is very important because it’s the main joint for all upper body movements. To test the flexibility of your shoulders, here’s what you can do:
- Stand tall with your hands by your side and your feet hip-width distance apart.
- Bring the hands to the back and grab the opposite elbows. If this is not possible, that means you have a limited range of motion in the shoulder. Grab your opposite wrist or forearms instead.
To progress here, you should do this exercise regularly, at least twice a day, and holding the pose for at least a minute each time.
Mindfulness and Mental Well-Being
Mindfulness is the core of yoga. However, because it is mental, each yoga practitioner has a unique experience. Therefore, assessing and progressing on this aspect of yoga is tricky.
Most of the mindfulness tests start with self-report questionnaires. The questions include how you quickly get upset or angry, how you’re feeling every day, etc. Unfortunately, tests like this are inaccurate because we answer based on what we think is correct and what we think others want to hear.
Another method to test your progress in mindfulness is to check your breath. This test is called the Superior Method. The test assesses the number of breaths you take with the idea that the more breaths you take, the more you are mindful since your mind didn’t wander away and lost count. The number of breaths you take is measurable. Therefore it is a slightly better method than a self-report questionnaire. But it can still be inaccurate because you may have counted wrong.
Yoga is often called a practice because it is never-ending. It is because the steady effort that you exert every time you practice yoga is already enough. But just because it is, doesn’t mean you can’t progress or work to progress. As long as you don’t attach your self-worth to how long you can stay in a handstand or meditate, you advance.