The Most Powerful Way to Keep You Coming Back to the Mat
Motivation. It's a bit of a dick really.
It comes on all hot and heavy, makes you feel like you can conquer the world. Then drops you like a hot brick.
It's no different with yoga.
One day you're all swept up in a post yoga high, thinking you would do this all day every day. But then tomorrow comes, and you can't bring yourself to hit the mat.
We've all been there.
Goals, of course!
But yoga goals? Now there's a touchy subject. In my opinion – one that's often misunderstood.
It's true, goals are a bit of a taboo in the yoga sphere. There are a few arguments to be made that setting goals for a yoga practice is counter to some yoga principles. After all, "living in the now" is all the rage these days.
They're somewhat right.
But setting goals for your practice doesn't make you a heathen.
Nor does it restrict you in any way. Goals are not some concrete agenda, they're only as rigid as we are. As we grow, so can they.
In theory, practicing yoga just for the sake of it is all well and good, but in practice – if you can't motivate yourself to get on the mat each day, what good is it?
It's hard to execute on vague yoga principles alone. But working towards tangible goals that you know can positively impact your life, that's a whole lot easier. Maybe chasing that perfect handstand isn't the most yogic of intentions, but if that what it takes to get you on the mat each day – I say go for it!
I for one, choose to set goals for my practice. I'll continue to do so as long as they serve me. Read on to find out how best to set and apply your own.
Intentions vs Goals
Before we begin, it's important to make the distinction between intentions and goals.
Mostly because the yoga community does. You see, where goals may be frowned upon, "setting intentions" is an accepted practice in yoga.
It's how the goal setting problem is reconciled with the non-attachment principles of yoga.
Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with setting intentions. In fact, I set intentions for my practice too. They're not so different from goals really, just another facet to the same diamond. Both intentions and goals have their place, because they each shine in different ways.
Goals are observable and measurable, just like the physical aspects of ourselves. They help us align our practice with our purpose.
Intentions help you focus your thoughts and bring your practice in alignment with your goals.
If goals are the macro manifestation of your purpose, then intentions are the micro processes that get you there.
Does that make sense?
Why Set Goals for Your Yoga Practice?
We're Hardwired for it
Literally. We all have our own internal mechanism of action and reward in the brain.
Whenever we get something we want, we get a little squirt of our favourite feel-good chemical – dopamine. That same mechanism rewards you for achieving your goals too, and that's why setting them can be such a powerful motivational tool for your yoga practice.
Each time we achieve a goal – or make a perceptible move towards it – we get a reward in the form of dopamine release. That's going to make you want to come back to the mat.
Finally touched your toes? Nice! Nailed the first Ashtanga series? Great! Pleased that you've managed two days of practice in a row? Fuck yeah!
Set goals to strive for, but take pleasure in the small victories along the way.
Don't Wait for Motivation, Create it
We all know the drill.
Learn something new, get super excited to practice. Two weeks later – over it.
Motivation is fleeting, and you won't get far if you spend your life waiting for it.
Practicing yoga only for the purest of ideals is admirable, but it's difficult to maintain. Unless we know why we're practicing, the motivation will wane and hitting that snooze button will become too enticing.
Figure out your why, then figure out your how.
Make it a Habit
"The human brain is hardwired for routine over novelty" – Ralph Ryback, M.D at psychologytoday.com.
Which is helpful for us, because yoga is something that should be practiced regularly. Working towards a goal helps anchor your practice into your daily routine.
But you must always be present! Yoga on autopilot isn't yoga at all.
Combine that with the focused efforts of your Sadhana and you're a force to be reckoned with.
The value of habit is to make it easy to get on the mat each day. What happens on the mat is down to you.
What are the Right Kinds of Goals?
Well, there are no right or wrong answers here.
What drives you to practice yoga is unique to you, and they're all valid.
It's okay to be motivated to reach your dream athletic body, or wanting to be able to pull off flashy poses. Yoga purists might say these sorts of motivations are against yogic values (and they may be right), but if they keep you coming back to the mat, then they're the lesser evil in my opinion. I'd rather people did yoga for the "wrong reasons" than not at all.
As long as you have space for growth, then goals are compatible with a yoga practice.
Eventually, there's a good chance you'll end up either achieving your (so called non-yogic) goals, or you'll fall so in love with the process that you don't need them any more. Both ways have great merit, and goals can be the initial process to get you there.
Rigid vs Flexible Goals
A rigid goal offers two outcomes: 100% success or 100% failure.
There's no room margin for error, no room for growth.
Rigid goals have a place in the world, but not in yoga. It's a concept that casts a false image of perfection – which contradicts the self-accepting nature of yoga. After all, there's no such thing as failure in yoga.
It's also a dangerous way to approach your yoga practice. For example, we should never set a goal of achieving X pose by Y time. The human body doesn't work like that, and you can't force it.
A flexible goal gives you something to work towards, so you know that you're always improving – without being locked into a binary outcome. The thing about Sadhana (or your yoga practice in general) is that you're working towards a greater version of yourself. So a flexible goal means you know where you're going, but you can take many different paths.
Whether or not you're smashing your goals doesn't matter too much if you're always improving. You can't perceive improvement unless you're working towards something.
You could call it the Kaizen of the yoga world. Continuous improvement through incremental changes.
Take value in the process – isn't that the point of yoga?
How Do We Apply Them to Our Practice?
It's important to approach our yoga goals in the right way, so we're getting maximum benefit from our practice, without detracting from the experience of the practice itself.
For example, it's common to see weightlifters logging their lifts after a session in the gym. But we don't see yogis recording the results of their practice after class do we?
Please don't start logging how many sun salutations you did into MyFitnessPal....That's not a super helpful way to do it.
If you're spending your entire practice measuring your performance, you're missing so many of the benefits of the yoga experience - and that's what people fear most when setting goals in yoga.
The best way to act on goals is before your practice, and later during reflection on it.
My Example. Like lots of men, nailing the perfect handstand is one of my goals. So I plan my practices accordingly.
I purposefully work more arm balances into my practices (like Crow and Chaturanga) to build my strength, and supported handstands to get used to being upside down.
I prepare these plans before my practice, so I can be fully present during it. Each time I practice, I set an intention to find strength in my poses, but to accept whatever the result is.
At the end of each practice, I reflect on how strong I felt and how much progress I've made. I can then tailor my next practice accordingly; increasing the intensity of the practice, or changing to more advanced asanas if necessary.
What I've outlined here is not a complex approach (though it's taken a lot of words to get here). It's as much a mindset as it is a process.
In reality, only the most experienced yogis can pull off a comprehensive practice through instinct and awareness alone.
The rest of us will plan a practice in advance, or we'll periodically check in with ourselves to decide what to do next. These are opportunities to decide how our practice can align with our goals. They're not disconnecting you from your practice, most of us do it anyway.
Besides, the present is an ever-moving place. We must look forward or we'll be left behind.
In Conclusion: Goals Are Great, If You Use Them Properly
Yoga goals may not be to everyone's taste, but I want those who can benefit from them to see them as a valid option.
The purpose of this post is primarily to free yogis from the burden of "pure yoga intentions". So we can practice yoga for our own reasons, and to give ourselves permission to practice in a way that aligns with our purpose.
TLDR: If i had to wrap up the post in a long-winded mantra – it'd be this:
Set goals to strive for, if they'll keep you coming back to the mat. Enjoy the moments when you smash them, but take pleasure in the process too. Set your sights high, but don't become attached to the outcome. Take satisfaction from seeing your improvement every day.
This is the most powerful way to keep you coming back to the mat.