You work long and hard to open your hips and hamstrings and one day -- voila! You achieve the elusive splits. You’d probably call that progress in your asana practice, but what about your spiritual development? Can you measure it? Should you even try? YogaCity asked three established teachers from three different lineages, and their answers reflect just how tricky this question can be.
"Spiritual growth has to do with the dissolution of the sense of separateness from the whole. We begin to transcend the constrictions of operating under a limited and distorted consciousness," said Swami Asokanada, president of New York's Integral Yoga Institute. "It's tricky to measure your own growth; it's useful to have a teacher to bounce off of and to help see yourself more clearly."
On the other hand, senior Iyengar teacher Genny Kapuler says, “I don’t think it’s possible. I think all we can do is practice and cultivate in ourselves those values that we feel are worthwhile and that we want.” Kapuler, who started out as a modern dancer and found Iyengar Yoga in 1982, agreed that “it’s very hard to see oneself.”
“I don’t feel that I can measure my [spiritual] progress in terms of my yoga practice, which is something you can really see,” she continued. “I work to cultivate myself to be more attentive, more helpful. I always feel better after I practice, but in terms of progress? I see deepening. I feel more and more what is meaningful to me -- but the way I care about people? That’s not progress, that’s understanding what’s meaningful in my life.”
“I never felt that yoga is a performing art,” she continued. “I’ve always done it as kind of a healing art so it was just about taking care of my body and taking care of the body-mind continuum.”
But then, Prem Sadasivananda, a Swami for 24 years in the Sivananda tradition, believes that not only can spiritual progress be measured -- but that it should be. He said the most important goal is to balance the three gunas -- tamas, rajas and sattva -- so that one is living in a more sattvic state. He recommends keeping a “spiritual diary,” or daily account of not only the practices one undertakes, but one’s changes in mood and state of mind.
“The spiritual diary acts as your true self as it tells you exactly how you’re scoring in different areas, without being hard on yourself,” he said. The diary can be shared with a teacher, or even a trusted friend, for a more objective perspective.
Swami Asokananda said that early on, he relied on strict adherence to practice to measure it. "In my early days, I had to prove to myself that I was sincere about leading the spiritual life. So I read more spiritual books, meditated longer, did more advanced asana, even had longer hair than anyone else," he recalled. "Though I could sense this need to be superior arose out of a feeling of inadequacy, an arrogance was setting in that separated me from others." He said it took a good decade or so to get a realistic understanding of his level of development, loosen up his rigidity and start practicing out of a sense of enjoyment.
“People said, ‘You’re slipping man!” he chuckled, but noted that now his practice is less of a struggle. “One of the signs of growth is that worry, anxiety, depression start to lift off you,” he says. “You have more faith and it’s less about your effort.”
All three teachers agreed that quality of life is an important indicator of an on-going spiritual practice.
“The best way to measure it is, in very simple terms, by the level of serenity and calmness that you manifest in your day to day life,” Sadasivananda said. Improved physical health, peacefulness, cheerfulness, a fearlessness that comes from a decreased identification with the body and a certain selflessness -- he said all of these are signs of growth.
“I practice to keep my body fluid and open and my energy good,” Kapuler said. “If I’m doing pranayama, it’s to really focus on the breath so I can feel the lightness. That does go with the spirit -- air is light and expanding.”
“Yoga is about sthiram and sukhanam -- stability and ease in the pose,” she added. “How does yoga itself organize [us] to deal with the reality that keeps coming at us so that we’re more skillful and graceful in how we live our life?”
"We're uncovering something within us that that's already full and whole,” said Swami Asokananda. “It's already all there; we are just letting go of what's covering that. If we truly understand this, then spiritual life shifts to something more easeful and fun."
-- Karen Schwartz
For more information on Karen Schwartz, a New York City based Yoga therapist and writer, visit her site.