What is progress? by Fiona Stang

Sept. 20, 2018

While in Morjim, I loved the daily chats on our trip to pick up Asha and Arjuna after school.  The drive to their school was around 40 minutes, so many afternoons Viveka, Sharmila and I would take the beautiful car trip to their school.  The drive was always filled with rice paddies, curvy, sometimes hilly roads with views of water, trees, jungle, beautiful old houses and a few different towns.  It was during these trips that Sharmila and I would chat about yoga and various other topics.

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One conversation that has stayed imprinted in my memory is when Sharmila asked, “What is Progress?”

This question resonated so deeply with me.  

Sharmila went on to say:  

“Is progress a mere accumulation of asana for physical perfection?

Or

Is progress being fully present to find harmony inside?”

As aspiring yogis, I think this is such an important conversation to have with oneself. What is progress?

I am reminded of my husband Julian’s journey with the Marichasana’s.  I think the series took him about 6 years to complete from the start of his ashtanga journey.  Never did I realize how important his self journey would also be for me as a witness. Julian had an even, calm disposition and visited the Marichasana’s day in and out with non-attachment.  This is easier said than done.

Julian in Baddha Konasana
Sharath instructs Julian intently on doing padmasana.

When Julian started practicing, I actually did not think he would ever sit in ½ padmasana.  Years of hiking, biking, skiing and generally being in nature as much as possible had given him a tighter hip and pelvic region.  Add a genetic component of tightness to that and that was Julian Deck. Julian worked slowly, mindfully and never pushed himself over that edge and into the wrong kind of pain / i.e. injury.  He had a patience that was commendable despite the difficulty of the postures he was working on. Since Julian was tighter physically but drawn to yoga, he delved into yoga philosophy and was an avid reader of the ancient texts.  Studying and contemplating the ancient yogic texts combined with asana opened another door to a different approach to yoga that was self-inquiry and journey focused, versus focusing on the end point of a physical form.

I believe it was on Julian’s first trip to Mysore that Sharath helped him to finally sit in ½ padmasana.  It was Julian’s second trip, I believe, that Sharath named him, “Mr. Marichasana D.” And the journey continued from there.  At some point, I can’t remember when, Julian bound in Marichasana D and then he sat in full padmasana.

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Sharath on Julian’s Marichyasanas…this went on daily.
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Even Guruji got into the act whenever Sharath was attending someone else.
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Pic says it all…intensity. But it’s coming!

I do not remember when it exactly happened because it wasn’t the achievement of completing a posture that mattered, it was the adventurous journey and what that journey symbolized to him and even to me.  My whole perspective on life and what was possible was shattered. The journey was deep – sometimes uplifting, sometimes confusing and sometimes dark. The journey, as yoga teaches us, was not a linear process.  The years of opening hips led to emotional releases, profound reconciliations with his past and awareness of who he was. This seemingly physical journey all happened at a cellular and nervous system level but went so much deeper into spirit and soul.

Julian padmasana
Julian to this day, with awareness, can get into full lotus.

To this day, there is a greater level of ‘comfort’ with himself and who he is.  And when he sits, cross legged on the floor, you can see how the openings in his hips and pelvis remain; Julian’s seat is now still and lighter.  What I believed might never happen at a physical level happened, and it was much deeper than just physical; the opening was spiritual and mental.  For me, as a witness, this changed my entire perception of what was possible in yoga. Suddenly, with the right focus on cleansing and healing, and uncovering the self plus an approach that did not focus on posture attachment, the sky was the limit…. and it still is.

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Ambrose was equally determined and went to practice regularly.

In 2016, I was in Mysore with Viveka and Ambrose.  Ambrose was very keen to practice while we were on this trip.  He asked Sharath and was told to come in the afternoon to study with Shruti, Sharath’s wife.  Viveka and I would sit in the foyer and read Harry Potter together or do coloring in one of her coloring books while Ambrose practiced inside the shala.  I’ll never forget the first day Ambrose practiced with Shruti. Shruti came out after his first practice and looked rather alarmingly at me mentioning that Ambrose’s hips were very very tight.  I just laughed thinking back to the genetics of my husband which were quite obvious passed down to our son, specifically in Ambrose’s hips. Ambrose persevered and knew no differently that postures could be easier or harder.  So he diligently enjoyed the month of practice with Shruti. Being young, his hips opened much more quickly than Julian’s but it was again, the journey of showing up with focus and awareness that superseded any kind of tightness and concern of physical progress.  It was interesting to be, yet again, a witness to another perspective of yoga practice.

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Exhausted after a full day in Mysore…

If, for my boys, practice was a mere accumulation of asana for physical perfection, their journeys would have ended eventually.  Yoga would have ceased. Julian would have never continued on with yoga for his posture accumulation was harder and slower than most.  

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If practice, for me, was a mere accumulation of asana for physical perfection, my journey would also have ended.  I myself have been working on the same few postures for many years – I am not exaggerating. Around 50 days of skiing with my kids last year and playing tennis with my son, hiking up beautiful mountains and lush forests has strengthened my body and even created some tightness.  For me, this is always evident when I put my legs behind my head or attempt that journey to put my legs behind my head. But as I have journeyed my way through intermediate series and some of the third series, the journey of internal progress and progress for my mind and fine tuning drishti (gaze) has been my deeper aim… if there were to be one.  It is through that ebb and flow of practice – sometimes too strong, sometimes too soft eventually both meeting in the middle creating a still practice. Within the strength practices, I find the grace. Within the graceful practices, I find the strength of mind and gaze. Over the years, I have grown steadier in mind and soul despite sometimes being stiffer in physical body.  I still show up day in and day out and this journey of yoga asana, is a journey into myself, an opportunity to look deeper, strengthen my soul, be fully aware and in my inner harmony.

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Early morning practice while Julian and the kids are catching fresh tracks in Whistler.
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A quiet practice session when everyone’s finally in bed.

This was a lovely journey into the concept of progress all brought up on a windy road as we drove from Morjim to school.  Sharmila continued this discussion and brought it up again at the weekly satsang gathering at the shala so all the students could ponder this question for themselves.   Ask yourself, “what is progress?”

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