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rule of thumb
breath control
realistic expectations
Yogic Progress
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Yogic Progress

Yoga students will often ask what sort of realistic expectations they should have when it comes to the results they should be experiencing, or seeing, from their time in the studio. While the answers to this question are dependent on a few variables, there are some generally expectations that hold true for the vast majority.

Stretching progress:

The rule-of-thumb is 1/16th of an inch increased distance on a given stretch per week. While this may not sound like much, you should consider two things:

1) Yoga is meant to be practiced as a lifetime discipline, and those weeks will add up; consider that in a year's time this means an advancement of 3 and 1/4 inch on all of the stretches that you perform regularly. In other words, a beginner who has initial difficulty in - say - reaching midway down their shins (never mind their toes) can expect to to do so given the the math and the distance they are currently at. Not only this, but it is not only the hamstrings which are stretched, but also muscles in the hips and back, which actually will contribute to more than 3 & 1/4 inch in that year.

2) Many beginners will often try to 'make up for lost time' or try to be competitive or challenge themselves too much in order to 'blend in' with more advanced students at a studio. This not only causes the muscles to be prematurely sore (and inhibit regular practice) but also creates poor form in the first place as the beginner may be tempted to 'cheat' alignment for the sake of 'looking like' they are more flexible. It's better to be regular and proper.

Pranayama (Breath Control)

Admittedly, many studios only provide a very cursory or shallow introduction to pranayama, and many of those that practice it regularly, attempt to introduce it solely as the ujjayi breathing with which you may already be familiar. While ujjayi is certainly a very potent and important practice to introduce early on, it's main importance with asana is simply to breath regularly, and raise awareness of when, during a more difficult stretch, the body tends to hold its breath. Again there are two important things to consider here concerning yogic progress:

1) Pranayama, as with the other aspects of yoga independent from stretching, is meant to be initially practiced separate from the other practices. This means a student should be careful not to be misled into thinking that a basic ujjayi breath is actual pranayama. The development of the lung volume capacity over time, as well as the mindful noticing of the nuances that come from greatly slowing down the breathing, need to be learned on their own, otherwise it is just a distraction from learning your proper stretching form in the first place. B.K.S. Iyengar writes in his 'Light on Pranayama' that proper breathing should be learned separately, and when it is developed enough, it will begin to occur naturally when practicing asana (postures.)

2) Iyengar also writes that average breath volume is about 500 milliliters, and which can expanded an amazing 6 times over to about 3 liters over time. This is 'passive' inspiration. This means 'when you are not thinking about it, you breathe an average of '500 ml.' at about 8 -12 times per minute. Most people when they are trying to take a deliberate deep breath can take in much more air, even as a beginner, somewhere upwards of about 2.5 -5 liters. Keep in mind that the world record for lung capacity is about 13 liters as held by a former British rower Peter Reed. By comparison, the well known Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a capacity of about 12 liters.

When measuring progress with pranayama, you may want to use a stopwatch to see how much you can slow your breath down, and also a spirometer to measure the volume. And of course, adopt a structured approach to a disciplined and systematic method of development. As an instructor, I recommend the aforementioned book 'Light on Pranayama' by B.K.S. Iyengar.

While there are some forms of benefit not measurable, that come with yogic practices, (such as improvements of emotionality) it stands to reason that the more directly physical aspects can be measured, and that tracking and seeing these results firsthand can reveal when you are practicing effectively, safely, and with the fulfillment of reasonable expectation.


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