Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose)
In yoga circles, it's fairly common to regard having goals as a no-no. Perhaps that's because we've watched people sacrifice the deeper values of community, environment, and meaningful livelihood for the more ephemeral goals of comfort and material success. Some of us may even have done a bit of that ourselves, getting stressed-out trying to achieve goals that, even when attained, don't bring happiness or fulfillment.
But yoga, at least in its classical formulation, is clearly goal-oriented. The goal of yoga is enlightenment. That's it. Certainly different people have different reasons for practicing yoga, and I know from years of teaching that if I handed out a questionnaire asking about those reasons, enlightenment probably wouldn't come in high on the list. But yoga was originally developed to lead the practitioner to freedom from suffering and to realization of his or her Divine Nature, i.e., to enlightenment.
It can be helpful, even necessary, to set lesser goals along the way—as long as they are compatible with the ultimate goal. The problem with setting these interim goals is that you might become too focused on achieving them and lose sight of the big picture. Still, they can help you to move in the right direction and provide you with valuable mileposts.
Obstacles along the Way
On the road to attaining your goals—in yoga and elsewhere in your life—you will inevitably encounter obstacles. Patanjali refers to these as vikshepas and enumerates nine of them: illness, listlessness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, cravings, delusion, inability to progress, and instability in maintaining progress.
Depending on your nature and the goals you have set, you will run into some of these more readily than others; but sooner or later you will come up against them all. How you meet these obstacles will affect how well you surmount them and what your state of mind will be in the process. There are no rules. What works in one situation may or may not work in another. Your teachers and your practice are your guides in building your repertoire of responses and refining your skills in using these tools.
One tool I have found to be invaluable is a sense of playfulness. In yogic terminology, this is called lila (pronounced LEE-lah). By this, I don't mean being casual or careless.
Being serious about your practice is extremely important. After all, this yoga stuff is very serious business, connecting us with the most profound and fundamental questions about our existence and purpose. But serious and grim are not synonymous. You can be serious about yoga and enjoy your practice, too.
A challenging goal—learning Astavakrasana, for example—can provide an excellent opportunity to practice blending seriousness and playfulness. Most students find the arm balances difficult and demanding.
Strength, flexibility, concentration, balance, perseverance—all are essential for performing these poses. I teach male students who have the necessary upper body strength, but not the necessary flexibility; female students who have the mobility, but not the strength; and of course, males and females with little of either, as well as males and females with lots of both.