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How to keep going when you’re practicing on a plateau

Mesas in Monument Valley, Utah, Brent Faber photo

Mesas in Monument Valley, Utah, Brent Faber photo

When you first take up yoga, progress is swift.
Downward dog moves from shockingly hard to challenging,
and then to perceptibly less so. Hamstrings begin to stretch, standing poses start to feel familiar, and, with each class, there are new poses to try, and new sensations to experience. Progress comes by leaps and bounds.
But that’s the raw beginner phase. As an intermediate yoga student, the work is less about big changes and exciting new poses than it is about steady practice. Today’s Warrior II is likely to resemble yesterday’s Warrior II fairly closely.

The truth is that no matter what we practice, be it asana or violin, much
of our practice time is spent traversing plateaus. We slog along, the
view stays roughly the same, and sometimes we wonder if the next peak
is getting closer, or receding from us as we walk toward it.

At times like these, it’s good to remember that while we are, yes, engaged
in perfecting our asanas, physical progress isn’t all that we work on.
Subtle changes in concentration and awareness often aren’t discernable to
the practitioner. Like the writer who can’t tell whether today’s work is good
or bad, and is wise to put it aside and keep writing, the aspiring yogi needs
to develop faith that each practice session, no matter how it feels to us at
the time, develops our awareness for the next one.

Instead of seeing your asana practice as a path from an imperfect present
to a better future, try thinking of it as a piece of embroidery: each new
stitch strengthens connections both within your body and within your being.
Rather than waiting for sign posts to the big destinations – going into
headstand with straight legs, or bringing your palms to the floor in a
standing forward bend – slow down and celebrate the single stitches.
Every practice you do will have at least one of them.

Benefits: It’s easier to practice the yogic virtue of contentment if you focus
on the subtle details of your practice rather than on the big goals.
And if you drop the image of asana as a climb to greater heights, you will
begin to free your mind from the unconscious and limiting habit of equating
“up” with “good.”

Sequence: All the time, in any area of your life that involves practice.

Do you have strategies to keep yourself motivated when there aren’t any big practice gains day-to- day?  What’s your best hiking tip for traversing a plateau?

Link to photo here

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Caren Holtby March 19, 2010, 10:26 pm

    The embroidery image sets my mind alight with my own hobby of knitting which always seems to reach its best after many hours spent knitting stitches that then get pulled out and started over and over and over again – eventually becoming smoother, stronger and more symmetrical. I like the idea of looking at my practice in relation to stitches!
    Thank you

  • Alan James March 18, 2010, 3:59 pm

    Good advice about the seemingly endless plateau trek. Rings true
    on many levels.