“Enthusiasm, perseverance, discrimination, unshakeable faith, courage, avoiding the company of common people, are the six causes which bring success in yoga.”
— Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.16
When a student asked me, 'How does one overcome plateaus in yoga practice?" I thought to myself, "I have no idea." The more I thought about the question, the more I doubted my ability to answer it. I have been practicing for a modest amount of time, around 8 years or so (and teaching for 7 of those!), so I have ducked, dodged, hail-mary’d, ignored and confronted many a plateau. I thought about all of the various ways in which I have worked my way through that day to day feeling of not making any progress, and there are generally three ways that I’ve managed to work my way through feeling stuck in my practice. These are the strategies:
THE BULL: There was the month that I decided to figure out forearm stand or pincha mayurasana. I always loved the look of it and worked hard at it when it was offered in class; but I realized that it was only worked on in class once in a while, and even when we did work on it, it wasn't for more than a few minutes. After feeling like I wasn't making any progress, I decided to work on the pose every single day: before class, after class, at home on days when I wasn’t taking a group class. Surprisingly, it didn’t take very long. It took a lot less time than I’d expected - perhaps a few weeks, tops.
THE FOX: There was another time as a teacher that I was having trouble working with a student on full wheel pose, urdhva danurasana. Week after week, we would try the pose different ways. One day, the student told me she didn’t think her arms were getting any stronger and didn’t feel like her shoulders were allowing any more mobility after those initial strides we’d made in her practice. So we ditched wheel practice for a few weeks of handstand practice! It was scary for the student, at first, but her strength and mobility increased dramatically. Later, we returned to to backbending. The way of the fox isn’t charging straight through the problem, like the bull, but to find a way around the difficulty and then come back to the initial spot you were getting frustrated. Sometimes we have to identify opportunities to work on something a different way before re-approaching with new experience, information, strength, etc. I remember, Jivamukti co-founder David Life saying once, “Sometimes to make something easier, you have to make it harder first.” When I was struggling to sit in meditation for five minutes, I changed my timer to ten minutes for two weeks. Then, when I tried five again, it was so easy! Of course, you have to be a bit clever with this method. Be careful not to overdo it; if I had set my meditation timer for an hour, I would have failed and felt disappointed.
THE SLOTH: Just keep going. Put one three clawed paw right in front of the other and keep working at it. It is true that sheer repetition works. I remember hating virasana (hero’s pose). Every time I was asked to come into the pose, my mind would scream and rebel. I would think to myself that the teacher must be a sadist. "How could any teacher ever ask this pose of their students? Didn’t they know how terrible it was?" And of course, it isn't so terrible. The pose itself is empty of any absolute meaning and full of the potential to be blissful to one student and torturous to another. In teacher training so many years ago, we did an entire session on virasana. As part of this session, we were asked to take a well-supported virasana (sitting on blocks, belted knees, padding under ankles) for quite some time. My mind suffered. The training facilitator said, “If this is uncomfortable for you, start seated on a phone book and remove one page everyday.” Sometimes we perceive a plateau or a dip in our practice, because the day-to-day changes are so microscopic as to be almost imperceptible to our senses. I might not even realize I was making progress if I wasn’t the one removing the phone book pages.
All of these methods have something in common. Perseverance. The practice is only a failure if you quit. No matter how you weather the plateau in your practice, stick with it. The only path to progress is patience, determination, faith that the practices will work.
I'm not suggesting that anyone “power though” physical pain. As yoga practitioners we need to learn to use discrimination to determine the difference between pain (the body telling you to stop whatever you are doing) and discomfort (being outside your comfort zone). Discomfort comes in many forms, one of those forms is boredom. When we started practicing, there was a steep learning curve. It felt good. All the flashy progress has slowed down, and now it is time to sit with yourself, to refine your breath, to watch your mind and all of the ways that the mind tries to defy, avoid and penetrate discomfort. Now you’re starting to get into the yoga of yoga.
“Its easy to be seduced by the new…. The problem is that this leads to both an addition and a very short attention span.” Seth Godin, The Dip
It's easy to start something. The initial learning curve of a new thing is exhilarating. You get the rush of initial successes, lots of praise for your natural talent and quick progress. Then what happens is that learning curve levels off - what author Seth Godin calls the Dip, the long slow period between beginner's luck and mastery. Most people give up during this time. They are the perpetual hobbyists, hopping from one activity to the next but never really mastering anything.
Very often after the thrill of the first learning curve is gone, practitioners will rush off to try the NEW method, new teacher, new technique. The problem is that the perpetual yoga shopper, or spiritual shopper will hop from teacher to teacher, from studio to studio, from practice to practice without ever experiencing the steadiness, the groundedness, the unshakable faith that comes from sticking with it through the plateaus and the dips.
Perseverance, determination, enthusiasm and unshakable faith are qualities that one must have to experience the benefits of practice; and the benefits of practice are enthusiasm, perseverance, and unshakable faith in the practice.