Yoga, for many of us, begins like every other new endeavor: we’re eager to get started, we’re confused yet exhilarated by what’s asked of our bodies and our breath. During our first few weeks, months, or years, we’re proud of how we’re advancing along the path: familiar poses get easier, hard poses become accessible. Our minds are focused on absorbing the tricks and tips that will move us along. Our desire to grown might even lead us to sign up for special workshops, intensives, and retreats.
Then Sophomore Year Syndrome settles in—and it can settle in any time. We accept that our teachers tend to teach similar things in similar ways, and we unconsciously tune out. Or a beloved teacher retires, moves, or changes his/her class schedule. Or we give up classes and decide we can practice alone at home. In any case, we seem to get stuck at a certain level and fear that that might be “it” for this body in this lifetime. Comfort slides into complacency.
Or worse, we notice that students around us are advancing, and we’re being left behind. We envy them. We feel like failures.
QUESTION: DOES IT MATTER?
The simple answer is YES!
Yoga is a path of transformation, not stagnation. While much of yoga practice appears to be (and is) repetitious, it is by that very repetition that we grow and gauge our growth. For example, you practice triangle pose every day for months. In the beginning, you can barely straighten your front leg, and your lower hand is dangling in mid-air. Then one day you realize your fingertips are grazing your shin. Then you can reach a block. And after a couple of years, you can touch the floor. If you weren’t doing the same thing every day, you’d never see that change.
Yoga transforms our physical bodies, yet it doesn’t stop there. It shifts our energy, providing access to a more consistent flow of energy throughout the day and better sleep at night. Many of us hop off the roller coaster of energy swings that had us reaching for a double espresso or an evening sedative. When we hit a plateau, we may find ourselves restless, irritable, edgy, or exhausted at non-strategic times and turn to caffeine, alcohol, and pharmaceuticals to do the trick once again.
Yoga also opens up our minds and our hearts. In the process, many yogis find themselves changing jobs or careers, leaving or entering relationships, adopting healthier eating behaviors, etc. When we hit the plateau those shifts stop happening, and we may even find ourselves rigidly clinging to externals that are no longer good for us.
QUESTION: WHAT CAN I DO WHEN I HIT A PLATEAU?
If you’re even asking this question (or reading this essay), you’ve already taken the crucial first step, which is to acknowledge and admit that you have hit a plateau.
I hit my first one about six years into my yoga practice. I’d be zooming along through a rigorous Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga practice for about four years. Blessed with extreme flexibility and sheer determination, I had sailed through the first two (primary and intermediate) series of poses and arrived at the threshold of the third (first of the advanced) series. Then a couple of things happened. About two years before, on a yoga trip to India, I had contracted parasites. Without proper immediate diagnosis, the little devils lodged securely in my body and started dismantling my immune system. I just kept getting sick, and staying sick, for weeks and months on end.
Simultaneously, I realized that the rigorous early morning practice schedule and sheer acrobatic physicality of the practice was draining energy I needed for teaching, living a balanced life, and staying healthy. My life had shrunk to the size of a pea. I had no time for friends, for leisure, for anything but work, meals on the run, and sleep. I was starting to resent the very yoga that had opened up my life and was now shutting it down.
And finally, my yoga teacher stopped giving me new poses. For four and a half years. I watched everyone around me “catching up” with me and in some cases moving past me. My pride was hurt. I built up a major resentment against my teacher, who I thought was willfully punishing me for some unknown reason.
Awareness finally propelled me to action. First I asked my teacher whether this type of yoga could possibly be doing me any good. He gave one of his cryptic, inscrutable answers, “It takes 12 years to discover whether a practice is right for you.” Since I was only on year seven or eight, he was basically saying I should stop asking questions and carry on.
I tried that, until the burning fury about not getting to try new poses boiled over. In the Ashtanga Yoga system, a student never decides that it’s time to move forward. That’s the teacher’s job. So I knew I was on thin ice when I confronted my teacher, asking if I could start adding new poses. His answer surprised me. “I know you can do the poses; it’s your stamina I worry about.” It’s true that I was missing weeks of practice here and there because of illness. It’s also true that my body temperature tends to run high, and heat makes me dizzy and sluggish. I recalled how my teacher was always prodding me to move faster, while I continued to slow down so as not to spontaneously combust.