Traversing the Plateaus: How to Maintain Enthusiasm for Practice

“Only a few classes and my back pain is gone! I love yoga!”

“I’ve been meditating for just a couple of weeks and I’m already sleeping better. Amazing!”

“Learning to focus on my breathing has made a huge difference in how I deal with stress at work. Wow! Yoga really works!”

Yoga is powerful. It often doesn’t take long to feel its positive impact. Many of us have experienced shifts  - both small and large - pretty quickly. Fired up, we commit to making yoga a consistent part of our lives.

However, the pace of transformation doesn’t often continue at such a dramatic rate as these initial shifts. Yoga begins to feel dry and boring. Motivation wanes. Practice becomes a chore rather than a delight. You might feel as if nothing is happening, or that yoga isn’t helping you anymore. You certainly don’t feel the exuberant joy for practice you once did. As we continue, enthusiasm for practice is something we need to develop and continuously hone.

Enthusiasm, the quality of passion and exuberance, is one of the great allies on the path of yoga. The word comes from the Greek enthousiasmos meaning to “carry God within oneself.”  Truly speaking, enthusiasm is an innate and joyful expression of our innermost nature. And, that it’s something that comes from within. Like a child who brings her fresh energy and tingling curiosity to all she encounters, enthusiasm is a quality we need to bring to our practice, rather than expect to receive from it. This is especially true over time.

Enthusiasm is rooted in approaching life with a sense of wonder, vigour, and curiosity. It’s a way of approaching life as a student, open to learning and growth from every experience. When we bring these perspectives to practice we discover, and re-discover the bandwidth of what yoga has to offer us at every moment. We learn how to mine the depths of our practice to support our path of self-discovery and inner growth. We’re able to shift our practice to serve us at every stage of our lives. All this reinvigorates and sustains our enthusiasm for practice.

Traversing Plateaus in Practice

A few years ago, our summer vacation included an eight-hour drive from Southern Quebec to Long Island, New York. We drove through rural Vermont along I-91, which must be one of the most spectacular stretches of highway in the Northeast. We passed bucolic fields, majestic views of the Green Mountains, wooded forests, and flowing rivers.

Travelling south closer to the New York Metropolitan area, sprawl, industry and traffic slowly crept up on us. There seemed to be construction blockades and slowdowns every few miles. Before we knew it the scenery and our experience of the trip drastically changed.

If we consider yoga as a path we travel over time, it's helpful to acknowledge that there will be many changes of scenery along the way. There will be expansive horizons and breathtaking landscapes. There will also be boring stretches of seeming nothingness and yes, obstacles that seem to block (or even reverse) our progress and seriously impinge on our enjoyment of the ride. We need to understand that all this is normal, and actually important, if we approach our practice as a journey for a lifetime.

Like my road trip through New England, practice goes through mountains, valleys and of course, reaches plateaus.

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At these times, it’s important to remember that enthusiasm for practice will not always feel like the bubbling-over excitement we felt when we first began to love yoga. Enthusiasm might show up as a willingness to continue even though practice feels lackluster. It might take the form of a continued commitment to our own studentship like trying out new approaches to practice, taking a workshop, or contemplating a teaching that feels alive for us. Anytime we’re able to tap into and follow our deeper motivations and aspirations for making yoga practice happen despite our moods, energy levels, and scheduling issues, we are cultivating enthusiasm. Ultimately, enthusiasm is what allows us to take a new step forward in our path.

Times when we feel stuck, or that we’ve used up the benefits of practice are important and even necessary. Rather than seeing plateaus in our practice as the endpoint of what yoga has to offer us, we can also understand them as precious moments of transition. They’re times when we are ready to go to the next level of depth or understanding in our practice, or to shift the way we practice.

A plateau can also be an opportunity to examine expectations you might have about how your practice ‘should’ be. It can be easy to fall into the rut of a routine that’s been prescribed to us by a teacher, or a particular lineage. Giving ourselves permission to explore what might need to shift to allow for the next stage in our evolution as yogis is important.

It’s also important to recognize that, as we’ve explored, transformation in yoga happens on many levels, from gross and subtle. As we go deeper and continue down the road of practice, shifts might be less dramatic, more internal and refined. Our understanding and our level of sensitivity and awareness must also adapt to recognize and welcome a new, perhaps more nuanced, level of shift ready to happen.

Plateaus also help us develop tenacity, fortitude and perseverance.  Remember, yoga is not always about the big shift, sometimes it’s just about showing up and continuing down the road.

Next week: Overcoming Boredom in Practice