Ashtanga Yoga is a system of increasingly challenging sequences of asanas that are developed and mastered over time through practice. As in any endeavour that is a slow process of growth towards mastery, whether it’s Ashtanga Yoga, running a marathon or becoming fluent in Mandarin (to name a couple of non-yoga examples), we have to proceed through series of growth spurts and plateaux. We naturally improve up to a point and then appear to stall.
To quote a literary hero of mine, David Foster Wallace, referring to competitive tennis in his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, “the only way to get off the plateaus (sic) and climb to the next [level]… is with a whole lot of… repetitive practice and patience and hanging in there.” (references are tricky as I’m quoting from my iBook copy. With adjustable fonts and sizes, page references are variable and therefore meaningless.)
Now what becomes of the Ashtangis who are either unwilling or unable to surrender and hang in there? What becomes of those of us who haven’t the patience, faith, non-attachment and trust to persevere?
We now describe and mourn the Despairing Ashtangi.
I’ve seen it time and time again. A student is great as long as he or she is in the improvement phase of practice. Things are opening up. New asanas are coming regularly and life is good, indeed. This student is often one of the loudest and most enthusiastic proponents of how great the practice is… that is until he or she hits a dreaded plateau.
The thing about hitting a plateau is we don’t always just see ourselves stall. Sometimes, we actually see things get a little worse for awhile. We find we have trouble with things that were easy just a short time earlier. Practice becomes harder for a time.
The Despairing Ashtangi starts to feel frustrated, then angry and then despairs. The plateau drags on and on, week after week, and begins to seem unending and the student’s faith that ‘it’s just a phase’ starts to get clouded with doubt.
Doubt breeds dark thoughts. Eventually, the spectre of “what’s the point” starts whispering in the student’s ear. He or she starts missing class here and there. When he or she comes to practice, the missed days make practice more difficult and a vicious cycle of difficulty and doubt spins downward until… It’s quitting time! The formerly enthusiastic student eventually jumps ship.
Sometimes, these students find their way back onto their mats. Sometimes, the experience of what life is like without practice is enough to renew their commitment. Sometimes, these students move from teacher to teacher looking to be saved by a magic adjustment or practice-tip. Sometimes, the student moves to another style of yoga or another activity altogether where he or she can experience the quick improvement phase again.
So what’s the antidote to despair? The simplest answer is to keep in mind that more asanas is not the measure of success in yoga practice. (For a discussion of Asana in the Yoga Tradition, click here.) It is also important to use the time spent on these plateaux to develop patience, faith, trust and non-attachment. Remember, hitting plateaux and wondering whether we’ll ever start climbing again is natural. It has happened to anyone and everyone who has practiced Astanga Yoga for any extended period of time.
Paul Gold is an Ashtanga practitioner and teacher. He co-owns and co-directs Ashtanga Yoga Shala in Toronto with his wife Rachelle. He made his first trip to Mysore in 2001 to study with Sri K Pattabhi Jois. He and his wife return annually to continue their studies with R Sharath Jois. He is KPJAYI Level 2 Authorized. In addition to periodic submissions to Elephant Journal, he maintains a personal blog