It's all good... until, suddenly, you realize you're bored. You've hit the maintenance phase, where putting yourself through daily practice feels about as exciting as washing the dishes, and hustling off to your regular Wednesday night class becomes just one more thing to tick off on your to-do list. The question is, What do you do about it?
"A yoga practice is just like a marriage or any other long-term relationship," says Mebbie Jackson, 46, a longtime yogi with a daily vinyasa practice in Knoxville, Tennesee. "When life gets busy and you don't pay attention to yoga like you should, you can get stuck in a rut. You need always to be working to bring new energy and new tricks into it to keep it interesting."
Jackson actively looks for ways to keep her passion for yoga burning brightly. She found it one night in an Anusara Yoga workshop led by Martin Kirk at the local Glowing Body studio. Kirk is a teacher who makes passion a central theme in his teaching. "Don't just practice by rote; don't ever close down into dogma," he advises. "Find the things you really love about your practice, and explore them more deeply. Let that love inspire your practice so it can inspire your life."
This is just what Jackson needed to hear. "I came to this workshop to recommit and to challenge myself a little more," she says. "I've been practicing for 19 years, and I try to do it every day at home. But when you start doing yoga as daily maintenance, you can forget all the yummy stuff it can do, all the loftier ideals. I need to be reminded."
Do you need to be reminded too? If so, consider these seven ideas for reenergizing your practice. Mull them over, try them out, or let them inspire your own, better ideas. Perhaps among them you'll find just what you need to fan the flames of your own passion for yoga.
Dedicated to the one I love
Sometimes when you are bored or you're feeling that your practice has hit a plateau, it's because you're driven to get a certain pose that's out of reach, like Handstand," says Adi Carter, a teacher who blends Anusara, Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Jivamukti yoga with Pilates. "It can be tremendously helpful to dedicate your practice to feeling grateful for what your body already can do, or appreciating the simple beauty of your breath."
In her classes at Greenhouse Holistic in Brooklyn, Carter advises her students to start their practices by feeling gratitude for how things are. From there, they can expand their focus outward. "Every time you step on the mat, you have the opportunity to ask yourself: 'What do I want to see more of in my life?'" Carter says. "It's a tough question, but it's worth asking. Once you find the answer, you can set an intention to use the energy of your yoga practice to help make it real."
For example, you might want to see more flexibility in your body and mind, and set an intention to work toward that goal. You might want to dedicate your practice to creating peace in all your relationships. Or you can pick something more practical, like reducing the amount of waste you create. "Any intention is heightened by your yoga practice, so set a good one," Carter advises.
Jodie Vicenta Jacobson, 32, often spends a moment in Carter's class sending love to children around the globe. "When I stop, get quiet, and take a breath, I'm reminded that yoga is much bigger than me," she says. "I think yoga helps send my intention out and at the same time seal it in. It's amazing every time."
Let's get anatomical
When you're doing your Down Dog, you're probably focusing on all the bits and pieces—the pressing through the palms, the inner spiral of the legs, the alignment of the elbow creases. But are you really, truly in the pose? "So many longtime yoga practitioners get caught up in where their arms and legs are supposed to be that they forget how to feel the pose," says Susi Hately, a kinesiologist who facilitates Anatomy and asana workshops throughout the United States and her native Canada as well as abroad. "I want someone to understand how their arm bone moves in its socket, or how the pelvic girdle functions. Once they understand how their body really works, all the other alignment cues fall into place."
Hately is a big fan of yoga-oriented anatomy workshops and introductory anatomy courses at community colleges and massage schools. "Any good fundamental anatomy course will teach you the basics: This muscle attaches to that bone and moves that joint in this direction or that direction," she says. "This is the key to understanding how the body moves, and it can give you tremendous insight into how your yoga practice works."
When you have a fundamental grasp of anatomy, you'll understand what your teacher really means when she talks about internally rotating your arms, or why your tight chest muscles are preventing you from straightening your arms overhead. With practice, you may even be able to visualize the cascade of cause-and-effect events that each muscular action sets into motion. And this knowledge can infuse your practice with a new level of curiosity. "When you know the body and understand how and why it moves the way it does, you're able to come at poses from the inside out, rather than from the outside in," Hately says.
A traditional Ashtanga practice takes place in a Mysore room, where students gather together to practice, but don't necessarily do the same poses. But there isn't one in Sebastopol, California, where Ann Austin lives. Austin, a teacher at the local Yoga Studio Ganesha, offered a Mysore room to her students for a while, but there, she was the teacher, not the student. So she created one with her friend Lucky Jamison. "We make a little Mysore room wherever we are—right now, it's in my barn," Austin says. "We get together at 6 a.m. four times a week to practice in our lineage. Then we head home, send our kids off to school, and move on with our lives feeling totally energized."
Practicing together, the two yogis provide each other with inspiration, feedback, adjustments, spotting, and reinforcement. "We keep each other honest," Austin says. "When you are left to your own devices, you're more likely to just do what you want or like. We're not strict, but we both love the practice. We help each other remember that." They have traveled to yoga retreats together and have traded babysitting so that the other can attend classes and workshops. They also study the Yoga Sutra together.
"All you need is a friend who shares your enthusiasm and a space to do your practice in that's separate from your everyday life," Austin says. "To be able to create your own schedule and have your own practice—but not have to forge along the path alone—that's invaluable."
Worth the watch
When Kimberly Greeff, 29, feels like catching a yoga class, it's not so simple. She's a busy working artist, a mother, and the co-owner of Laughing Lotus Yoga of Anchorage, Alaska. So Greeff does what any tech-savvy, semi-isolated, time-pressed yogi would do: She downloads an inspiring podcast class. "I use the podcasts to further my study," she explains. "I love taking a good class with a master teacher, but up here in Alaska, we just don't get the big teachers coming through."
Greeff teaches Forrest Yoga and listens to Ana Forrest's podcasts. But she's also a big fan of Alanna Kaivalya, a Jivamukti master teacher in New York who offers free and subscription podcast classes. Other high-quality yoga podcasts are available through iTunes, iHanuman, and Yoga Journal. DVDs can also be a potent cure for burnout, says Yoga Journal contributing editor Richard Rosen. "There are a few that I watch over and over for their beauty, approach, and for new ideas about how you can practice," he says. "They really have the potential to spark enthusiasm for the practice."
It can be said without (much) irony that any fallow period is an opportunity for self-reflection. Yoga values this process: Svadhyaya, or self-study, is a niyama (observance), one of the eight limbs of classical yoga. You can practice svadhyaya by exploring different styles of yoga, says Shannon Paige Schneider, the founder of Om Time studios in Denver and Boulder.
"Make a list of all the styles available to you, and go and take those classes in a systematic way," she advises. Try one new style every few weeks, and note after each what you liked and what you didn't like. "If you usually practice an alignment-based style, you might like learning to flow in your practice. If you do vinyasa, you might find real power standing still in an Iyengar class. And people who take a restorative class are always amazed that you can lie down and let the yoga do the work," Paige Schneider says.
Feeling stuck in your practice is a sign that you are craving something, she adds. "When you take a different class, you get an instant fresh perspective—you are being asked to use your body in new ways. It's an opportunity to learn a tremendous amount about yourself."
The experience doesn't have to be all good in order to benefit you, either. "What you don't like is as important as what you do like," Paige Schneider says. "You might take a hot yoga class and dislike it. Then you would know that you need something more cooling and soothing. Sparks of wisdom come from good experiences and bad ones."
Sometimes the best way to climb off a practice plateau is to go deeper by taking a private lesson.
"When you are feeling stuck, you'd do much better to spend your money on a private session than on a five-class pass," says Om Time's Paige Schneider. Maybe you're feeling frustrated by a pose. Maybe you're ready to progress in your practice but don't know how. Maybe you need help developing new sequencing that gets you fired up about yoga again. Private classes give you an opportunity to ask questions you never get to in a class setting. "You can be in a room with a yoga teacher every day with 40 other students for years and never realize you drop the inner thigh in Lunge," Paige Schneider says. "In a private, the teacher will make sure you master the action, and you might realize that keeping your inner thigh lifted is the key to transforming all your standing poses."
Private lessons can be expensive; prices range from $50 to $250 for one hour. Consider it an investment in your yoga future. Before you book your appointment, make sure you've got the right teacher. Paige Schneider recommends asking three questions—and looking for excitement in the answers: Do you give many private lessons? Do you like to give private lessons? Do you have the time to give private lessons? "These are more important than How much does it cost?" she says.
Follow your leader
It's a fundamental tenet of yoga that the answers to all our questions—including How do I shake off these doldrums?—can be found within. The problem is, it takes practice to recognize the questions we need to ask and also to hear the answers. Paradoxically, as we learn self-guidance, most of us benefit from the guidance of a wise teacher—a guru, if you will.
"A real guru can see what the student needs and offer the practices at the right time," says Yogiraj Alan Finger, the co-creator (with his father, Kavi Yogi Swarananda Mani Finger) of Ishta Yoga. "Serious students should seek out a teacher who can help them understand how it all works—how asana affects the gunas, doshas, chakras, and the subtle body. When you have that depth of understanding, you will never become bored with the poses. You'll never not want to do it."
They say that the teacher will appear when the student is ready. Still, it doesn't hurt to give fate a hand. So go looking, in books, on videos, across the Web. Look in classes, workshops, and conferences. When you find a teacher whose work resonates with you, do whatever it takes to learn everything you can from him.
You can choose a period of time, say a year, to commit to one teacher, and just do it, if for no other reason than this: You might just transform your life.
Hillari Dowdle, a former Yoga Journal editor, writes in Knoxsville, Tennessee.