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Q&A: Have I Hit a Plateau?

Mary Dunn offers advice for identifying plateaus in your practice and working with them.

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After practicing at home for a few years, I now experience resistance in poses that used to come easily (Trikonasana and Uttanasana) and in new poses I’m trying (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). Have I reached a plateau? If so, what can I do about it?

–Tara Seabrook, Ft. Walton Beach, Florida

Mary Dunn’s reply:

The transition from a home practice to learning with a teacher often raises this question, as teacher feedback adds additional elements to your understanding of the postures. A feeling of resistance is natural if you identify with your experience of the asana before the feedback. For example, in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), a student who studies without the benefit of a teacher might measure progress by how close she can get her hand to the floor. But when the same student corrects the action of the legs, the openness of the chest, and the position of the shoulders and head, the hand may not reach the ground so easily.

Likewise, in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), students often identify with whether or not the hands reach the floor. But there are other parts of the pose beyond its outward appearance. You should feel like you’re stretching the legs all the way from the feet to the hips and from the hips through the buttocks to the entire back. The legs should be stable, and you should also breathe deeply to facilitate release in the trunk muscles and the back.

At first glance, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose) also offers a goal: holding the foot. But if you look deeper, you can see that steadiness and evenness in the back, shoulders, and hips are just as important, if not more so.

All of us come to the blueprint of a pose with our past experiences, and the constant evolution of our understanding of an asana involves concepts that often seem contradictory. Reconciling these seeming contradictions means learning on a deep level.

Yoga practice can challenge us to concentrate more clearly, and to expand our concentration to include awareness of our breath and our complete state of being. We can experience freedom from deeply laid habits and preconceptions about who we are. If we consciously accept more facets into our practice, we can experience a more complete acceptance of ourselves. We become free for growth and change.

A plateau is not necessarily an uninteresting place to be. Unpopulated by obvious goals, it can help us create a state of mind in which we gain experience and tools for internalizing a state of harmony. It can bring qualities of clarity, immediacy, concentration, and peace to our practice.

Mary Dunn began her study and practice of Iyengar Yoga with B.K.S. Iyengar in 1974. She was pivotal in the creation of major Iyengar Yoga centers in Northern and Southern California as well as in New York. Dunn currently teaches at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York and leads tours of world cultural centers for Yoga Out There.