When can it be okay to not practice? Indeed, when is it advisable to not practice?
The ashtanga vinyasa system is, after all, a practice, not a workout. Importantly, this means we want to practice smarter, not just harder. The mind-body is not a dumb muscle that we can batter into flexibility or strength.
So, as a practice, it is definitely possible to plateau. It's possible to burn out. It is possible to experience many of the symptoms of overtraining. (Fatigue, exhaustion, weakness, depression.)
Most casual yogis and yogins will not reach this level. Practicing 2 to 3 times a week — even 4 — isn't sufficient to exhaust the central nervous system.
However, practicing 5 to 6 days a week, every day, for 5 years ...
To plateau is definitely possible.
True burnout tends not to occur for many practitioners, though, simply because life, as is its wont, hurls those terrific curveballs at us, and we invariably take time away from our mats, whether due to family obligations, work, travel, illness, or injury.
Let's say, though, that you've managed to avoid those influences that pull us from our mats, and also let's say that, for whatever reason, you've hit a place in your asana practice where you are stuck.
This can manifest as failure to perform the state of the asana — which in ashtanga vinyasa also often includes the transition — even though you've been practicing that asana for a lengthy period of time.
What's lengthy? Well, if you're a casual practitioner, it may come as a bit of a shock that some of the more complicated asanas can take 8 months to 2 years to perform as indicated.
My wife Tara took perhaps 8 months to a year-and-a-half to comfortably address eka pada sirsasana.
I started with Tim Miller in 2001, and he adjusted me every single day in baddha konasana, until I returned from India in mid-2004, at which point he said, "You no longer need my help."
That would be The Squash every fucking day for 3 years.
(Don’t even ask me the lengths to which I went outside of class to facilitate this process, either.)
So what to do when you hit a pose at which you're stuck ... and a year slips past? And you're still on that pose, with no measurable progress?
First of all, allow me to repeat the old yogic chestnut, "Practice non-attachment."
Now let me add: That chestnut is utter horseshit.
"Practice non-attachment" has devolved into a cliché empty of meaning. It's become a yogic-New Age-Buddhist catchphrase.
Usually it's uttered like a mantra as a result of pain that has arisen when a desire is not gratified or an expectation fulfilled.
You didn't get the raise you were expecting at work? "Practice non-attachment!" you tell yourself.
"Practice non-attachment!" the guy on the mat next to you says after watching you struggle to reach your toes in kapotasana.
This “mantra” helps you avoid looking at and experiencing the disappointment, anger, sadness, and fear that your boss' frown and shaking head has created in you.
This “mantra” also creates a subtle sense of guilt and inadequacy, as though something were wrong with you for wanting to touch your toes in kapotasana.
And oh! If you only practice harder, more correctly, more fervently, then one day that glorious state of non-attachment will arrive. Then life will be one giant red velvet cupcake with cream-cheese frosting.
Well, it’s not going to happen.
Attachment and non-attachment are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. They are not separate. As soon as you try to "practice non-attachment," you are practicing attachment.
So we don't want to utter a trite catchphrase as deferment or deflection.
Yoga is not teaching us to defer our feelings and thoughts. It is not training us to detach from them. It's teaching us to acknowledge them as they arise, see them for what they are, and then see that we are not those feelings and thoughts, though we become so when we identify with them.
So, what to do? What to do when the plateau hits and frustration arises? Frustration is a normal part of a daily and intense practice — it's the flip side of the coin of intense effort. Intense effort is essential to getting up every day to get on the mat, after all. Like our friends "attachment" and "non-attachment," "effort" is not separate from "frustration."
It can be helpful to know: are you the first person to ever experience the plateau and its partner, frustration?
Patanjali doesn't think so: in book 1 of his Yoga Sutras, verse 30 addresses nine obstacles that arise during practice. He calls them "antarayah," or obstacles, and they function as "citta-vikshepa" that “vikshepa,” or “scatter” the "citta," or mind.
The first antarayah he lists is vyadhi, which is illness or sickness.
Hopefully, your practice of the primary series of ashtanga vinyasa has strengthened your body and "purified" your mind and body of "toxins": hopefully, it's made you more aware of your physical, social, dietary, and personal habits, and allowed you to tune, tweak or adjust all of them to be more effortless, more in tune, in order to more consistently practice the techniques that will allow a still mind to arise.
The second antarayah Patanjali lists is "styana," or "stuck-ness." Sound familiar?
So now that you've been made aware that these are naturally occurring obstacles — which means there's nothing wrong with you — what to do?
As I mentioned before, the idea is to practice smarter, not harder. After a certain point, simply showing up daily and hurling yourself at an asana is not going to effect any further transformation on the nervous system.
Patanjali can again be helpful to us here, as he goes on to list in verse 31 some of the symptoms of the aforementioned obstacles.
If you've ever struggled with an asana, they should be familiar: "dukkha, "daurmanasya," "anga-mejayatva" and "shvasa-prashvasa."
That is, "suffering" or "dis-ease," a "sour" or "bitter" outlook (I like to think of the word "dour"), anxiety ("anga" meaning "limb" and "mejayatva" meaning "trembling," so this literally means "shaking of the limbs"), and "shvasa-prashvasa," which refers to an unsteady or irrythmic in- and out-breath.
So we end on the breath — which, as we practice ashtanga vinyasa, is a good sign, and which leads us back to my favorite horse-shit yogism: "Practice non-attachment." We can't practice non-attachment without practicing attachment.
But we can practice steadying and lengthening our breath (a technique Patanjali suggests in later Sutras), we can activate internal "locks," or bandhas, we can then synch our movement with our breath. Given a pinch of grace, we can allow a condition of non-attachment to arise.
In verse 33, Patanjali goes on to suggest that in order to stop the aforementioned mental projections, and their ensuing symptoms, we ought to practice, “abhyasah,” one principle or truth: “eka tattva.”
Personally, I take this to mean we should find a practice that resonates with us — and then stick to it! Don’t go switching it up because you want to do what “feels good.” But I digress to a previous post’s topic.
How can we translate "practice smarter" to real-world, concrete principles? It's not easy, it will vary from person to person, and it will take someone familiar with your practice to provide some perspective, scale and impartial observation for you.
The following ideas really only work if one is practicing 5 or 6 days a week, and has consistently for years. That is, if a daily yoga consistent yoga practice has become standard.
If you hit that plateau, and it's not budging after say, a whole year: why not take time off?
Don't come in.
Stay home. Sleep in. Take a week off, maybe 10 days.
(Usually, you will miss the practice. Trust me, getting back on the mat will be the least of your worries.)
It will be a very interesting exercise in noticing any grasping or hoarding tendencies you may have towards the practice, and by noticing and acknowledging them, hopefully the scrabbling, clenching intensity will recede.
Or, for example, you could practice all of the standing sequence ... and then you could sit!
I know, it's a rather revolutionary idea, but perhaps it's time you developed a sitting or breathing practice. There is a rigorous and, might I add, highly effective system of ashtanga vinyasa pranayama that ought to be practiced.
You could, perhaps, practice every other day for two weeks, so that you were only practicing 3 days a week. You could again use the free days to develop your sitting practice.
The main thrust of any of these techniques is that using your breath, your bandhas, and following the vinyasa, you will come to recognize that the disturbances of your mind are just that: disturbances of the mind.
I’ll close with by reiterating the fact that the above-mentioned strategies only work for someone who is doing the practice as recommended 5 or 6 days a week. They will have no effect if half-weeks or truncated sequences are your normal method of practice.