So you’ve finally taken that first scary step and begun your movement practice. In fact, maybe you’ve managed to continue it for a few weeks or a few months or even years. In the beginning perhaps you felt awkward and incapable. But as you continued you probably began to notice improvement. Those “lightbulb” moments when you suddenly understand something that seemed elusive begin to pile up. Suddenly your body is actually complying with your mental requests and it might even feel easier than it did when you first started. You may also recognize changes in other aspects of your life. Perhaps you now have more energy or endurance. Everyday movements that used to cause stress like climbing stairs or reaching up or digging in the garden or lifting something heavy may start to feel easier.
The big gains often made in the beginning stages of practice can become addictive. We start to feel like we should continue to experience these gains indefinitely. It is disappointing when this doesn’t keep happening. We get frustrated and discouraged. However, nothing goes on forever, including continuous rapid improvement. An article in Yoga Journal reflecting on impermanence describes this phenomenon:
. . . in the beginning, we are on a honeymoon of discovery; we grow by leaps and bounds in ability and understanding. After a couple of decades, however, our poses change much less. As our practice matures, it becomes more about consistency, deeper understanding, and smaller breakthroughs. This is not to say we won’t continue to improve, but the improvement may be subtler.”
This is when it becomes really important to remember all the reasons you began this practice in the first place. In my early days as a Personal Fitness Trainer many of my clients began with the goal of losing weight. Initially they would usually experience some success. A change in eating habits and an increase in physical activity would have the desired effect for a while. But anyone who has ever tried any routine specifically for the purpose of weight loss will know that inevitably one encounters the dreaded plateau. All of that initial improvement seems to grind to a halt and may even backtrack. At times like these there is another important practice to invoke – the often difficult practice of patience. Patience is about being steadfast despite opposition, adversity or difficulty. By the progress you’ve made so far you are already exhibiting this quality. Now is the time to acknowledge this as one more benefit of your practice.
All of the mind-body practices, of which yoga and Pilates are two, encourage cultivation of changes in your mind as well as your body. Mental changes often mean changes in perception. If building endurance is one of your goals for your movement practice it might help to remember that mental endurance is just as important as physical endurance. Hanging in there in the face of obstacles is one manifestation of endurance. So even if your physical practice seems to have stalled, you can still work on the mental part of your practice. Standing firm in the face of challenges to your resolve is another way to demonstrate improvement.
It’s natural to want to abandon your practice when you feel that you are no longer making progress. But just as change came to the initial experience, change will come again. Waiting for it can be difficult. It might help to make a realistic assessment of where you’re at right now. Recognize and celebrate the gains you’ve made. You worked hard for them. They are certainly worth maintaining. Make a list of all the improvements you’ve seen in your life since you started your practice. Look at the big picture. You may find that the improvements go much further than the original goals you set. Think about how you feel physically and mentally. You made a commitment and followed through. If you take classes, focus on the connections you’ve made to others. Your practice has probably helped you to build physical strength, but you have also cultivated inner strength by continuing to practice even when you felt uncertain or insecure. You understood the importance of making time for yourself. That effort has probably also had a positive effect on those around you.
Practice is something we never finish. It is an ongoing effort without a foreseeable end. So stop worrying about the end. Yes, goals are important and we want to keep them in mind to help us stay motivated. But once a goal is reached, there is always a new one to set. General goals like maintaining good health can always be a carrot to dangle. Stay in the moment and enjoy the process. Focus on how you feel. Being able to move in any capacity is a miracle and should be a source of daily gratitude. Just like endurance is more than just physical, so is flexibility. Rather than trying to adhere to rigid rules, be flexible. Adjust your expectations. And above all be kind to yourself. Pat yourself on the back for your many accomplishments. You showed up. That’s the biggest achievement of all.