How to move past a plateau to the next level

Ever get to a point when you’re practicing a skill where you feel stuck? Feel like you’re putting all this effort in, but you aren’t getting any better? Start wondering if you should really be even trying since you’re clearly not cut out for doing it?

Yeah, me neither.

But I recently read a great book, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer that throws a wrench in this thinking. In the book, Foer, who is training his memory skills to compete in a memory competition, explores his learning process. He cites Michael Posner and the late Paul Fitts, two psychologists who described what they termed the “OK plateau” that occurs when you are acquiring a new skill. In the”OK plateau”, you’ve moved past the first stages of mentally and physically getting the hang of a new activity and assimilating this new knowledge. You reach a stage where the activity becomes more autopilot.  It’s no longer as difficult as it was, but you get to a point where you stop improving. You’re ok at what you’re doing, but you’ve come to a plateau.

How do you get past the stagnation? Foer points out Dr. K Anders Erricson’s study of expertise. We move past a plateau by failing keep our brains in the OK plateau. The people who are able to get past this wall and improve further, “deliberately practice the things they aren’t good at or that are hard.” That means failing. On purpose. And using our failures as a tool for improving from our mistakes.

Easier said than done, especially if you’re a person who tends to be a perfectionist. It’s very tempting to stay in the comfort zone of being “OK”, where you don’t fail, but you also never progress any further. In Forrest Yoga, we are continually challenged to stay out of auto-pilot. Consciously staying present in the breath is one of the best ways I know to begin to push past a stuck point in a pose. Yet it’s challenging and sometimes scary and there are days when I just want to zone out, revert to auto-pilot, and go through the motions, staying comfortably on my safe plateau.

In my practice, I’m becoming aware of the times–or particular poses–where I resist the challenge and risk of failure that are required in order to move forward. In an upcoming post, I’ll share how I, along with some fellow yogis,  are committing to push ourselves beyond our wall.


Tip Tuesday: How to Deal With Plateaus

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

I have a lot of students or other folks I know that practice yoga complain about reaching a plateau in their practice. Despite practicing consistently, they feel like they aren’t progressing at all,  nor do they feel stronger or more flexible, and challenging poses seem just as challenging. Here’s some ways to deal when you feel like you’re in a yoga standstill.

1. Do something different Find small ways that you can change your practice. If you always set up your mat at a certain spot in the room, move it to a different area. Whenever you clasp your hands in a yoga pose, move your fingers over one so you are clasping hands in your non-habitual way. Vary your sun salutations by starting on a different foot each time. Take savasana with your feet up the wall, with your knees bent, or with the legs in baddha konasana. These are just a few ideas for ways you can take your usual practice and changing it up just enough to re-engage your brain and keep yourself from falling into habitual patterns that can lead you to feel stagnant and disconnected.

2. Take a break This is probably not the advice most yoga teachers would give you, but honestly, sometimes it helps to take a break from yoga. By “break”, I mean a class or two, not so long that it’s hard to come back to. Bail on one class, get a little more rest or do another form of exercise. I find that when I consciously decide to take a rest day or head off for a walk with friends instead, I start missing yoga and inevitably appreciate it more when I come back to the mat. Some of my biggest breakthroughs with challenging poses have occurred my first practice back after taking a break.

3. Cut yourself some slack…with research to back it up I recently read this terrific book* about the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and change, which is also known as neuroplasticity. Among other points, the book discusses how plateaus are a natural part of learning. At first when people are building a new skill, they progress quickly at first and continue to steadily improve. There reaches a point though where they hit a plateau and outwardly are not making any demonstrable improvements. However, research shows that these plateau periods are progress–it is a built-in part of the process where the brain has to pause and assimilate everything it has learned before it can continue to improve. So while it might not look like you’re moving forward, you actually are just at the brain assimilation phase of learning. (This is a good thing to keep in mind when learning any new skill, not just yoga). So lay off yourself already.



*If you are interested, I highly recommend checking out said terrific book, The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. Fascinating stuff!