There are a few ways that repetition is useful in a yoga practice. First, it wears a groove and opens us to experiences of greater depth. Constant change in our yoga practices is amazing- it builds resilience and the ability to adapt. But this experience of yoga – to become yoked to our deeper wisdom self – requires that we dig down deep enough to hit a level of awakening beyond our normal waking state. One benefit of getting in a groove, if we do it consciously, is that when our practice gets disrupted it’s easier to shift back into the positive mental and physical states we are cultivating. Perpetual change can break apart obstructions which obscure those deeper levels of ourselves, but once again, repetition is a key component to really getting deep in there. Like digging a hole, if we just take out a scoop here and there as we wish…our well will never be dug deep enough to access the clear pure water. Yoga works the same way.
Repetition is also a great tool for assessing our bodies from day to day. To get an accurate assessment, we need to do the same posture as we did the day before. Yesterday, my Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half seated spinal twist) was at a level I’d never experienced in 30 years of practice. Today, it wasn’t even at my average. This is interesting. It’s information about my body, my habits and my stress responses to the world around me. Repetition can lead to realization and understanding.
The other thing to consider though, is that repetition invites unconsciousness if it’s not the right time and place to do it. I remember when I started practicing I frequented the local Bikram studio. I thrived in the heat and the repetition. Then one day my knees started to hurt. I took a break from the practice and focused on Vinyasa for a while. As I embraced returning to vinyasa, I realized that in Bikram class I was going to sleep. Instead of using repetition to fine tune my execution of the postures – I practiced by rote, but was thinking about cupcakes. At first I thought the form of yoga I was doing was the problem. I realized as I practiced more and became more knowledgeable that, no, I had just gotten bored and stopped paying attention to the details. As a teacher I saw many students who gave up a posture or a style of yoga because they felt it wasn’t good for them. My experience is that when we experience a painful result it’s a call to greater attention to our moments on the mat, and to develop greater self awareness of the body in whatever way we can. Sometimes a change in practice wakes us up. Sometimes we just need to tune in deeply to what we are doing.
So how to practice with repetition in a way that is wise? You can place the posture repeatedly at certain junctures in the sequence you are practicing. Say Arhdhamatsyendrasana…at the beginning before sun salutes, after standing, between back bends and forward bends, between each back bend. Working this way requires that you begin with a very gentle execution of the posture and go progressively deeper.
Another approach is to design a short sequence to prepare for the posture you are working on and then repeat that entire short sequence at key junctures in your daily practice. This creates depth, and you can tweak the sequence to explore the impact of various lead ins to the posture you are exploring.
The last approach I’ll mention today is that you can just repeat a single posture several times a day, every day for a certain amount of time – a week, a month, a year. This will help you truly own the posture in a healthy way – it creates an intimacy with it that can change your whole understanding of yoga. Practicing repetition in asana practice is a profound way to deepen your practice and to experientially deepen your understanding of particular postures, how they work, the dynamics created by placing them in certain points of sequence. It’s a great way to transition your practice and teaching from a place where you are practicing and teaching what you have been told by others into a place where you are practicing and teaching from your own inner knowing.