My first steady yoga practice was not at a studio, and it wasn’t particularly alignment-based. I had a DVD that I practiced with two or three times a week. Even though at some point I knew most of the sequence, I liked practicing with the DVD because it meant I could surrender my will and just ride the experience.
After a few times through, I wasn’t trying to learn the poses better or to get deeper into them. I was genuinely able to notice my breath, to witness how my body felt that day, and to observe what thoughts popped up during which portions of the practice.
I distinctly remember one time beginning the practice with some congestion and a stuffy nose, and the exact moment (in a spinal twist) when I felt my breath shift and the congested nostril open up. It felt like magic. Same exact pose, totally fresh experience.
See, by doing this same sequence again and again, even hearing the same lines again and again, I was meeting myself, as I was that day, as the only variable.
This is the value of doing the same thing over and over again: YOU are the variable, and you discover that YOU are always changing.
And, here is the downside of doing the same thing over and over again: you may get a little too comfortable. You may reinforce habits that aren’t really useful. You may dig deeper and deeper ruts into your movement patterns and thought patterns until you forget you’re even in a rut, or how you got there.
I often compare a purposeful practice to a laboratory. You’re trying to limit the variables, so you can learn more about a particular thing.
If the thing you’re trying to learn about is just a general state-of-the-union sense of “How am I?” then a ritualized, repetitive practice may suit you, for a while.
But if the thing you’re trying to learn about is more particular, you may want more tools.
Say you wake up with a weird tightness in your neck. If you do a practice that’s your standard, repetitive, whole-body endeavor, you probably won’t learn that much about what does or doesn’t help your neck feel better.
But if you simplify, isolate some movements, and do very small and exploratory and specific things around and near your neck, you may learn something. You will likely change more quickly.
So, a practice that’s a very ritualized, repetitive routine may be useful for revealing to you your own ongoing change and inner state. And, particularly if the outside world is overwhelming, the comfort of a familiar ritual may allow you to relax in ways that novelty wouldn’t. This is no small thing.
I’m saying repetition has value. There are times when it’s right.
Even if your goal and your need is to gradually unravel your own patterns, some repetition, so you can see what you’re measuring against, is probably going to be really valuable.
And — it’s also true that the real world doesn’t hold still.
So if you’re seeking, in your practice, to grow more skillful with meeting the real world with presence and resilience, it’s probably useful to have a practice that keeps you on your toes a bit, that might reveal things you wouldn’t learn if you were doing the same thing, in the same way, again and again.
So what’s the right balance for you?
It’ll probably change over time.
These days, in my practice, I tend to mix it up a lot more – I’m constantly seeking new movements and subtle ways to mix things up and find fresh patterns of movement and thought.
But there are still simple sequences I revisit again and again, learning more nuances each time.
The trick, I think, is to try to find the best of both: the interest in meeting yourself, just as you are, as the key variable; and the willingness to let each practice reveal something new, rather than deepen your grooves.
What combination of novelty and freshness best helps you learn, grow, heal, and evolve?