"Practice and all is coming."
-Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
To an outsider, yoga culture can seem very cultish. It is filled with its own luminaries, attire choices, and even vocabulary. The word "practice" is teeming with this type of mystical connotation. If you've ever stepped into a yoga class, or even talked to friends that have, you will notice that everyone uses the word "practice" to describe their yoga activity. I can still recall the first few classes I ever took and my feeling of apprehension when teachers would ask their students, "How is your practice coming along?" or the tiny bit of envy when another student was complimented on their "strong practice." I have since adopted the word into my vocabulary without really understanding the origin of the term.
This past weekend, I attended a series of workshops by one of my teachers, Maty Ezraty. During class, she said that when we (inevitably) discovered something new that we needed to work on, that we should approach the opportunity for self-improvement with joy and optimism. If we approach yoga in this way, our practice will always continue to grow, and we can find a method for staying positive and free of judgement from our own expectations. At the end of this discussion, she reminded us that "all we are doing is practicing every day," just practicing to get a little bit better each time.
This idea offered immense feelings of relief for me. In an arena where we work from the outside in, often concentrating on different asanas or postures in class, it is easy to become focused on reaching the end point of physical perfection. Of course, this is an unattainable goal, and if we measure our progress by how much closer we are to an unattainable end point, we will only continue to see inadequacies. There is much about the body that can be changed through yoga. Regular practice can help you increase your flexibility and strength and also help you develop the mind-body connection. However, there is much about the body that cannot be changed. Every human is born with a different skeletal structure and not every posture is actually possible with every body. And even with the correct anatomical structures, the rate of progression in our practice still requires patience. Although yoga can help develop self-acceptance and compassion, it can also fester feelings of failure or "less-thans."
I played the piano for many years; from the age of 4 to 18, I spent countless hours each week practicing for recitals and competitions. I felt that my daily sessions and weekly lessons were always just a dress rehearsal for the final show. Most of my time with the piano was actually spent practicing, exploring different pieces of music, familiarizing myself with the difficulties of each song, and trying to remedying the mistakes that I would make over and over again. Although my life as a musician was a result of this process, I always felt that the reason I practiced was to not screw it up when I had an audience, the only time it really mattered. In the end, I won very few competitions (only once! when I peaked at 5 years old) and always made mistakes during concerts. As a result, I felt like a second-rate musician, comparing myself to my friends who didn't have the same issues.
This theme has repeated itself over and over again in my life: when my high school lacrosse team lost our final game, or when I lost my last debate in my college debate career. I felt like the time I invested in each activity was a waste because I had failed when the barometer of success came to test me. Unfortunately, I sometimes also apply this mindset to my yoga practice. I catch myself feeling like a yogic failure because I can't balance in a handstand, or frustrated by my inability to extend my leg fully in compass pose. On the flip side, I feel like a success when I can finally lift off in an arm balance--a feeling that is ultimately fleeting and temporary.
Given the easy tendency for all of us to apply self-judgement to our lives, imagine the sense of relief it might offer when we realize that there is no final concert or end point when we will be judged for our competency or lack thereof. The title of my blog post is actually a little bit misleading. The truth is, there is no right way to practice yoga. The trick is just to remember that we are all only practicing every day. Every time we get on our mat, we are granted the opportunity to start over and to make progress indefinitely, with no pressure to ever be perfect. And for me, that is the true essence of yoga.