End game? Untethering the act of practicing from the feeling I want from practice

It’s a bumpy plane ride back to Michigan–so bumpy they’ve had to discontinue the beverage service. I really wanted my ginger ale, but I guess I’ll have to be content with observing my sensation of thirst rather than observing the sensation of that thirst being satiated. It should be a little easier to do now that I’ve finished reading The Mirror of Yoga by Richard Freeman, which dwells quite a bit on the process of, and benefits of, making room for clear observation rather than seeing everything through the prism of preconceived ideals.

On the way to California to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with my family, I blogged about Freeman’s story about the misguided man digging his wells. On the flight back, I want to touch on one paragraph in the book that speaks to how to free yourself from “the game you have constructed in your mind of what practicing is.”

What makes this topic particularly interesting to me right now is thinking about what the process of unhooking ideals from experiences might say about the possibility of doing the same for other aspects of our lives–from our body image to our careers to our most intimate relationships.

In “Cutting Through Fundamentalism,” the last chapter of the book, Freeman writes:

Practicing yoga is not always easy. Sometimes the biggest difficulty is arranging a time to do it: starting the session of practice. But if you can trick yourself into just beginning, it often works out. If you have arranged a time to practice but do not really feel like practicing, the trick is to convince yourself to simply stand up in a samasthitih, to take three breaths, thinking that you will allow yourself to go off and do something else after that simple ritual. Then after standing in samasthitih, it often turns out that the idea of taking a big inhale, raising your arms and doing half of a sun salutation is alluring. Having done that, one full sun salutation before quitting may seem reasonable. Soon you may find yourself doing two, and then three sun salutations; and then all of a sudden, you are in the groove and the practice continues. (p. 203)

First off, I think this is true of anything–hitting the gym, doing exercise videos at home, learning how to play an instrument, and on and on.

A few years ago, before I started a more regular yoga practice, I used to let my car decide if I went to class after work or not. By that I mean that I usually *wanted* to go to class after work, but often I didn’t *feel* like going to work. Usually, it was because I was so drained (it was a very taxing job) that even though I knew I would feel better after moving my body in coordination with my breath for 90 minutes, I also knew I would feel better if I simply went home and collapsed. But as time went on, my car pointed me in the direction of the yoga studio more and more consistently, to a point where it was routine to go to studio after work, even if I didn’t feel like it.

One reason the practice can be difficult is that the mind is a very strict taskmaster, and it often creates images of what practice is or it should be. The parameters your own mind sets for the practice may erode the foundation of the practice itself; if you cannot do a ‘good’ practice, why practice at all? (p. 203)

Once I started going to the power yoga studio two or three, then four or five times a week consistently, I knew the next phase of my practice journey would be to try to establish a home morning Ashtanga practice. A big hang-up there was that I hated how my body felt practicing in the morning–my muscles felt ice cold, for one. That first uttanasana (standing forward fold) was always awful. On the flip side, my mind wasn’t as cluttered as it would get in the evening after work, which meant I felt I had less mental chatter to try to quiet down–again, less motivation to practice in the morning. I sort of thought I should save practicing for when my body and my mind appreciated it more.

You may think to yourself that if you are going to sit in meditation, you must sit for forty-five minutes. If you are going to practice pranayama, you should practice it for one hour, and that if you are going to practice asana, two hours is the minimum. When, in fact, if you were to do any of these practices with true concentration even for two seconds, you would open up the core of the body and have remarkable insight and a sense of freedom–particularly a sense of release from the game you have constructed in your mind of what practicing is. Again, we run into the notion of drawing a circle (defining the parameters of our practice) and erasing that circle (having mercy on ourselves if we cannot meet the standards we set for ourselves). For beginning students, allowing some leeway in some of the parameters we set for ourselves about the structure and consistency of our practice can be the golden ticket to jump-start a routine of practice that, once it is going, automatically draws you back day after day, year after year. (p. 204)

As I’ve chronicled over the past few weeks, I finally, a few short months ago, started a six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice (not a moment too soon either, considering I took my first Ashtanga class around 1999 or 2000 and have loved it since). I was doing it for the discipline more than anything else. I’m experienced enough now (read: old! :-) ) to know that a guaranteed way to fail would be to say that if I couldn’t practice for at least 90 minutes, I wouldn’t start to practice. On most days, that means I practice for an hour. Once or twice a week, I get nearly two hours. Maybe once a week, I might get as little as 50 minutes. But as I’ve said in recent blog posts, I don’t beat myself up for it.

This has meant that since August, I have slowly but surely started to untether the act of practicing from the feeling of practicing. I no longer turn off my alarm after hitting snooze a couple of times and tell myself that despite my best intentions, I won’t be getting up to practice because how good could that practice feel if I’m this tired, if it’s this cold, and if I have such little time. I no longer step on my mat at 6:30 a.m. thinking, “Well, this won’t feel very good physically, which means it won’t feel as beneficial mentally or emotionally.” I just get on my mat and start.

It is what it is–and for that, I have started to realize that if there is any tethering, it should be to connect the act of practicing with the feeling of contentment and gratitude, no matter what kinds of sensations arise in the muscles, joints and everything else.

Getting back to what prompted Freeman to dive into this point, it’s an interesting exercise to think about what other games we have constructed in our mind of what ____ (fill in the blank: acceptable physique, ideal spouse, etc.) is–and how our practice might be able to free us from it.

(Photo credit: Tether ball by gzap via Flickr Creative Commons

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