There is an old story that has always fascinated me. It is said that Amish women would deliberately include a mistake in their breathtaking, handmade quilts. One interpretation of these mistakes is that, because only God is perfect, it would be prideful to create a perfect quilt. Another is that the mistake would give the quilt “identity” or make it stand out as its maker’s own work. In fact, neither is true. It turns out that handmade quilts are imperfect simply because it’s really hard to make one without messing up.
Knowing that this story is just that – a story or myth – didn’t weaken its hold on my imagination. Over the years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in antique and “junk” stores where there can be an abundance of handmade quilts. I love searching them for mistakes and have found that there is more than one way that quilt-makers handle their “goofs.”
In some quilts, you can see that a mistake has been picked out or reworked. While this gives that area of the quilt a slightly worn or messy look, I like to imagine the lessons learned as the artist tried and tried again to get it right. In others, you can see that the artist has chosen to pretend the missed stitch or irregularly cut piece of fabric never happened, simply picking up the regular rhythm at the very next stitch or piece. Hoping no one will notice a little mistake within the quilt’s larger beauty takes a certain level of optimism that makes me smile. Still others (these are my favorites) give their mistake a flourish – giving an oddly shaped piece of fabric extra fancy stitching around the edges or turning a bad stitch into a little star or flower. I love these glimpses of the artist’s willingness to embrace her mistake and incorporate it into the work of art.
Snooping around in piles of old quilts has taught me – in the abstract, at least – a great deal about the nature of mistakes: They are chances to practice and to learn. They are often irrelevant to the beauty and quality of your end result. Not only that, but your mistakes can actually make your final product more distinctly yours – giving it a certain panache that it wouldn’t have had without the error. It took spending almost fifteen years messing around on a yoga mat to bring this lesson to life for me.
Just as it is really, really hard to make a perfect handmade quilt, it is really hard to have a perfect yoga practice. In fact, the mind wanders, the gaze shifts, postures collapse, and the breath gets out of synch with movement much more easily than stitches are skipped or fabric is cut poorly. Even the best practices will be filled with errors. It’s just the nature of the beast.
The good news is that we’re not practicing to be perfect. We’re practicing for the opportunity to practice. By doing so, we give ourselves the opportunity to grow, to change, to get stronger, to become more flexible, to become more focused, to be more in touch with God. As we practice day after day, we will get better. That’s just the nature of practice. But, as we do, the practice simply offers more challenges to keep us in the position of growth – a place that is typically filled with many chances to mess up.
All these years later, I am confident that mistakes on my yoga mat will never be a thing of the past. In fact, I’ve set aside the notion that I will ever achieve a perfect practice. Instead, I’ve realized that what yoga is asking me is to observe how I respond to my inevitable mistakes. Like the quilters whose work I’ve studied, I have choices in how I handle my mistakes.
When I topple out of the standing balance where I’m holding the big toe of my raised leg, I can choose to take a deep breath and try again. Depending on the circumstances, this can be a good choice. More often than not, I will need several tries, which takes some extra time and energy. But each try is worth the time and energy it requires as it affords me the chance to better understand what it takes to find the stability and strength I need to hold the posture for five long breaths.
On another day, I may choose to ignore my fall and simply move on to the next posture. This can also be a good choice. If I fall over on my last breath, it might make more sense to move on. Similarly, this is a good choice if I’m squeezed for time that day. Or if I know ahead of time that I want to spend some extra time and energy on a subsequent posture.
On still other (often light-hearted) days, I may choose to incorporate my fall into the flow of my practice. I have a student who is particularly good at turning his wobbles into “dance moves” on his mat as he finds his way into balance. He’s not the only one smiling broadly when he finally finds stability. Typically the whole class is grinning along with him all while perched on one foot.
The more I pay attention to how I respond to my mistakes on my yoga mat, the more I see the same responses off my mat. Getting comfortable with mistakes has been very liberating. My mistakes have allowed me to learn more from life than I ever would if I hadn’t made them. Embracing my mistakes has allowed me to ease up on myself. Sometimes, my mistakes have brightened my work – on and off the mat – with a good laugh or a little extra-special “flair.” Mistakes are simply a part of the journey. When you really believe this, you can set aside every last hint of aspiration toward perfection and instead grow and change (and laugh) a little bit more.
Whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a coach, a manager, a teammate or a friend, you’ve had many opportunities to provide feedback on someone else’s work. Though this is something we must all do in life, it is not something that is easy. A keen awareness of the person we’re talking to goes a long way. So does paying attention to how our remarks are received. With awareness and kindness, we can learn the art of constructive criticism.
And it is an art. We learn to balance negative remarks with positive ones. We learn linguistic tricks – “If it were me, I’d do it this way,” “Have you thought about it from this perspective?” or “It might help if you try this …” We learn to manage our tone of voice and facial expressions so that what we’re saying looks and sounds as compassionate and helpful as we intend it to be. In short, it’s possible to get pretty good at suggesting ways that others can improve.
But we often forget that sometimes it’s not criticism or suggestions for improvement that are needed. Sometimes, it’s more powerful to find something to celebrate in someone else’s work.
I can hear you now. “How will my employee ever learn if I don’t tell him what he did wrong?” “Won’t my teammate get complacent and stop trying to improve if all I do is compliment her?” “Isn’t it gratuitous praise that is systematically destroying the grit of our children?”
These are good questions. I’m not suggesting praise where it’s not deserved or compliments instead of warranted criticism. To do so, would absolutely have the effects that concern you. What I am suggesting is that there are times – many more than we expect – when a word of praise, a sincere compliment or a moment to celebrate a job well done will do more to inspire someone to growth and improvement than any criticism – no matter how artful or how constructive – ever could.
If you’re worried that substituting praise for important feedback will damage the future of your team, or your business or (gasp!) your child, you might consider experimenting on yourself. After all, if you’re a normal human being, there is no doubt that you are harder on yourself than you would ever be on someone else. Therefore, you deserve a little T.L.C. To make this even less threatening, you can try it within the safe confines of your yoga mat as you practice.
I tried it earlier this week, actually. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, as I was moving through a series of postures that I’m still very much figuring out. In other words, I wasn’t practicing postures that are easy for me or that I do particularly well. Because of this, it took some serious willpower to tune out the voice of my inner critic. That voice has a lot to say as I move through this series. Sometimes it offers helpful suggestions – “Try shifting your gaze.” Sometimes it is encouraging – “Go on, try it again.” And sometimes it is downright harsh – “Well that totally rotted. Is that the best you’ve got?”
Because my inner critic is so well-established, for this experiment I quickly discovered that I was going to need to tune her out entirely if I wanted to find something to celebrate within my practice. I was not going to be able to focus on what went reasonably well or mostly right if I allowed my critic any space at all. So instead of working extra hard to get better at this series, I chose instead to simply flow through the postures as best I could, keeping an eye peeled for moments when I could pat myself on the back.
For the first half-hour it took everything I had to resist the urge to seek improvement. I eventually slipped into a focused state where my mind quieted and settled into the pulse of my breath and movements. I actually forgot to keep an eye out for something to praise. In a shocking twist, it was in a posture that regularly eludes me and often requires many tries for me to find even a hint of success that my moment of celebration showed up. If I’d been feeling slightly snarky, I could have celebrated the fact that I was on attempt number five and had yet to slip into constructive (OK, destructive) criticism mode. But my head was deeply in the game and I simply tried the posture one more time.
I nailed it. Mind you, I didn’t hold it for the ten breaths I typically require of myself. I lost my balance and had to come down after only three. But before I even thought about trying again so I could hold it longer, I thought, “Well done! You did it! That was great!” I took a breath and let that feedback wash over me. Not only did it feel good to pat myself on the back, but I was surprised to find that I agreed with my own assessment. It was great. I had done it. And celebrating felt good. Celebrating gave me a proverbial spring in my step and left a smile on my face as I moved through the rest of my practice. As I laid back into savasana, I wasn’t even sure if it had been a particularly good (as in adept) practice. What I knew with deep certainty was that I felt good.
Better yet, I found that I was enthusiastically looking forward to trying that challenging posture again the next day. That kind of eager motivation is exactly the result you can get if take a moment to celebrate someone’s work without an ounce of criticism or suggestion. Taking a moment to bask in the glow of a good effort – your employee’s, your teammate’s, your child’s or even your own – can be powerfully inspiring.
Go ahead! Give it a try.
Listening to my kids’ voice lessons is one of my favorite ways to spend an hour. Mostly, as the only time I sing these days is in church, it’s a sweet time for me to sit back and be impressed by my offspring. But, every once in a while I learn something, too.
This week my daughter was working on a new piece from Stephen Schwartz’s musical, Children of Eden. This song is a good fit for her as an alto, but there are a few lines that stretch up into the soprano zone. Though she has a remarkably wide range, my daughter has always been more comfortable in her lower register, so these phrases were challenging her. I could actually hear the tenor of her voice change as she clenched up before the high notes. Every time, her smooth, rich tones would morph into a thin, smaller, slightly choked sound.
Her teacher stood behind her, gently feeling her neck and throat as she sang. As she tried again and again to stretch to those high notes, her teacher said, “Can you feel what you’re doing? You’re trying too hard. Relax. You were way above these notes when you warmed up. You’ve got this.” And then, with her teacher still standing behind her, she did get it. She simply sang those high notes as she’d sung all the rest. With a look of astonishment (and a self-satisfied smile), my daughter said, “I was gripping my throat so hard. When I let that go, I could just throw my voice up there!”
In addition to the goose bumps that spring up on my arms get whenever one of my kids does something really well, I had a flash of insight that made me want to run home and unroll my yoga mat. I, too have had the experience of trying so hard at something that my effort actually holds me back. Actually, I’ve had that experience many times. I’ve had it when I’m first learning a new posture. I’ve had it when I’m approaching a posture that is really difficult or scary. And I’ve had it when I’m practicing under the watchful eye of one of my teachers.
When learning a new posture, sometimes I try so hard because I don’t yet understand which muscles need to do the work and which need to relax. Until I figure out how to release in the posture, it can feel like every muscle in my body is firing. I’m so rigid with effort that whatever I’m working on – forward fold, backbend or balancing posture – simply can’t happen. When I’m dreading or fearing a posture, the same thing happens. Though, in these cases, it’s my mental and emotional state rather than inexperience that is causing me to try too hard. Ditto when I have a touch of performance anxiety when with a teacher.
Luckily for me, my yoga practice gives me chance after chance to try again. With experience, I’ve learned to recognize what trying too hard feels like. And, though it can take many tries to pull it off, I have learned to let go to allow a posture to happen. When I feel myself gripping too hard, I take a deep breath or two. I deliberately clear my head of cluttering thoughts such as “I can’t,” or “I’m going to fall again,” or “I hate this posture.” I visualize every detail of myself moving into the posture. With another mindful breath, I think, “I’ve got this.” And, usually (almost miraculously), I do.
The posture, whatever it is, is by no means easy just because I’ve relaxed. I still have to do the work to get into it and to sustain it. What’s different is the nature of the work. I’m not working overtime. In other words, I’m doing the work that is required, but no extra. I’m otherwise relaxed – breathing easily and trusting the process. I’m doing the work I’m doing with confidence and a sense of ease born of experience and free from the weight of nerves or fear or worry. Yoga allows me to practice succeeding at challenges by trying a little less.
Life, like yoga, puts us in a million situations where we must resist the urge to try too hard. Whether we’re singing a challenging song, giving a presentation, hitting a golf ball, navigating a new relationship, getting settled in a new organization, writing a paper or skiing down a slope, working too hard can hold us back. It’s only when we are able to relax and let go – when we try a little less hard – that we find the success we yearn for.
Many of my adolescent memories involve running around on a tennis court. This was fine for me, as I was never that good at any of the other sports my siblings and friends participated in. During the off season, when everyone else would put their racquets away for running shoes or lacrosse sticks or swim suits, I’d keep on playing. It was during these off seasons that the pros who taught me lessons would often decide to tweak my technique.
I vividly remember the winter I was asked to change my grip. This new grip required just a subtle shift of my hand on my racquet – maybe ¼ of an inch. The pro said it would allow me more diversity in spins, more consistency in shot placement and more power. This all sounded fantastic! Until I hit my first forehand and the ball shot off into the next court. The second blooped into the net. The third careened wildly over the net, landing nowhere near the corner I’d aimed at. I muttered, “This new grip stinks,” and slid my hand back into its old position for the next shot.
But my teacher was smarter than that. He shook his head at me, marched around the net and repositioned my hand into the new grip. “Give it a chance,” he said. Shot after shot, lesson after lesson I practiced with the new grip. I’d have bits of success, but mostly, it was an exercise in frustration. Until it wasn’t. One day, the grip no longer felt new. I was able to move the ball around the court. Shots were going in that would have been iffy with my old grip. And I found that I had as much power with my forehand as I’d always had with my backhand. “This new grip’s not so bad,” I whispered under my breath. I’d figured it out and, for the rest of my tennis years, I swore by the “new” grip that I’d initially hated.
I haven’t changed much. New car? It drives differently than my old one and simple things like parking are not going well. Hate it. New haircut? Can’t get it to look right. Hate it. New operating system on phone? Everything on the screen looks different and I can’t figure out how to work it. Hate it. New yoga mat? Feels funny. Hate it. Until I don’t. With time and practice, I adjust. I’ve come to see the benefits of a stickier yoga mat. I’ve figured out how to work my phone and appreciate the new OS’s speed and new design. And, while I still miss my beloved old car, I’ve come to appreciate many of the features of my new one. (The seat warmer, for instance, is perhaps the greatest invention of all time.)
The same thing happens to me day after day on my yoga mat. I can honestly say, I’ve never loved a posture when it’s new. Mostly I dread them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve inwardly railed against new techniques suggested by my teachers to make my practice better or easier or stronger. Just as I did on the tennis court, I’ve often “snuck” back to my old ways when a new position or movement felt strange. New postures and new techniques can be terrifying or impossible or awkward, until the light of understanding begins to dawn. The “switch” for this light is the same as it was all those years on the tennis court. It’s the willingness to give it a chance. To practice. To play with it. To fiddle around with it until I figure it out.
The fact that yoga gives me chance after chance to experience new things and, most importantly, to witness my knee-jerk reaction to them, is a gift. Over and over again, I’ve watched myself initially reject new things. And over and over again, I’ve managed to talk myself into giving them a chance. Each time I do so, I develop a little more faith in my ability to adjust. Each time I do so, I’m a little less reactive to the initial frustration, awkwardness and challenge involved in trying something new. Each time I do so, I develop a little more willingness to be patient and even curious about what this new thing has to teach me.
While it’s nice to learn new skills on my yoga mat and even how to work my upgraded phone, this is not the point any more than that new tennis grip was. The point is the fruits of practicing with something new – patience and curiosity. These are the gifts that support me and sustain me when “what’s new” is way more significant than a new yoga mat or a new haircut. Imagine how these skills (and they are skills) could come into play when you start a new job and everything is new and different. Or when you move to a new home. Or when you join a new church. Or start a new school. Or when you marry, or divorce or lose a loved one.
When life brings you “new,” it’s OK to hate it. It’s OK to think, “This stinks!” As long as you notice what you’re doing. As long as your next step is to take a deep breath and give it a chance. Because, with a little patience and an open mind (and time, sometimes A LOT of time), the new will become familiar. And, as it does, it’s likely that you will find it leaves you new and different, too.
Pope Francis spent last weekend in Philadelphia. This was a big deal on many levels. The planning! The special train tickets! The security! The traffic! Truly, this story, just from the point of view of logistics, has been a headline for weeks. And well it should be. This was an event of a global magnitude that the city hadn’t hosted in years.
But immediately upon his arrival, the tenor of the story shifted to a different, more intimate, level. The images of his spontaneous choice to pause his procession to bless a young man with cerebral palsy while still at the airport melted hearts everywhere. His seemingly profound desire to touch and to connect with people was evident throughout his entire visit. He stopped the Pope-mobile to bless babies, he made unscheduled visits to tiny, hand-made chapels, he set aside a prepared speech to speak from his heart.
While in Philadelphia, Pope Francis continued to walk and talk his open-armed, welcoming message of love and inclusion. In doing so, he charged all who heard him to do the same – to look at the people around us with an eye for ways to connect. To continually ask ourselves: “How can I make this better?” “How can I help?” “How can I make this world a better place?” In his sermon, seen by millions, on Sunday afternoon he emphasized that the power to do so is available to each and every one of us. This power is found in the little things. It is in small gestures, little actions, and simple, kind responses that we can change the world we live in.
This is not a new idea to me. I suspect the same is true for each of you. Yoga teaches us a simple code of life that helps us stay in right relationship with the people and world around us.
As we study yoga, we learn to respond deliberately and mindfully in even the most challenging moments in our lives. We are taught to refrain from adding fuel to any fire by adhering to non-violence in thought, word and deed. Another way to say this is that we are taught to default to love and kindness. We are taught to be truthful. We are taught not to take that which is not ours or that which is not freely offered to us. We are taught that moderation in all things is better than excess in a few. We are taught to hold our blessings with open hands and a heart that is willing and happy to share.
For several years, I’ve shared this code of life with my students in teacher training. We spend several weeks focusing on one tenet (or yama in Sanskrit) at a time. My students pay attention to all the instances each day when they resort to an unkind word or action. When they are tempted to lie or to steal. When – and, more importantly – why they want to take more than their fair share. When they’re unwilling or unhappy about having to share.
The things they learn about themselves are always surprising. The moments when they get off track are not always big. In fact, they’re often so silly or small that it would be easy to write them off as inconsequential. After all, does it really matter if you don’t want to share the batch of cookies your sister made especially for you? Of if you keep the $10 bill that the clerk at the dry cleaners accidentally gave you instead of a $1? Or if you lie to your boss about the state of a project she’s waiting for?
The answer is no and yes. No, it doesn’t really matter if you share your cookies, or keep the money or tell that white lie. The world will go on. But, on the other hand, choosing to share, choosing to not keep the extra money and choosing to be honest changes the world profoundly. In each of these little gestures, you have the chance to connect – to build, develop or wholly change a relationship. You have the chance to send a little burst of good out into the world that will (I can almost guarantee it) ripple its way to others you may never meet or know. Not to mention, you will feel good about yourself.
Every year, I am left in awe of the transformative nature of these simple ideas. I’ve had the privilege to observe entire lives change as students fully embrace even one of these ideas. I’ve watched discontentment and anxiety melt away. I’ve watched tight, angry hearts soften and open. I’ve watched relationships shift and grow. In short, I’ve not only watched my students change the way that they’re living, but I’ve watched them change the world around them.
Pope Francis is right. There is indeed great power in the little things. There is indeed a tremendous good that comes to us when we choose to reach out and connect. This is why his message is reaching into hearts well beyond the bounds of the Catholic church. It’s a beautiful thing to witness a man with such access to tremendous prestige and power choose to live and act in a way that is quite clearly dictated by his conscience – he would say, I suspect, by his spirit.
I watch Francis and he inspires hope in me. Because I know that every single student of yoga in the world (and there are millions of us!) has the tools in their tool belt to make the same choice. We can each choose to live a life dictated by our consciences. We can choose to walk the walk rather than talk the talk one little step a time. And when we do, we can change the world around us as surely (albeit perhaps on a somewhat smaller scale) as Pope Francis is doing.