A couple of times a year, I get myself into a tight spot. Sometimes I find myself literally backed into a corner. Sometimes I’m off balance. Sometimes I’m scrambling faster than I ever thought I could scramble. Sometimes I’m clinging desperately to a hard-earned lead. And sometimes I’m fighting my way back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit.
This tight spot that I keep re-visiting is nothing earth-shattering and it’s certainly not a life or death situation. When my brother and I get together, we find it hard to resist the lure of the ping pong table. I can’t remember a time in my life that we haven’t been pretty evenly matched. During our 20s, I was a little better than him at beer pong. These days, he’s a little bit better than me at putting spin on his shots. Let’s just say, neither of us missed out when competitiveness was handed out. While our parents didn’t raise poor losers, our games are always hard fought. We almost always work up a sweat when we play. (Yes, it’s possible.)
A rainy weekend gave us our chance to play. As we were warming up, several of my shots missed the back edge of the table. I started fiddling around with my grip, the angle of the paddle and spin. In short, I started thinking. As soon as this happened, the wheels fell off the bus. My misses got wilder. I found myself standing still after a ball flew by me. I even whiffed on a backhand. (Unheard of.) In the middle of the mess, as if from another part of my brain, I thought to myself, “Stop thinking. Just play.” I took a deep breath and did just that.
Ping pong, at least between my brother and me, is a wicked fast game. There is literally no time to think. You have to let your body react and trust that it knows what to do. Strategy, shot selection, ball placement all have to come from a place of instinct. This is a game where years of practice pay off. Patience is a virtue. Long rallies cannot be rushed to an end. Sometimes, ping pong can be a game of waiting for the other person to make a mistake. And, sometimes, you get a shot that you can put away. Again, it’s practice that helps you determine the difference in an instant.
With years of practice, the body finds its way toward skill. This is true of anything you do – cutting chicken, driving a car, pruning a hedge, embroidery, hanging twinkle lights over the patio. With repetition, we naturally get better. We get faster. Our actions smooth out and become more fluid. As our skills improve, we find we have the bandwidth to enhance our work – to add a flourish or to try something a little more complex – when before that would have been impossible. It’s pretty cool, when you think about it, that our bodies seem to be designed to seek efficiency and grace.
This belief in the body’s yearning for efficiency and grace is at the heart of how I was taught and how I teach yoga. While there were absolutely specific skills I needed to be taught – how to align my upper body to take advantage of the appropriate muscles for a low push-up or how to press my weight back over my heels so that downward facing dog wasn’t such a struggle – my teacher had faith in my body to find its way into the postures in its own time. I believe she viewed her job as two-fold. First, to teach me the series of postures over and over again so it would become second nature to me. And, second, to help me find the right form – whether a modification or the full posture – for my body on any given day in each pose.
It turns out that my teacher had faith in my body’s ability to find its way well before I did. I was prone to thinking too much, allowing my mind to get in the way of my body’s efforts. This is changing. In addition to learning yoga, with years of practice, I have learned to emulate my teacher’s faith in my body. While I still sometimes get caught up in thoughts, much like I was when my ping pong shots were going astray, I now notice when this is happening. When I’m thinking too much, my movements become less fluid, even movements that are usually easy for me feel more like work, I hesitate and often totally mess up.
It’s in these moments that I often hear the voice that interrupted my chatty thoughts at the ping pong table. “Stop thinking. Just do it.” it says. And, with a deep breath and a leap of faith, I often find that I can do just that. So I do.