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Patience and Persistence Get You There

Slow and steady yields more than just the “win”

“A hare was making fun of a tortoise one day for being so slow. “Do you ever get anywhere?” he asked with a mocking laugh. “Yes,” replied the tortoise …” so begins an ancient fable by Aesop (written between 500 and 600 BCE) that remains pertinent today – especially for this long-time yogi.

You see, sometimes I fear that the fast-paced, immediate-gratification nature of our world can distract us from the power of patience and persistence. Worse, I worry that many may miss out on the richness that comes from slow progress – the kind of growth that meanders over the course of years or even decades.

My yoga practice is the most obvious example of such progress in my life. If it were possible for the current me to stand next to the brand-new-yogi-me, the differences would be astounding. You might expect some of these differences – current me is more flexible, can understand some Sanskrit, and is better able to follow verbal instructions such as “step your right foot to the top of your mat.”

Other differences might surprise you – current me is more accepting of my mistakes and less interested in the lure of a “perfect” practice (or perfect anything for that matter), better understands my ever-shifting limits, and, therefore, is much more willing to ignore instructions that sound like a bad idea. These “other” differences are a handful of the lessons I’ve learned from my slow and steady approach to yoga that have radically changed the way I live my life.

While I gained some flexibility, strength, and even dexterity in the first several months of my practice, had I been unwilling to practice patience and persistence on my mat for a very long time I would have missed out on these and many other life-changing lessons. Even considering this gives me chills.

Better perhaps to decide it’s not a race at all

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (one of yoga’s seminal texts, written about the same time as Aesop was writing), we are promised midway through the first of four chapters that yoga works when it is practiced consistently over a long period of time. (Yoga Sutra 1.14) In other words, yoga works. It will create change, but it is very gradual process.

Over the years, my shorthand to my students for this sutra has become “You’ve gotta be patient and persistent.” The key word here is AND. Patience without persistence is useless – it can tend toward passivity or complacency. Persistence without patience doesn’t work either. On one hand, it can lead to aggressive, forceful, risky choices. On the other, it can cause you to give up in frustration that it’s “not working.”

In fact, one of the most transformative gifts that I’ve received from my yoga practice is the willingness to be patient with slow progress that often doesn’t look like progress at all as it weaves and circles and backtracks. I’ve learned on my mat that one day I’ve got “it” (whether “it” is the ability to palm the floor in a forward fold, to stand on one foot for ten long breaths, or to focus on my breath for more than two consecutive postures) and the next day “it’s” gone. In this way, it seems, a yoga practice is a glimpse of the way we humans grow and change in even the most challenging of times.

Patience and persistence help us thrive during life’s challenges

It is this willingness (I hesitate to call it a skill, but it feels like one sometimes) that allows us to survive and even thrive as we navigate grief, unexpected career changes, “long-haul” parenting (those of you “raising” 20-somethings, you know what I mean), caretaking for a sick or dying loved one, the collapse of a marriage, the upheaval of a global pandemic, and so on.

In times like these, it’s perfectly natural to hope that Google will have the answer or at least the phone number of an expert who has the answer. It’s understandable to want an easy fix when you’re worried or in pain. But, when push comes to shove, the healing, creativity, perspective, strength, and resilience that we need in situations like these do not develop quickly.

These are times where the patience and persistence of a yogi (or a tortoise) allow us to not only survive, but to thrive. Times when it is good to recognize and honor your limitations. Times when it is wise to be okay being a total mess for now. Times to follow your own path and set your own pace even if it doesn’t look anything like anyone else’s.

Forrest Gump was right when he drawled, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” Given life’s tendency to surprise us with twists and turns, don’t you agree that it’s better to live it more like the tortoise than the hare? Plus, when you’re moving at a slower pace, you’re better able to enjoy the scenery.

In addition to a steady yoga practice, Spiritual Direction can be a great support as you seek your own path and pace through a challenging time. Please reach out if you’d like more information.