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Verb 1. perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency
2. carry out or perform (a particular activity, method or custom) habitually or regularly
– Google Dictionary
Why do we practice?
For most of my life, I have practiced in the sense of the first definition of the word above. I practiced the piano in order to become a better pianist – or at least to prevent myself from getting rusty. I practiced extra hard when I had an upcoming performance. I practiced my tennis strokes and strategies to become a better player. Practicing both of these skills consumed much of my childhood and young adulthood.
It’s important to mention that I also loved playing the piano and tennis. In fact, I don’t think I would have done either with the dedication and intensity that I did for all of the years that I did without that love. Actually, I know I would not have been able to maintain either of these practices were it not for my passion.
When I discovered yoga, I fell in love. This new passion inspired me to begin to practice. Though our family budget was tight, I bought a yoga mat. I bought a class card at a local yoga studio. I hired a babysitter once a week. Eventually I bought my first pair of yoga pants. More important than these expenditures, I began to invest my time (which was at a particularly precious premium in those days) into practicing.
A more powerful reason to practice.
I would have told you that I was practicing yoga for the same reasons I’d practiced piano or tennis – to get better at it. And, as a beginner, this was true in a way. But yoga had something new to teach me about practice – and it didn’t take long to do so. Almost before I knew what was happening, I realized that I was practicing yoga not to get better at doing yoga, but to get better at approaching life the way I was learning to approach yoga on my mat.
Yoga taught me about the second definition of practice. When I practiced yoga, I was practicing a way of being. I kept practicing because I wanted that way of being to become a habit that supported me all day long.
This was not something many people in my life understood. I suspect most of my friends thought I’d found a new hobby or way to take care of my body that I got really into. I certainly had something to do with their misunderstanding. After all, within six months of starting to take classes, I was picking up my kids from school in yoga clothes nearly every day. Also, I know I talked a great deal about how very sore I was from the classes and workshops I attended. If I didn’t share my frustration at not being able to do a headstand, I’m pretty sure I shared my excitement when I finally figured it out.
In other words, what most people saw and heard about was that I was practicing yoga – physically. Except for one friend, who commented that I seemed different. It seemed to her that I was calmer, less stressed, wound a little less tight. Her simple comment was a profound affirmation of the real reason for my practice. Just recalling it makes me want to hug her again.
Her words were proof that my practice was working. I was developing a new way of being and someone had noticed!
We all need practice – even superstars.
In the movie It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood you glimpse the powers of practicing a new way of being on an iconic scale. The film tells the story of an unlikely friendship between revered children’s television idol, Mr. Rogers, and a troubled investigative journalist, Lloyd Vogel. Rogers’ persistently kind, caring, relentlessly positive approach to life seems artificial to Vogel. Exasperated, he turns to Mr. Rogers’ wife, Joanne, and says (essentially) “Is this guy for real?”
Mrs. Rogers smiles kindly and delivers the main message that I took away from the movie. (I’m paraphrasing here.) Yes, he’s for real. But it’s not easy for him. He has a temper just like you and me. He gets frustrated and angry and in a bad mood – just like you and me. He practices hard to be the way he is. He has found ways to support himself so that he can live this way. He swims hard and fast every day – harder and faster on bad days. He has been known to bang on the low keys of a piano when his feelings get too big. He does these things so that he can live the way he’s chosen to live – exemplifying positivity, kindness and empathy to every single person he meets.
Practice to get better at living the way you want to live.
To discover that my generation’s icon of kindness, Mr. Rogers, developed practices that allowed him to live as the person he hoped to be further inspires me to keep at my own practice. Unrolling my yoga mat each day is my version of swimming laps. It doesn’t happen often, but I do have days when trying again and again and again to do something that I simply cannot do feels like my version of banging on the low keys of a piano.
Mostly, though, it’s my practice off the mat that matters most. When I approach my life – the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the joys and sorrows, the losses and gains, the things (and people) I love and the things (and people) I merely tolerate – the way I approach yoga on my mat, I am living the way I choose to live. And I’m deeply grateful for the habits I’ve developed from my practice.
If you love yoga and would like to know more about approaching life the way you approach yoga on your mat, check out my online Yoga Philosophy course.