Practice makes progress: what yoga teaches us about life

Practice makes progress

As a wellness coach, speaker, workshop leader and yoga teacher I really consider myself a dealer in the currency of change. I am, quite literally, in the business of inspiring and supporting people in getting from one place to another; from where they are now to where they want to be. One of my classes even goes by the name, ‘Transform’.

Perhaps this is why, to me, one of the absolute jewels of yoga is the idea of ‘practice’.

Yoga isn’t a sport or a game. You don’t pitch your yoga practice against someone else’s. There’s no podium, no prizes. Yoga is not something you do, it’s something you have. It’s a way of being. You get on your mat, you do your practice, you change your breath and your body, and that brings change to your thoughts, which changes your circumstances, your relationships, every corner of your life, and then the lives of others too.

Through our poses and our breath and our attention, we really do change the world.

It’s easy, these days, to get caught up in the glitter of yoga: the aspirational yoga clothes, the glamorous transatlantic teachers, the gravity-defying inversions. And that’s missing the point. Yoga isn’t about arriving at stardom, at one-legged crow pose, or anywhere else; its gifts are in the getting there, the forward movement itself. The process. The practice.

To me, ‘practice’ is the most exquisitely transferrable skill we can learn from yoga.

So you can hold handstand for a minute? Kudos to you. But it doesn’t make you a better, smarter, richer or happier person. I think where we often go wrong in yoga – and in life actually – is imagining that nailing a superficial goal will fast forward us to happiness. And when it doesn’t, we blame the goal and move onto the next.

But it’s the getting to the goal that really matters. Or not getting to it. You nail it? You learn. You fail it? You learn also. 

In months, years even (if you’re me) of hopping into handstand and falling down we learn that failure is not the opposite of success, but a part of success; an essential part. Finding and strengthening weak spots in the body teaches us about cultivating support and building strong foundations. And perhaps, in the physical process of turning ourselves upside down, we learn, as Ana Forrest says, to ‘snuggle up to our fear’.

Do you see? The practice is primary. The outcome is secondary.

The work itself is what works. And it doesn’t matter what you’re working on: a relationship, a business, travel plans, parenthood, this or that project, it’s ALL about the practice. You don’t conceive and birth and bring up a child for any single pay off. You do it for the journey of learning and growing together, right?

So consider this for a second: you don’t practice yoga to master yoga, you practice yoga to master practice.

Practice has become, for me, a lens to look at life through. I consider everything I do a practice: the way I eat, move, rest and work, the home, the partnership, the business I’m creating, the habits and routines I structure my life around.

My practice is waking up and moving mindfully through my morning routine: warm water with lemon, neti, breakfast, daily news, dog walk, to-do list, work.

My practice is seeing creativity in everything I do, from designing a workshop to a yoga sequence, from blending essential oils in my diffuser to cooking dinner from whatever’s in the fridge.

My practice is setting a personal intent before I teach, taking a breath before I speak, being as authentically me as I can, then taking time to reflect and replenish my energy.

My practice is looking at other people’s behaviour as a mirror for my own, considering where their actions come from, being compassionate for them and learning from them.

My practice is deciding what I want, taking inspired action and letting go of the outcome.

My practice is to be curious, truthful and open.

What’s your practice?

Beyond the yoga mat I mean. If you’ve you’re not altogether sure I recommend starting with a morning routine: a few actions, layered on top of each other into a strong, solid foundation for daily awesomeness. Pick whatever actions you like, just repeat them until that fateful day when you forget or something comes up and you feel all wonky but can’t work out why. The you can build in all sorts of new practices: a creative practice, a gratitude practice, a ‘compassionate NO’ practice – I’m not even joking about that last one. And you can watch as these things exert small but profound changes on your life.

Want another reason why practice makes progress? Because, in taking daily baby steps forward and letting ourselves screw up once in a while, we can sneak changes past our crazy egos.

There is a part of you, a part of all of us, that wants things to remain the way they are, forever. It’s a very primal urge, born in a time where difference meant rejection from the tribe and certain death, and where trying new things meant the possibility of, again, death. So we all have this voice in our heads that says, ‘NO’. Or, ‘You can’t’. Or, ‘It won’t work’. Or – and here’s the biggie – ‘You don’t have time’. Blah blah bleurgh.

A life coach I know calls it ‘The shitty committee’ (I know, great right?). And if the Shitty Committee can’t convince you to stay safe and snug inside your comfort zone of exactly the way things are right now, it will try to emotionally blackmail you. Or simply try and trip you up. If you’ve ruined a diet by falling face first into a buffet table you know what I’m talking about.

I’ve found that the most effective way to deal with the Shitty Committee is to build a relationship with it. To listen, understand its concerns and fears, then move forward slowly, so it has time to catch up.

That’s why change must be a simple, slow, effortless process – so you can sneak it past the shitty committee.

You really don’t need to worry about where you’re going. That’s taken care of – all you need to do is DO your practice. What ever your practice is. Do your morning practice, your self care practice, your creativity practice and watch your life change. Watch those simple actions magnetise new actions to them.

This year I celebrate a decade since I wandered onto a rooftop shala in Kerala, India, and spoke with my very first teacher. His name was Vasu, and I’m deeply grateful to him for setting me on this path. Ten years on, however, I still consider myself a beginner yogi in many ways, and I know my own practice has many jewels yet to yield. I look forward to every unearthing. And here’s to yours, too.

Patthabi Jois

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