And now for something completely different: Adam Hocke explores why it’s important to keep learning in order to keep our practice fresh
I’ve learned a lot about practicing yoga by not practicing yoga. Let me explain.
Long-time yoga practitioners and teachers can easily fall into habit and lose the ability to have a ‘beginners mind’ when we get on the mat. Even if our practice is consistent, we can get into a rut and do the same old poses and sequences with diminishing returns. We can get lazy, complacent, and incurious.
As a dedicated student and teacher myself, I know that to sustain a life-long yoga practice, sometimes you need to shake it up. My unorthodox solution was to practice something new.
Don’t panic! Neither you nor I need to give up yoga. I, at least, needed to take some time away to be reminded of how to be a student. The humility forced by taking up a new discipline be it physical, creative, or academic can teach us many lessons on our ability to mindfully practice, face difficulty, and persevere. It has reminded me of how wonderful it is to learn and how vital yoga practice is to my wellbeing. Here’s how I did it:
I have practiced yoga for nearly 20 years. In addition to yoga being my method of self-care, it is also my profession and hobby. I think about yoga. I read about yoga. On occasion, I dream about yoga. For better or worse, I considered myself an ‘advanced’ student. For this experiment, I had to find a new discipline that I could I start or come back to that would force me to become a beginner again.
Didn’t I used to love a good boot camp gym class before I became too virtuous to do it? Okay, I’ll find a personal trainer. Didn’t I take 10 years of piano lessons before life got in the way? Okay, I’ll sign up for adult piano lessons.
On the yoga mat, my habits had become deeply ingrained. I expected certain poses to feel certain ways. I convinced myself of what I could and could not do. I ‘knew’ what was hard and what was easy. So when I met my new personal trainer, a former professional rugby player, and was asked to do dead-lifts and chin-ups, my expectations and ego were blown to bits.
Humbled by confusion and uncertainty, I had to surrender my status of ‘advanced’ and accept help and guidance. Instead of being certain about my experiences I had to become uncertain, curious, and inquisitive. My brain and my body were stimulated into action as new pathways had to be laid and habitual patterns rewired. I was sweaty, perplexed, and undone in all the right ways.
Practice and repeat
After a near 15-year hiatus, I began piano lessons again. I had played consistently over the years, but only pieces that offered me no challenge and required no work to play for pleasure. My laziness and lack of ambition (perhaps also present on my yoga mat) were swiftly busted by my new piano teacher who started me off with a grade eight Chopin nocturne. I had to get to work.
We often forget in yoga, but teachers of every other discipline know a simple fact: you learn by breaking complicated tasks into bite-size increments and repeating them over and over and over again. Utilising this process, I spent hours on single measures of music approaching phrases from all directions. Turning them upside-down and side-to-side, breaking them apart and putting them back together again. But in this deliberate and detailed pursuit, layers of subtlety and passion were revealed and what seemed an impenetrable jumble of notes became music. Learning takes practice and perseverance. How had I forgotten that?
Remember you are resilient
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a long time you’ve surely learned to be physically and emotionally resilient on the mat. I wish I could say for myself that this resilience easily translated off the mat and into my new challenges. But you know what… it was hard. Ego-busting, confusion, and mind-numbing repetition is H-A-R-D. Every part of me wanted to have proficiency quickly and easily. I had forgotten all the hard work that brought me to the state of ‘advanced’ yoga student. But with a sense of humour and the compassionate help of my teachers, I stayed committed and remembered that I could stand strong in the face of much of anything.
I now believe every challenge is an opportunity for growth. By creating safe environments to face these challenges and persevere through adversity, we can develop physical and emotional resilience as a vital life tool available as and when it is necessary.
Bring it back to the mat
So what happened as I came back to the mat? Practice became a choice and not an obligation. I was filled with gratitude for the kindness and patience of my teachers past and present who helped me discover these practices and tools. But most interestingly, each posture, each breath, each moment of flow now held infinite possibilities for exploration and learning. I had reclaimed curiosity, a respect for discipline, and the courage to continue the holistic exploration of my body and my heart. This process was no longer taken for granted or habituated.
I know now that I can surrender myself to practices that scare and confuse me. I can unravel complicated physical and emotional quandaries on and off the mat slowly and incrementally. I can be open to wherever this practice will take me next. I am without expectation and certainty. I am a beginner.
Adam Hocke teaches vinyasa flow classes, workshops, and teacher trainings in London and offers audio classes and practice resources online. On May 11-13 he will co-teach Creativity, Confidence, and Compassion: an immersion for teachers at Yoga on the Lane in Dalston. More at: adamhocke.com