The "Practice" Paradox

I had a great visit with a friend yesterday and we came up with some theories, as friends will, and then agreed that “practice” is one of the most important keys to living our fullest potential in this life.

The backstory is that a sweet, creative acquaintance is starting a little improv troupe in our small town. Improv, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is short for improvisational art, describing a type of theater that’s completely unscripted and spontaneous. It really is one of the most entertaining forms of performance art, in my opinion, and I’d highly encourage you to check it out, and, if you’re feeling courageous, give it a try yourself. To get a live taste of improv, there’s a troupe in nearby Asheville that I love called “Reasonably Priced Babies” who perform monthly.

But how can PRACTICE and IMPROVISATION be flip sides of the same coin? How can both be key to living life in the moment?

In improv, you never say "no"

One of the biggest tenets in improv is that the actors never say "no". To perform along improv guidelines, you take every opportunity to keep a skit going to the end no matter how outrageous your lead-in. By never saying "no", you always say "yes".

Life is improv

As scheduled and planned out as we try to make our lives — as many goals as we set — we can never truly predict what’s going to come down the pike. We may graduate high school, carefully select a trade school or college, go into our career of choice, plan to marry and have kids, and then get knocked off our feet by a terminal illness. Or maybe our family falls on hardship and we have to change our career course in order to take care of financial burdens. The mind can absolutely reel if we let it with the number of potential curve balls that can be (and are!) thrown at us not only on a yearly basis, but also on a daily, if not hourly basis.

One of my clients shared this affirmation with our New Year Mind-Body Cleanse & Study community and I have just loved keeping it around as such a great reminder as to how important our personal practice is to handling life with equanimity and grace.

Always saying “yes” does not mean never saying "no"

Saying "yes" doesn’t necessarily mean saying "yes" to everything someone else is giving you, asking of you, or demanding. “Life as improv” means saying "yes" to the opportunity to say "no" sometimes, too. How many times have you been faced with the same challenges over and over again and have failed to confront them, wishing them away, only for the same situations to come back in another form at another time with another name and face attached? If we are not prepared to step up to life and say “yes” by sometimes saying “no”, then others may hear this as “maybe.” Improv means never negating an opportunity.

I’ll give you an example that really knocked me on my butt this week because I did not say "yes" to an opportunity to do so. Instead of feeling like a failure, and because I’m making myself publicly accountable here and now by writing this, I will allow this to enrich the practice of setting healthy boundaries when my intuition tells me to do so.

A former student from a group class who is also a friend-of-friends contacted me via social media to tell me about a recent injury. That was my first opportunity to set a boundary (that students and clients email me instead of contacting me via social media) but I didn’t listen to my gut. He had been in an accident and wondered about the use of yoga for healing. I offered a few suggestions -- that he take medical advice and then let me know when/if he was still interested once he was released from physical therapy. Weeks went by and occasionally he would message me. Again, I didn’t say "yes" to the opportunity because I wanted to pretend that everyone has good intentions. I would usually ignore the social media private message, but occasionally I would respond and ask about the injury and how it was healing. But after several weeks and probably four contacts that were not panning out into this person actually setting an appointment, I was starting to feel annoyed, and I intuitively knew that something was amiss about his intentions. Finally, this week, he let it out in one message, admitting his intentions and not in a way that most self-respecting women would consider a compliment, much less even appropriate.

My anger was less about his intentions and more about my having to deal with an uncomfortable situation with professionalism. “I didn’t sign up for this!” I could hear myself thinking. Well, yes… yes I did. By being a human living in this world, I’m saying “I accept responsibility” to take what life deals me and handle it. By starting a business, I’m saying “I will do what needs to be done” to remain professional. By working in a field that supports healing and invites in people who are walking through all of their own muck, I am signing up to be involved in situations that feel entirely unpredictable. By holding credentialing from two important governing bodies in my choice of work, I have signed up to hold my actions, words and my boundaries to the highest ethical standards. By being a woman in today’s world, especially in our current environment, I am bound to stand up and speak about the importance of setting healthy boundaries for my sisters (and brothers!) who might not understand that they can actually say "yes" to saying "no".

This saying "yes" to saying "no" can be in so many forms. It means knowing our value. It means understanding what makes for healthy relationships. Saying "no" does not mean that we aren’t saying "yes" to life. Just because life is improv doesn’t mean we take every opportunity. It means we respond instead of react.

I won’t burden you with the rest of the story, above, about my former student, except to tell you that I said "no", which later resulted in my practicing the power of “delete.”

So if life is improv, why do we practice?

What I know is this: I have failed to say "yes" to life and have suffered because of it. I have said "yes" to life in ways that didn’t serve me and have gone off, metaphorically, on joy rides that I’ve regretted later. I’ve said tried to say "yes" to life by saying "no" in less-than-skillful ways that came from reaction instead of response, causing harm. I have gotten it all wrong before. And I’ll do it wrong again. The point is this:

As time unfolds and truth is unveiled, I become more confident in my ability to bend — to respond, to say "yes" — gracefully. I want so much to be ready at any given moment to improvise with ease in ways that do not cause me or others harm. This comes with practice.

I can’t sit down at a piano if you hand me sheets of music and instantly play the song. My wearing black concert clothing and speaking with sophistication and carrying around an instrument does not make me a classical musician (just as wearing mala beads and yoga pants does not make me a yogi!). I have to carve out time in my day with dedication and commitment to learn first one hand, then the other, then put them together, then practice at different speeds. Then, once memorized, once the song is in my body, my muscle memory, I can play with expression. Later, with a great deal of practice over time, I can call up the song and play on command! Imagine the joy of spontaneously being the apres-dinner-party entertainment! Truly saying "yes" to life. Truly a life of improv that starts with practice.

What does all of this have to do with yoga?

Yoga- and meditation-based modalities are all based in practice. More than 1,200 years ago, the Yoga Sutras were scribed by Patanjali to record a set of mind and body practices that lead to freedom from the grips kleshas, which are “sticky” thoughts, or fears (aka “monkey mind”). Through practice we gain clarity and, ultimately, a life that is spontaneous and free.

Remember, you have already arrived. There is nothing more to achieve. Practice what you know. And if you don’t know, find out. And then practice that.

As William Shakespeare says, “All the world’s a stage.” Just maybe he didn’t mean that we should all be opportunistic performers and exhibitionists. Just maybe he’s referring to life as improv.

Anyone who practices can obtain success in yoga but not one who is lazy. Constant practice alone is the secret of success.

~ Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Practice creates routine, routine become habits

Scheduling the same time of day for certain routines is the best way of creating healthy habits. An asana or mediation practice can be incorporated before or after work, when you are most likely to be able to get to the yoga studio. Or, for a healthy home practice, consider developing routines around bedtime and wake-up, when you already do things like take care of your basic hygiene. Healthy habits develop over time to become somewhat automatic. Habits cannot generally be created without practice. There's an annoying time of integrating new things into our lives (or we can look at them as adventurous and fun!). We may think "I'm wanting more freedom, not more restriction!" But give it time, because with the commitment through that initial drudgery, we'll find the freedom.

Yoga as a technology

Yoga is not a religion nor is it dogma. If it becomes that, then perhaps it is no longer yoga. The Asanas (postures), Pranayama (breath exercises), meditation, service work, community, and study are a set of tools. Living our yoga means we are practicing principals that support our own healthy responses when life throws us surprises. Instead of being pissed off that we’ve got work to do in a situation, we can step up to the plate, say “yes” by responding, keeping life as low drama as possible. It frees us to get on with the things that we are wanting to boldly and courageously step up for. We’re saving our energy for the life we want to live.

There are so many wonderful teachers at Breathe Yoga & Wellness from a variety of backgrounds! Contact me to talk about how you can find the right class for you or work privately in a one-on-one setting to create a practice that supports your goals. Email [email protected]

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