Know thyself with practice
We have to remember that there are two different meanings of the verb practice. In one, we practice as a means to an end. We repeat an exercise until we become proficient at it, as we would practice layups in the driveway until they become automatic. The other kind of practice means merely to do. We practice meditation, we practice abstinence, we practice medicine, or at least we do on TV.
The term asana practice is inherently confusing. Because asana means posture, more or less, so we have posture practice. Are we then practicing poses to master poses? We go to the workshops of big name yoga teachers, and this is what happens: the teacher shows off some difficult, advanced posture or sequence, and everyone applauds.That’s ok. We applaud because the performance is impressive. It probably took an immense amount of practice, strength, determination, and poise for that instructor to know she can consistently nail that pose. And yet we’re told asana practice isn’t about mastering postures. We’re told we are using the postures as tools of self-knowledge.
If that sounds like bullshit lip-service, it’s because in the mouths of some, it is. But the longer I do yoga the more I understand asana practice to really be about self-knowledge. When we do yoga we repeat mental exercises, breath exercises, and posture exercises over and over again. And naturally we learn to move more easily into and out of postures. But the proficiency we gain is awareness: awareness of our mental patterns and states, awareness of the quality of our breath and our control over it, and awareness of our bodies and how we move through space. We never want to achieve automatic. We always want to be attentive, methodical, aware.
We learn what feels normal, and what feels not right. This is important for several reasons, not least of which is we will notice sooner if we are injured or exhibiting symptoms of an illness. We won’t suddenly look in the mirror and see we’ve grown a hump on our backs, or a horn on our heads. We learn better command over our bodies, which means we’re less clumsy and injury-prone. We learn to use our breath to calm us in traffic, or to give us strength to hoist a bag of potting soil or courage to kill a cockroach.
Most important, to me, is the study of our minds and hearts. How easily do we give up? What motivates us? How do we react in the face of difficulty, change, success, boredom? To where do our minds wander? What do we need and love? Or, how do we beat ourselves up? What do we still hang onto that is no longer serving us?
“Know thyself” doesn’t mean paralyze yourself with self-consciousness. It doesn’t mean saying “I’m the kind of person who” blah blah blah (no one cares). It doesn’t mean ceaseless navel-gazing. And I don’t think it means cobbling together a narrative out of a string of events, either. It’s simpler than that, and more in the moment. Right now, how is your environment affecting the way you’re treating someone, for example? Right now, are you eating because you’re hungry or anxious? Right now, are you putting off doing something, and why?
Think about some dumb shit you did years ago. A “what was I thinking?” moment or era, that caused you or someone else pain. What you did or chose was probably the result of not knowing yourself in some way. You were not very practiced in self-awareness, and you hurt yourself or someone as a result. Or you reflexively responded to something, say a conflict, in a way that was habitual, but the habit (say, punching, or getting tatered, or subordinating your needs to someone else’s) wasn’t the best one. Our choices and behaviors affect everyone around us. So learning yourself isn’t selfish; your yoga practice isn’t selfish, unless there’s a nursery burning down next door and you can’t be bothered to pause your podcast and lend a hand.
Try this: at the beginning of your practice, set an intention. An intention is like a resolution, but smaller, shorter-term, achievable. Resolve to be aware. Use your awareness to add a little something to your library of self-knowledge. It can be anything, no matter how insignificant. Write it down in your yoga journal. (Make a yoga journal.) And keep on practicing, keep on learning yourself, because we don’t stop changing ’til we’re dead!