Today in Satsang I asked students whether they practice yoga at home. What does your own self-guided practice look like? What challenges get in the way? I asked myself, if students aren’t practicing on their own, am I succeeding as an instructor? Give a fish/teach to fish...is it important that students develop a hearty home practice?
What’s the first obvious challenge to a home practice? Our consensus today: dogs. If you’re in Downward-Facing Dog, dogs want to play. Even if you’re shut away in your room, you’ll soon be drawn out but their little noses bopping up against the door. Dogs are the first challenge to home practice. And if it’s not dogs, maybe it’s kids, maybe it’s the ringing phone, maybe it’s one of a million other things that calls for your attention, pulling you away from your mat.
But after that, after all the outside distractions, what’s the next challenge with home practice? Our consensus today: discipline. What is discipline? Is it a word with a check box next to it, and we can mark off either we have it or we don’t? Is it an attitude? When I think about discipline, I think about taking time to define a mental framework and have specific strategies in mind.
For example, if you want to form a new habit like making your bed each morning, the idea of discipline might comprise a firm decision of absolute follow-through. It’s all or nothing. You make the decision that you will form this new habit. You commit. Then every morning first thing upon waking, you make your bed. You make your bed no matter how tired or lazy you feel, no matter how late you are and rushed to get out the door, no matter if your only plan for the day is to go for a stroll, have a bite, and then get right back in bed. This form of discipline equates success with strict consistency, getting it done no matter what. It’s extremely potent; it can be highly effective.
Sometimes this discipline framework may be applied to making shifts around diet. If our motivation is clear and pressing enough, like in the case of confronting a severe health issue, then this all-or-nothing approach to revolutionize our diet may be just the ticket. However, if we’re not quite so intensely compelled to make the shifts, maybe we have only a general sense that we could make some changes to improve our health or minimize our environmental impact, then the all-or-nothing approach could be a setup for failure. If you stray too far or too often from your initial decision, all or nothing may easily default to the latter; when it’s all or nothing, nothing is the choice of least resistance. In this sort of situation, we might be more successful setting up for ourselves a specific proportional rule. For instance, as long as we follow our new diet guidelines 80% of the time, then we are being disciplined enough to make lasting change.
So how about when it comes to developing a home practice? Whether you commit, all or nothing, to a firm decision that each day upon waking you will be on your yoga mat without fail, or whether you’re less strict and decide that as long as you’re fitting practice into your schedule once or twice a week you’re good, either of these strategies can build discipline to show up on our mats with consistency. Getting to the mat is at least half the battle, but then how do we stay disciplined once we’re there?
What do we do when we start to practice and inevitably the time comes, the thought arises, we’d rather be doing something else? We’d rather be back in bed, or we’d rather be getting ahead of tasks for the day, or whatever is calling to us, maybe we just don’t feel up to it. Inevitably there will be times when we want to call it quits, when we won’t feel compelled to move through a complete practice. What do you do at these times? All or nothing, you’re finishing practice no matter what? Do you reflect on how consistent you’ve been and weigh out whether you’re meeting your proportional target? When we’re in our practice it’s not going to serve us to have to stop and weigh choices every time we are feeling challenged, so what can we do?
For myself, whether I’m flowing through Ashtanga practice, or whether I’m sitting down for meditation in stillness, I use the three-strike rule. I begin my practice, and the first time I feel like I want to stop, that’s what tells me the practice has begun. Everything before the first time I want to call it quits was the warm-up, and now I know that I’m in my practice and I keep with it. It’s interesting to notice when the first strike happens--it may be when I’m just getting going, it may be when I’m already most of the way through. On an amazing day, that first strike may not come at all. So I continue. If again the thought arises, “I’d really rather stop.” That’s strike two--that’s what tells me that I’m in the heart of my practice. I take note, because right here is where my work is. This is it. My awareness intensifies, I realign my form, and I keep going. Sometimes there’s a strike two, sometimes there’s not; it can be telling to track the patterns. Most of the time I will complete my practice with two strikes or less, but sometimes there’s a strike three, when again I think, “I’m really not feeling this today.” Three strikes and I’m out. When for a third time I feel like it’s not in me today, that’s my cue to listen. That’s when I know today I’m better served taking rest.
It’s important to know when to call it quits. It’s important to know when we are better served taking a rest. Our practice needs to serve us, and it’s important we develop awareness around our limits. For me the three strike rule has proven invaluable in practice and beyond. It can be applied with interpersonal relationships. How do we know when there’s value working things through, when moving through the challenge serves our growth and development? How do we know when it’s time to part ways? It can be applied to our goals, like working toward a degree or certification. How do we know when we’re facing common hurdles and the difficulty is an important part of the training process? How do we know when it’s time to accept that this path may not be for us, and our true dharma is waiting as soon as we’re ready to let this one go? And if we do hit three strikes, does that mean the practice is not for me? Or does that mean, not today, but you can be sure I’ll be back again tomorrow to give it another shot? It’s not an easy process, and three strikes may be an oversimplification, but then, maybe it holds true. What do you think? I’d love to hear your input. ~ Teagan
May this practice serve our highest health and wellbeing. May we be of service to all beings. Namaste.