How to Have a Beautiful Practice

“You have a beautiful practice!”

If you’ve read any of my previous posts (from a couple of years ago), you’ll know that this is the sentence that always put a smirk on my face.  “Why?” you ask?  Because my dear, after about 6 months into our little Yoga journey, each new teacher would seek out Tony after class just to say that to him.  In fact, as soon as I saw a teacher speaking to him that we hadn’t had before, I’d know straight away what they were saying.  When I’d ask him afterwards “So? Did they say it? Did they say it??!!  They said it didn’t they??!!” He’d reluctantly say “Yes” and sheepishly laugh.  Yes, I used to tease him about it, give him some flak but deep down I was so proud of him and wished that I myself would one day have a beautiful practice too.

Not that I knew what that was or what it meant.  To me at the time, I just thought he did all the postures really well and much better than I did and so, if I improved my postures, I’d get the same comments.  This was my theory anyway.

It’s been so long since we’ve practiced with a new teacher that all the teachers know who we are and those comments have become quite rare.  Then the other week, out of the blue, one of the teachers said it.  She’s been teaching us since we started and has seen us quite a lot but she turned to us during class one day and said, in the midst of all the dialogue,  “Tony and Joy, you both have such a beautiful practice!”  and I realised that I’d forgotten about this little sentence and this little wish of mine until that point.

So, when she said those words, “You have a beautiful practice.” It made me stop and think about it.  What does that actually mean?

I’ll tell you what it’s not:

1.  It’s not doing a posture perfectly because by all means we are not doing anything perfectly.  This is what we are striving for and are very aware that this could take 1, 2…. 100…. 1000+ lifetimes.  As they say, it’s not called yoga perfect but yoga practice.

2.  It’s not  doing a posture impressively or deeply – neither of us can do a Standing Head to Knee pose.  This is not impressive at all.  Neither of us do splits in standing bow.  Neither of us touch the floor behind us when we do half moon back bend.  Neither of us can lift our legs up to the ceiling in locust let alone bring our toes up and over to touch our heads into scorpion.  Nope.  We’ve seen impressive and our postures are far from it.  In many of our postures lots of people in class are deeper than we are and go farther than we go.

3.   It’s not doing postures gracefully or prettily.  We’re not ballet dancers although I wish I was.  We don’t splay fingers, frill hands, flutter arms, do the splits with facial expressions indicating an air of elegance.  In fact, we’re more mechanical and although our faces are mostly calm, the words “push and push and push!” tend to give way to death stares into the mirror with the occasional look of constipation thrown into the mix.

It’s not our level of flexibility or strength, it’s not our clothes or fashion sense, it’s not how hard we try or how much we’ve improved.  In fact, although we use the word “beauty” to refer to things we can see, I don’t think having a beautiful practice has anything to do with the physical at all.

So what is it then?  I have yet to ask the teachers what they actually mean.  For now, after some deep thought and contemplation, this is the list I’ve come up with:

1.  Focus.  The focus is not on anything but the present moment.  It’s not in the future, it’s not in the past, it’s not what your eyes are looking at, anything you did before or what you’re going to do after.  Your focus is on what you are you doing, your breath as you’re doing it, the words, when the teacher is speaking them.  As soon as they say “knee”, your focus is on your knee.  When they say “kick” your focus is on the kick.  You feel the body, you feel which muscles you’re using.  You eliminate all external stimuli other than the instruction from the teacher and one point for balance.  Other than that, your focus turns inwards.

2.  Stillness.  This isn’t just stillness of body, it’s stillness of mind.  No thoughts, no distractions, no feelings, no reactions… nothing.  If you need to move to do the posture then that one movement is all you’re doing.  Otherwise, everything else is still. No scratching, wiping, blowing nose, tying hair, fixing towel, looking everywhere.  Nothing.  Just.  Be.  Still.

3.  Breath.  Your breath is the one thing that keeps your spirit connected to your body.  It is the first and last thing you ever do in your lifetime.  Your breath is your life force, without it, you are dead.  When your breath is uneven and in turmoil, so are you.  Focusing on your breath and keeping it still (calm and steady) no matter what you are doing or thinking, is an art in itself.

For me, those are the most important elements to having a beautiful practice and in our daily practice, we endeavour to continuously connect focus and stillness of both mind and body with the breath.

We’re not always successful but that’s the point isn’t it?  We are human beings having human experiences after all.  We just do what we can in the moment, to consciously know our spirit.

When I asked Tony, he agreed with that list and wanted to add this.  He says, “To have a beautiful practice you must have No Mind.”

He didn’t explain this any further to me because he couldn’t explain it.  He said there were no words to explain it.  Maybe this is what happens when you catch a glimpse of what it feels like to connect with your spirit (everything and nothing all at once).  Perhaps this is one for a future post 🙂

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