Practice makes perfect, but only if you first perfect the practice.
Whether you're practicing anew or renewing an existing practice, here are five simple reminders to improve your practice.
1) Do something.
Unless you happen to be practicing the art of doing nothing, when it comes to practice, something is always better than nothing. Begin with something small and achievable. Take one first step.
When clients struggle to maintain their asana practice at home, I often suggest that they commit to just one sun salutation per day. Sometimes the hardest part of practice is getting started, and frequently, one sun salutation leads to a full practice. Other times, one sun salutation is all that’s accomplished.
But whatever the practice--asanas, adagios, toasts, presentations, and beyond--something is always better than nothing.
2) Pay attention.
Practice is really about improving your ability to learn and integrate learning through careful, deliberate attention. We learn what we pay attention to.
If we’re not paying attention, we’re not really practicing. We’re simply going through the motions, or exercising what we already know, often through mindless repetition. Unfortunately, rote practice begets memorization, not mastery.
Moreover, if what we know is incomplete or wrong, our practice is actually detrimental, repeating and reinforcing undesirable patterns of thinking, feeling, and doing until these become habitual ways of being. Unlearning and replacing bad habits is much more difficult than practicing good habits from the beginning.
Skillfulness beyond effortfulness requires mindfulness. To achieve mastery--the ability to respond optimally and effortlessly--one must first master the ability to pay attention and consciously practice what's optimal.
People who excel at what they do are constantly paying attention, refining their skills, and seizing opportunities to improve. Because of this they excel at learning, becoming more adaptive, resilient, and self-correcting in response to what’s currently happening. They habitually master the moment.
3) Get comfortable, but not complacent, with imperfection.
Perfection, if it exists at all, is the result of perfect practice which embraces our inevitably fumbling, bumbling, stumbling efforts along the way. Practice is really about becoming very skilled at learning from our mistakes and failures. It’s about befriending discomfort and overcoming self-consciousness.
Yet, this can be challenging for many of us who may have internalized the idea that imperfection, mistakes, and failure are unacceptable, or perhaps, not even options. Many of us have an understandable tendency to practice what we’re already good at—what we know and love. We play to our strengths, which is great for comfort and confidence, but not so great for learning and betterment.
In order to learn and become better, we must move beyond what we know and love by venturing into the unknown, seeking out and exploring areas of weakness, challenge, and discomfort. We must be willing to wander, fall, and fail on unfamiliar ground until the unfamiliar becomes more familiar, even pleasurable territory from which to venture forth again.
"When was the last time that you did something for the first time?"
I see this all the time with yoga asana practice. People only want to practice the poses that they feel good at doing. For example, clients who express a desire for more balance and find balancing poses challenging will often adapt their practice to exclude balancing poses, sticking with other poses that they can do with ease. Yet, often the poses that we feel most uncomfortable doing are those that make our practices better, more well-rounded and complete.
If balancing poses are challenging for me, but I avoid practicing balancing poses, I’m unlikely to develop more balance. I won’t experience the discomfort of poses that feel awkward, but I also won’t experience how to be with my own imbalance and awkwardness, or learn how to adjust my poses to be more balanced.
When I first learned Pilates, I initially felt so uncoordinated on the Reformer (those oddly-labeled Pilates machines) that I didn't enjoy my sessions. As someone with a background in dance, I felt self-conscious about being so uncoordinated, especially in public.
Yet, what did I expect? Was I supposed to have a graceful, perfect practice without any effort? Of course not. Realizing this, I became comfortable with my discomforting imperfection and practiced the exercises that were most challenging for me. In time, I was able to do these exercises with grace and ease (under the superb instruction of local teacher and friend, Jo Carter, who also happens to give amazing massages).
When we become comfortable, but not complacent, with imperfection, we learn from our imperfections and grow our comfort zones to inhabit a greater territory of excellence.
Contrary to Yoda’s popular admonishment that "there is no try," in our neck of the galaxy, trial and error has long been a useful process for learning and doing. Aside from life and death situations where failure really isn't an option, we have the option of trying. We can test what works and what doesn't.
Over time, with practice, we can even discover how to readily and repeatedly inhabit our optimal performance zone, the state that Maslow called "peak experience" and Csikszentmihalyi defines as flow, "being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using you skills to the utmost."
So go ahead and try.
5) Find the joy.
Some stress is useful for achievement, but too much is actually counterproductive, inducing an irrational fight, flight, or freeze response to everyday situations that dysfunctionally inhibits and paralyzes us. Even if we manage to succeed, unnecessary stress harms us along the way, which is why it is important to balance the stressfulness of practice with enjoyment.
Remember why your practice matters to you and pay attention to what you enjoy about it. Sometimes the joy is in the result (yay, we did it!), sometimes it is in the doing (yay, we're doing it!). When we're lucky, we find it all along the way (yay, we're doing it, we did it, and we're going to do it again!).
Wherever it is, don't forget to seek it out, celebrate, and reinforce it. Not only is joy habit-reinforcing (we are more likely to do things we actually enjoy), but joy can also become a habit.