“Ksero ta vasika Ellinika” my husband proudly announced to me recently. “I know basic Greek”. He’s been using a language learning app every day for nearly a year since UK went into first lockdown. He does a couple of exercises everyday with an occasional splurge of more concentrated work. It’s a classic case of the small steps all adding up. Because — and I say this with the greatest love — he is not a natural at language-learning.
I’m trying to apply this to my asana practice (where I often feel something less than naturally gifted!). Can I see how all the small steps contribute? Sometimes I feel I lurch from too much effort to too little effort, too much expectation of myself from too little. It’s a pendulum swing given momentum by my doubts about what I’m doing.
Gradually I am seeing there’s a middle way. It’s not about changing my practice or trying to make myself something I’m not. It’s about trusting that all the repeated efforts, of whatever size, add up to undeniable steady progress. My teacher tells me this sometimes and I try to listen. I mean, I hear the words and I attend to them, but the real learning happens on the inside and I don’t always feel the truth of this in my muscle and bone or in my heart. Still the doubts… An old habit of dwelling in the obstacles: if it’s not difficult or painful, how will I know it’s really happening?
I went to some classes recently, Sanskrit not asana. And part of my motivation was less about improving my language skills, and more about learning how to learn. A lesson in not needing to work too hard, of just enjoying the processes of accreting knowledge almost without effort. I did pretty well at first, not spending much time on homework, just cruising through, enjoying the gentleness of the teacher and his kind encouragement to everyone. Then as we got to know each other better I started to wonder if he was deliberating reserving the hardest parts of the text for me, testing me. Until the final class confirmed my suspicion. He began by saying that one sloka was so difficult he wasn’t going to give it to anyone…. until it came round and he called on me! And afterwards his feedback n my work: “hm, there’s nothing really wrong with that”. I actually had to chuckle to myself as I reflected on the irony of this. He was pushing me to try harder with no idea of my intention to be a deliberately mediocre student who put in minimum efforts and just enjoyed the class time!
And back to yoga asana as I reflect on idea of effort and progress and enjoyment, I came upon various photos of my Bakasana across the years. It’s one of the first poses that presented serious technical challenge and I remember well my struggles. I had no template for this kind of work and attainment of the shape eluded me for a long time. It wasn’t too much effort or too little effort as I recall, it was simply ‘wrong effort’, a lack of understanding of how to recruit the right muscles, build physical and emotional strength to lean into my hands and lift off.
Now I’m working slowly towards a balance in handstand I encounter the same questions. But I’ve evolved a little meantime and I like to think I’m a bit more skilful in my approach. And whenever my skills desert me, I think of my teacher urging “just for the joy of it” and then nothing matters so much.