Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Two kinds of perfect

This post is about two things: looking back at three people who had a powerful, positive impact on me this year and looking out at two different ways to think about excellence.  We will pretend that this blog is about yoga (but you will know it is really about much more).

After being intrigued by yoga for many, many years, 2011 was the year I began to practice.  I began to practice at a time that was troubled and stressful and difficult, and things got worse before they got better. Through the guidance of my gifted yoga teachers, I began a practice that mostly kept my head and heart and body balanced and moving forward.  So this is a shout out to Denise and Joe  and Jesse for their gentle, positive, persistent approach to moving me forward and bringing me back - to the yoga studio and to my better self.  Thank you.

Today,  a conversation with Denise (and then with Jesse) got me thinking about what I value most about my yoga teachers.  I have experienced about twenty teachers over the past year.  All of them have a strong sense of how to do yoga and a strong commitment to having people do it right. They sometimes use similar language to talk about what they are doing.  But there are two fundamentally different ways to define what it means to do yoga right.

In one understanding, there is an ideal way to do each pose or movement, and people are working toward more perfect demonstrations of that ideal.  This means that everybody is more or less wrong all of the time, and most people in the classes I attend are always going to be a long way away from the "right" way to do the pose.  Within this understanding, a teacher might say to pay attention to your own body, that yoga is a practice that belongs to each individual.  But they are also implying that you have to adapt to being imperfect. They correct mistakes or suggest adaptations that wouldn't be necessary in a perfect world or for a perfect yogi.

There is a different way of understanding.  It's possible to see yoga as a natural way for each body to find the stretch, strength and balance it needs for a more satisfying life.  In this version, the poses are like pathways that have helped other people to reach those goals.  Your body finds its way into a pose, and then explores what difference changes would make.  Your teacher isn't the pose police, defending yoga against your imperfection.  Your teacher is a guide who knows the territory and can suggest different ways to explore.  When one of these teachers adjusts your pose, it is not because you are wrong. It is because the adjustment will open up a new set of sensations and choices. Excellence for them means connecting the student to the practice in a way that opens up energy and focus.

I wonder how many teachers believe that what they are doing is working with natural balance, strength and focus. I wonder how many understand their role as "tweaking" (it's Denise's word) the way that a student combines their will and strength and personality with something outside themselves. I wonder what would change if every teacher believed that "tweaking" that relationship would inevitably lead to more precision, better results and greater skill.

Think about any activity you have learned to do with both competence and enjoyment. Now allow yourself to notice what changes when all your energy and focus is on exploring what else is possible when you make small differences in perspective or technique.  What would life be like in 2012 if you didn't worry about being wrong and you didn't have to think someone else was wrong to lead them to be better?

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