Practice. I just love it. The word, the idea, the habit.
There’s such a softness to it. No beginning, no end. It’s forgiving and challenging at once.
My seven year old daughter says, “I just can’t get the hands right!” She’s bummed because in a drawing that otherwise looks about how she means for it look, the hands stick out. They are an interruption. I love them for just that. In the hands in her drawing, the shine is off. The glossy, finished look she’s going for dissolves into a wobbly, uneven expression of uncertainty. I look at those hands and think of falling asleep as a child, my own hands strangely huge in my fading consciousness.
So often, her hand glides over the page, one mark feeding the next as she rides the flow. When she gets to the hands, I can see the wobble in the wheel. It lets me in. She grips the pen tighter, responding to her lack of certainty with the hollow push of control. The result is different, but not what she wants. As she begins a new drawing, I watch her feel for what she means, what she knows. She’s truing her own mechanism.
In drawing, the journey from eye to mind to hand through the marking medium onto the page (whether you are rendering or drawing from a collected bank of stored imagery) is a breath pattern: receiving, transforming, releasing. As with the breath, in truly creative work both the internal and external environments are transformed. Along the way, breath by breath, mark by mark, there are trillions of tiny transactions: opportunities to feel connected and fluid or to bump along a jerky interface, alternately slipping and gripping, feeling separate from the source.
Practice is the conscious process of honing the transformative potential of repetitive activity. In the external environment, we link practice with improved results. We use instruction and goal setting to motivate and measure those results. We develop standards and systems that can be used to control individual and group concepts of success.
However: in my experience none of this has very much to do with practice. Education and repetition can train the body – can even train the mind – without ever speaking to our deep uncertainties or eliciting a single spark of illumination. The core characteristic of practice is the quality of our participation in the great exchange: the depth of our interest, the degree to which our accumulated experience supports our further inquiry, and the support we are able to receive in the quest to bring more and even more of ourselves into the conversation.
When Zelda is truing, she sometimes copies drawings made by illustrators whose style she likes. Sometimes she colors in coloring books, strengthing her hand, getting to know her tools. Sometimes she picks a bouquet from the yard and draws a still life. Other times she gets frustrated with the repetitive search for more control and swoops wide in the other direction, making big, loose, abstract drawings, full of speed and life and void of conscious decisions. Sometimes she just keeps doing her pop-star looking, anime-influenced heroines, grinding away at the hands, or the eyes, or whatever part is drawing her out, ripping them up, crossing them out, filling her notebooks with beginnings.
The variety of approaches she has access to in the context of this practice is part of what I think of as her creative range. The more ways she can pursue her inquiry, the less likely she is to overwork and burnout. Range is also a descriptor of the area in which you can look for nourishment. Developmentally, if our reach into the world does not find contact that is both firm enough and soft enough to match us, we cannot learn from it. As we grow, gradually diversifying our own tonal range, we are able to be met in more ways. A component of practice is the expansion of how we learn.
Sometimes, for months, Zelda doesn’t draw much. When she does draw, she makes one or two pieces that look like classic kids’ art: clouds, flat line of grass, rainbow-in-the-corner kind of things. Her attention is clearly elsewhere. When she returns to drawing from one of these rests, she has collected a whole new catalog of internal imagery that comes spilling onto the page. New forms ask for new skills. Or, alternately, hand skills she’s been honing (dressing barbies or braiding hair or swinging on the monkey bars) demand and elicit a finer line or a deeper textural treatment. Sometimes a new box of nice markers will turn the tap on, but not always. And sometimes it comes on and I find her at bedtime sharpening the old, ignored color pencils.
Watching her trust this last component of her practice is hugely helpful me. For many long years, I had guilt about how much I practiced. It was too much, and my body hurt; it was too little, and how could I claim to have a practice at all! In my constant application of imposed standards, I nearly lost the tender thread. I thought that a Yoga Practice was a thing external to me that I could earn or achieve. Watching my babies struggle – with joy and fury and fear and deep sadness and great good humor, again and again and again – to roll over, crawl, feed themselves, stand, walk, pronounce words… I saw that practice is our natural state. It is the wheel that turns itself and rolls us toward our own fuller expression and plants us, as it rolls, in the present.
As I learned to trust the ebb and flow of my own practice, I found my range rapidly increasing. Really, the range had been there I think, but I judged it narrowly as a lack, and so couldn’t feel it surrounding and supporting me. I was looking for a very specific form of output, instead of feeling the wheel within. Which is another reason why this essay is about a kid’s drawing practice: the artistic output of a seven year old is mostly only interesting to her parents and her teacher. Her friends are interested, mostly because they also have drawing practices. They draw together, sometimes sharing a page, they copy elements they like, or they draw each other. They talk about the images and their preferences, and they move on. Though Zelda is delighted and proud when the work speaks of her inner intent, the final drawing is just a part of the process. She sees in the product her own presence as she arrived in the moment of making. It is an object that connects her to a state.
She is practicing having a practice.
Which is what we do with Yoga, right? We practice filling unconscious movement with consciousness, bringing awareness to gravity and energy. We practice finding ourselves in our bodies, instead of in images or stories. We study how our tissues hold emotion and how to hold ourselves gently and firmly enough to let it out. We practice being present in our bodies in space and time, available to ourselves in transition and confusion, patient in pain, tolerant of our cravings, our habits, our overwhelming emotions… We make space for what we don’t know and can’t think about. We build an embodied vocabulary: a set of postures and techniques that draw us into a state of continuity with change. We share with each other, copy, alter, repeat, revisit, let go, turn away, dig in. We take theory and make it flesh. We practice practicing. Because practice is how we grow – into ourselves and into the world.
Beginning this fall, on Friday mornings from 7-8:30am, at the smaller NE studio on Alberta street, I’ll be offering a seasonal subscription series. This course is scheduled to complement the Monday/Wednesday morning drop-in classes that I have been offering at TPY for years. Really, my desire to explore this more private form grew directly from the practice that I have built with a rotating cast of dedicated, supportive regulars at the big NE studio. I am deeply grateful that, along with the practices of my children and my own teachers, I have had intimate access to your generous, deeply personal practices, in a spacious and supportive environment, week after week. It is so encouraging, inspiring, and enriching; I can’t imagine my own practice without it.
As I have said in class: if we can find support – if we can find a way to yield – then, then, we can start to hear what we need, what we want. As long as we’re toggling back and forth between hardening and collapse, it’s so hard to feel into the tissues that we can only tell that it is hard. Struggling without internal awareness, we lean into what we can see, and pour out judgment, projection, and blame.
Having consistent, safe access to the generous vulnerability of our peers turns the wheel the opposite way. The Buddhists say that there is no me without another to know me, and the developmental psychologists agree. The journey toward understanding ourselves as processes instead of things is mirrored by the journey of transforming practice from an act into a state of being.
Almost everyone who practices at The People’s Yoga will nod when I say how much easier it is to step into your practicing mind-set (body-set?) at the studio. If you have a successful home practice, it is likely that you have a single space into which you can put your body that calls up the practice space within. When my daughter is deep in her drawing practice, she always sits in the same chair. She only wants to work on white printer paper. Range, in the body, is not just wide but deep: we need a steady environment in which to meet ourselves so we can build up our inner connectivity. As we spend more time in the practice, we learn more ways to get inside it. And as we become adept at entering the practice, we can begin to access it from it more places, and to bring in and use more of the material life gives us.
But the world we live in, and the habits we depend on strongly in order to live in it, act constantly to erode the practice. Which is why we must practice. Actively, honestly, in the supportive community of those who have their own practice, and so value what we can share of our practices – not as objects or ends, but as inspiration: evidence of a living process.
My hope is that a few of you, old friends and new, will find space in your lives this fall to commit to these nine meetings. We’ll have two off-weeks for home practice while the studio is being used for TPY teacher training, and then break for the Holidays before the Winter season series begins in the New Year. I am very excited to experiment with you, to shore up our personal practices, whatever form or phase they’re in, and to share the tastes and textures of our conscious experience.