Practicing life

What’s the difference between practice and performance? Between practicing something and just doing it? If there is a difference, is it important?

Last night I was reflecting on the fact that I have been regularly practicing yoga for six years. That’s longer than I’ve done almost anything in my life, with the exception of marriage and mothering. We never say we’re “practicing marriage” or “practicing parenting”, yet in the language of yoga, we always refer to what we do as a “practice”, no matter how long we’ve been doing it.IMG_2347

If you look up the definition of practice, it can mean repeating something in order to gain proficiency or skill, such as practicing music or sports; or it can mean the “regular and customary” performance of some operation or occupation, such as the practice of medicine or law. It can also mean “the action or process of performing or doing something”, which is how I think it applies to yoga.

The definition may vary, but there is a commonality between practicing music, practicing yoga and practicing medicine. That’s the humbling recognition that there is always something more to be learned – some nuance of sound to create, some deeper place to reach, some new discovery to make. By using the word “practice” we fully engage in the process of the activity while knowing that the outcome this time might be different than the last time.

The question really is why we don’t refer to other things we do in life as practices. Almost nothing that we do stays static over time. Marriages have to grow and evolve or they won’t last. Parenting is an on-going process of trial and error, figuring out what works, learning to accept the children you’re given, learning to let them go. If there’s any task in life that requires practice, parenting is it!IMG_0775

We can only do our best in any particular moment, with the resources we happen to have at that time. There are days when everything aligns and we feel a little more accomplished at the things we do; on other days, energy might be low or time short, and we scale back and expect less of ourselves. Either way it’s okay. Without the lows, we couldn’t have the highs.

By staying present with the process, rather than the outcome, we might be more likely to have the experience of “flow”, which is now thought to be very much connected to happiness. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian psychologist, coined that term to describe those moments when we so forget ourselves in some activity that there’s a sense of effortlessness, and we become able to use our skills optimally. It’s what athletes refer to as “being in the zone”, but it can happen in any kind of activity.

Lance P. Hickey, writing in the Huffington Post, said about flow, “you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable…it must require skill and be challenging (but not too challenging) with clear goals towards success. You should feel as though you have control and receive immediate feedback with room for growth.”

I never want to run out of room to grow. Today I found out that “practicing” is the number one answer people give when asked how they learned to do something. If that’s the case, I guess I still have a lot of practicing to look forward to.

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