Sunday, June 24, 2012


It can take a long time to break bad habits. When an activity or a movement is repeated many times, the patterns seep into the bones, and we create what’s called motor memory.

Athletes both relish and curse the creation of motor memory. For example, an experienced basketball player has shot so many baskets that they no longer have to think about where to place their elbow, or how the ball is going to leave their fingertips. The activity has become second nature… as automatic, perhaps, as breathing.

In my first year of college, I found myself on the curse side of motor memory. I’d been high-jumping since elementary school, and had worked with several well-intentioned coaches along the way. One of these coaches emphasized that the drive-leg (not the jumping leg) was to scuff the ground at takeoff. Since I had enjoyed some success with his other cues, I practiced this drive-leg technique with sufficient enthusiasm to burn it into my motor memory. And since my success continued under his guidance, I was confident in my high-jumping technique as I made the leap from high school to intercollegiate athletics.

When my college coaches quickly (within a matter of days) identified this scuffing of my drive-leg as one of my primary technical impediments, it came as quite a surprise! While I was ultimately able to wean myself from this habituated pattern, it took far longer that it did to create the original, undesirable pattern.

Have you had this experience in your yoga practice? Have you found that something in your technique has been identified as undesirable, and you’ve struggled to re-write the faulty software? If yes, how fortunate you are. Yoga is not a sport, nor is it athletics. Yoga is the physical practice of awareness, which means that seeing our habituation is the practice. As such, there’s rarely a right or wrong, provided there is awareness.

I mention my history as an athlete because I see many well-intentioned yoga students projecting the values and properties of sports onto their yoga practice. For some students, their fear of developing bad habits drains their enthusiasm for home practice. For other students, it translates into the furious taking-of-notes that, while well intentioned, often removes them from the immediacy of the present moment. Other students go from class to class searching for the right way to practice, and often get increasingly more confused and frustrated along the way.

My meditation teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, often describes meditation as awareness. Awareness can take many forms – awareness of sensations in the body, awareness of the sounds in our environment, or even the awareness of awareness. In the West, we often equate awareness with what we’re doing. In Yoga, for example, we’re often taught to lift the kneecaps, roll the shoulders down and back, and to keep the toes active… all in the name of awareness. In my early years of practice, the laundry list of things to do was ever increasing; this was said to reflect cultivating an ever-deepening awareness.

In retrospect, equating awareness with effort, or doing, simply encouraged the parts of my mind that harbored feelings of inadequacy, judgment and anxiety. It wasn’t until I had practiced for a couple decades that I found the sweet equanimity that came from being aware of what was already present, without the need to do anything to precipitate that awareness. The thrill of nascent awareness came in glimpses, but it incrementally infused my practice sessions. It took me twenty-some odd years to arrive at this place, but perhaps it won’t take you as long?

Having practiced Yoga for a number of years, here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

*Provided the pose doesn’t cause pain during or after the practice session, it’s good enough. Yes, there are probably techniques to cultivate greater flow of energy, but this knowledge can be a slippery slope. Contentment comes by practicing contentment. Can you find the pose that’s imperfect, and reside within this imperfection? If yes, then you will have found perfection.

*Don’t overload short-term memory with too many details and cues. In general, short-term memory can process 3-7 items at once, which suggests working on no more than 3-7 points within any given pose. Neuroscience and, in particular, neuro-economics, has compellingly demonstrated that overloading short-term memory can be a significant stressor. We often bog ourselves down with too many details, and can readily lose sight of the beauty of the forest because there are too many trees blocking our view.

*Use some of your favorite actions or cues to generate awareness, and then see how little effort can be expended while maintaining awareness. For example, engage your lower belly (Uddiyana Bandha), then explore how little muscular effort is needed to maintain this awareness. Effortless awareness opens the door to the direct, firsthand experience of meditation.

*Please remember that most of the physical practice has been invented, and the majority of it within the past one-hundred years. This isn’t to nullify the profound power of Hatha Yoga, but to grant us permission to be free from righteousness. When the suggestion of ancient-ness hangs over our head, it becomes easy to slide into the righteousness of ancient-wisdom, and to overlook the firsthand experience of awareness.

Have you experienced the nectar of awareness? If yes, what was the context or catalyst? I look forward to reading your comments.




David Haugh said...

Great post. Interestingly, in athletics, we are in competitrion with others. An aspect of Yoga practice that I'm enjoying is the non-competitive nature of it. What I can do today is good enough and relaxes me while also motivating me to go a bit deeper. Yoga as a means to awareness-- how wonderful!
-David Haugh, PGA Golf Professional

VeloCityGirl said...

I love this! As a new yoga teacher and a university instructor, there is a lot of wisdom in there. The specific notion of a numerical limit to short term memory is something I need to remember. When I'm not sure something has resonated, I tend to "explain further," rather than let it go for now. As a practitioner, I love the idea that practice is the physical manifestation of awareness. This is definitely something I feel myself on the edge of, and hope to use it as a tool to enhance my teaching: identifying in a pose I experience the key awareness I hope to show my students.