Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lifelong Practice - Part 1: Maintaining Practice with Outside Obligations

Distractions from Training

I have come to realize that one of the differences between your average person and a person who excels at the arts of the mind and body is how they practice their art, despite, or even within the distractions of life which pull us from our practice.

Consider Patanjali’s statements on Yoga as focus without distraction. He classifies distractions as real and imagined. Most of the time the yogi or martial artists thinks of these distractions as occurring during meditation, and sometimes during practice of asana, or forms but rarely do we realize that these distractions are constant and ongoing. To truly master our art we must recognize these distractions and deal with them. In this multi part blog posting I consider some of the distractions from practice and offer advice on how to continually improve when distractions arise.

Types of Distractions

The following are some of the distractions that keep us from practicing our mind-body arts.

  1. Obligations – The most frequently cited reason for not practicing is “I am too busy”. We have very real obligations we undertake to our family, work and friends. Finally we oblige ourselves to other activities. I have heard quite a few parents say things like “my child cant come to martial arts because he is doing swimming, dancing, band etc…”
  2. Illness – when we are sick or hurt, we are unable to do many of the things we could do at peak health.
  3. Injury - Sometimes rest is the best thing for us. For example, if our shoulder is hurt we will only make it worse with pushups.
  4. Mood – sometimes we just want to take a day off.
  5. Cyclical – We all have periods where we have more energy, more enthusiasm, and more support from people around us. Anyone who has run a studio can tell you that bad or nice weather days have low turnout. There is also the Nov-Dec slump in attendance followed by a Jan. bump. It is natural to have some weeks where one trains hard, and others where training is soft.
  6. Leisure food and sleep – everyone needs time off, time to eat and time to sleep. For most people about half their day is spent doing things like cooking, cleaning, sleeping, showering, or just relaxing. In short, “get a life”.

I will post blogs over the next few weeks describing these distractions in detail, and suggesting remedies. I hope some of my readers will add thoughts to this discussion.

Part 1: Obligations

Practicing when you have Obligations

Obligations outside your practice to family work and yourself can interfere with your practice, but with a few alignments in your thinking you can still progress even in the most demanding times.

Connect with your love of the Art - Every single time you practice, cultivate a sense of joy and excitement. Consider all the things that brought you to the practice, and note how each session leads to an improvement in your life. If you are unable to find this joy, consider what can be changed to reconnect.

Finding more time - I do not recommend forcing yourself to go train more. We also need to be wary of neglecting our obligations for training. Both are, in the long run, short term fixes. However, is there some activity that you are currently doing which is not serving you?

Rearranging your schedule to get more time with a favorites teacher, or attending a workshop is no small matter. Consider a simple change, like getting up an hour early. If you skip an hours sleep, your mind

/body will eventually wear down, so you have to get to bed earlier every night. Getting up an hour early means you give an hour of evening time up. It is not a gain of time, but an exchange of time.

What do you do the last hour of the day? Maybe it is the time for vegetating in front of the television. If you give up this time, what effect will it have on you? It may seem a small thing to miss a sitcom, but you developed that habit for a reason, and changing it could lead to stress. We all need down time, a time when we are not doing something.

When you rationally evaluate how you spend your time, and what you can do to spend more time with your art, more time will appear. The time will flow naturally, as an exchange of activities that are less fulfilling to you. If you make it a chore, or an obligation, you will find yourself coming up with reasons for not practicing. When you are making excuses to train, rather than take a day off, you are on the right path.

Similarly, obligations to others are a central part of our practice. Did we neglect our job, our house, our friendships so we could train? Family, career and community support you so that you can move ahead in training. If you undermine this foundation you will find yourself hindered in training.

Perfect Practice Master Ali frequently asked us if practice makes perfect, then proceeded to state that perfect practice makes perfect. It is very easy to relax a bit in practice. I often catch myself during an extended yoga pose letting my body soften, and relax rather than engaging in the perfect posture that will stretch and tone the muscles. It is much easier to do a long stance with the foot pointed to the side rather than straightforward as our style demands.

Each time we practice the least optimal method of the pose we are losing the benefit. It is not a waste of time to practice less than perfectly. You can still sweat, brn calories, find peace of mine and grow your skill. But if you practice perfecly it is like adding hours of practice to your session. You not only gain the ability to achieve the next level, you don’t have to go back and spend hours unlearning a bad habit.

Two Minute Practice Most people will need to maintain obligations of family and friends. I found myself one year with an overwhelming set of work responsibilities. I was unable to regularly attend class, and even solo practice times were limited. But I improved my sidekick immensely during this period. I practiced my sidekick as I walked down the hall. I practiced it when I was (alone) in the elevator. I practiced it while waiting on water to warm in the microwave. Collectively these small moments added up to thousands of sidekicks. My teacher noted the improvement during one of my rare appearances in class. Certainly it is better to have longer, focused sessions, but taking a minute to practice can give immense benefits. Stretch your hamstrings with a 30 second forward bend. Meditate for two minutes in your office. Find brief, focused practices and your art will improve.

The two minute practice has great potential for the modern day practitioner. Beyond the extra time, the two minute practice engages you at every level of your life. A martial artist who practices for short, intermittent periods throughout the day is training his mind and body to be aware at all times. A yogi who inserts brief asana, or pranayama into their regular daily routine is constantly realigning her body and mind so that during dedicated practice she can take it to the next level.

Practice off the mat – In his fictional book “Musashi” Yoshikawa has entire chapters about the historical Miyamato Musashi dedicating himself to activities which seem unrelated to his swordsmanship. Musashi, in real life and in the book, saw his art in every activity he undertook. If he saw a lute, he considered the way it bended and vibrated, and applied this quality to dueling with swords. Musashi’s Book of Five Rings discusses how ways of the farmer, craftsmen and other ways apply to fencing (a term he uses for martial arts).

If you have other ideas for dealing with distractions let me know. The next Blog will focus on other factors, like illness and mood.

1 comment:

Libby C said...

I love this post, Thomas! Especially the idea of 2 minute practices sprinkled throughout the day.