The power (and pitfalls) of a personal practice

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Would you like a friend who will not abandon you, who is honest, challenging yet can help pick you up when life is tough? That’s exactly what a personal practice can be.

To start a daily, personal practice is one of the most useful, powerful and life changing decisions you can make.

For the sake of this article by personal practice I mean something physical. That could mean a Taiji form, a short sequence of Yoga postures, some Baguazhang or pretty much anything else.

The problem of a routine like this is it is not ‘complete’. It can always be challenging at some level, but it will also always be limiting in terms of the variety and intensity of the movements themselves. Of course people selling you routines will say “this is all you need”. They may even believe it, in which case they are just another example of the normal human tendency to find and hold onto justifications for actions. In extreme cases the routine becomes a religion or sect.

But even your simple, limited routine can be useful. It is the limits that makes it useful.

It does not need to take long. I don’t think the advantage of this requires much explanation.

Secondly it becomes familiar, very familiar, sometimes even excruciatingly familiar. While this has the pleasant effect of making it like an old friend, it also means there is a special opportunity within it. This opportunity is how to find something new, or fresh. Let’s face it, a lot of life is routine. Not many of us get to change our partners or children whenever things get a little annoying or a bit samey (and I hope not many of us would want to). So your practice becomes the active choice to appreciate, to discover what is new in the familiar. Now where could that be useful?

Once your basic routine is well understood, once you have met challenges of having sufficient strength, mobility and coordination to practise adequately, the important part starts. The important part is seeking perfection. Of course this is impossible. Your practice will never be perfect. So instead you have the possibility of going deeper into each part, to better feel and perceive how each element relates to it’s neighbours and globally through the practice. You can bring more awareness into your movement, more beauty into your sequences. Do I have to argue for bringing more awareness or beauty into the world?

We live in a world of inebriating choice. The up and downsides of choice are evident wherever you look. Whether it’s the utility of your new mobile phone, or the hours you spent (or lost) researching the model and where to buy it. Your personal practice is a choice already made, and not one that has to be remade because a ‘new model’ has become available.

One phenomenon that I get to observe as a teacher, and in myself as a researcher is the desire to find the best method. This is a motivation that I think is important, however out it can also lead to students jumping between methods on their way to their goals. The jumping takes time, and the methods do not get adequately explored, appreciated or understood. Often a sub-optimal process gets better results than no process in the search of perfection. Your practise gives you at least one example of a process that you stick to over time.

Because you visit your practice daily it also becomes a barometer, a way to check in with yourself, and what has been happening. It will be affected by other aspects of your life, and so shed light on them. Your distraction during practice will point to issues that need dealing with. Stiffness, tiredness or energy can illuminate what other training sessions, or life events have done to your body. At some point you will need to adapt your personal practice to these.

Your personal practice will also be resource to your state. The regular, focused practise cannot not have an effect. It will vary, but you can make your practice a source of calm, or relaxation, or grounding, balance, or presence, or flow or whatever qualities you value. The simple act of starting your practice then becomes a gateway to these qualities.

Should you ever change your routine? To switch from say Yoga to Taiji, or Taiji to Olympic lifting, or Olympic lifting to opera singing, or from anything  to Baguazhang! Of course, everything in life changes! I hope that you are researching outside of your routine as well as inside of it. So yes, of course you are free to move on. Probably best to wait a few years though.

If you do not yet have a  personal practice, well choosing is not something to rush into either.

How should your choose?

Find something that:

  • has deep interest for you and that you find beautiful
  • you can get through in a short time – but can be expanded into a longer session
  • makes you do things with your body that you would not ordinarily do during the day
  • you can scale in intensity
  • is not dependent on complex equipment
  • has practitioners you like as people (as well as practitioners)

Hint: If something has lasted a few hundred years it’s probably got what it takes to make a personal practice of. If it depends on a corporate sponsor, passing fashion or advertising for existence, it probably does not.

Step 1. Go and take some classes.

Step 2. Decide.

Step 3. Practise daily.

That’s it.

If you have any questions, about this, or suggestions for future articles then write to me. Also I’m curious to know, what’s your practice?