As my students well know, I live by a certain code: If you hate doing pushups, you need to do more pushups.
Naturally, we tend to hate the things that are hard for us, and those things seldom get less difficult if we don’t make repeated attempts to improve at them. (You know, like, practice.)
Often, in my classes, these “pushups” are literal: I command (by which I mean to say I delicately encourage) my students to complete certain sets of chaturanga-style pushups until they have developed the physical strength to master the move and the emotional fortitude to no longer fear and revile it.
In many other cases, the “pushups” are figurative. It could be a certain asana that feels scary or elusive, a task you have been putting off, or interacting with a challenging friend or family member.
In any case, whatever it is that challenges you to the point of hating or fearing it is never going to get any easier for you until you actually knuckle down, face it, and get better at it.
And when you get better at it, that fickle two-sided coin of love and hate often finds itself turning the other way. After all, when do we rejoice more? When something that comes to us easily always, easily comes again? Or when we overcome a fear or apprehension to tackle a true challenge?
Yes, yoga asks us to remain committed to the efforts of our practice while releasing attachment to the actual fruits of our efforts. Still, I see little harm in internally high-fiving yourself after you’ve banged out ten strong, chaturanga-style pushups.
Now they are fully ingrained in your practice, there to support you, along with the strength and alignment you developed in the process.
Of course, I never ask my students to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. As it happens, I fear no pushups. So I turned to a pose that does give me a little quiver of fear now and then: The King of All Asanas, Sirsasana. Headstand.
I mean, sure, I could do it.
I could drop into a tripod headstand from crow pose and push my feet overhead; I could gamely demonstrate a symmetrical, two-legged entry to my students.
But when push came to shove, I knew that my headstand practice was a bit . . . undercommitted. I didn’t like staying up for more than 5-10 breaths. In a class setting, I would only enter tripod headstand when my back was to the wall, in effort to avoid tumbling over and knocking down all the other yogis in my row like so many dominoes. Maybe it’s a stretch to say I hated headstands, but I certainly didn’t love them.
So I took a cue from the conventional wisdom that it takes 40 days to start a habit. I resolved to hold a headstand every day for forty days, no exceptions, for three minutes at a time.
I head-stood while drunk (not a great idea), while hungover (not as hard as I thought), and while battling a head-cold (not super fun).
My hope was to remove my fear of headstands and feel more secure in the pose. The benefits, perhaps unsurprisingly, reached far beyond that. My core strength improved exponentially. My arm balances became more confident. Every inversion in my practice deepened and stabilized.
And then there were the deeper benefits. For the first few days, those three minutes seemed like an eternity. I welcomed any distraction: I’d play music. I’d repeat the pledge of allegiance over and over in my head. If my husband were home, I’d ask him to time me and distract me with chatter.
But it didn’t take long to realize that the distractions were keeping me out of the game. Once I turned inward, settled on my drishti, and focused solely on my breath, the time flew by.
Best of all, really taking the time to explore and refine the pose in my own practice led to an evolution in my teaching of it.
I could understand and explain the finer details of the pose to my students, having taken the time to feel and notice them in my own body. I felt I had simultaneously become a more advanced practitioner while re-awakening my beginner’s perspective.
It was a powerful lesson in the truth behind the practice-makes-perfect sentiment. Yes, we eschew the notion of “perfection” in yoga, but practice at least makes just about anything feel accessible.
The very idea gets me excited about choosing my next 40-day challenge!
PS: This 40-day habit-forming thing might just have legs. I haven’t missed a day yet, and I’m now on day 73. (But who’s counting?)