Learning on your own

bluegrass_backs.pngI bumped into an old friend during my holiday trip to California. “Dylan” has always been an athlete, so I wasn’t surprised that he’s still avidly into hockey, skiing, and other sports. But I didn’t expect him to say, “And here’s one for you. I’m learning to play bluegrass banjo.”

What? Is Dylan even musical? Anyway, he wanted a quality instrument, so he commissioned a Wildwood banjo. Now he’s learning a few bluegrass favorites, mostly on his own. “What about lessons?” I asked. “Right now, I need to get a feel for the instrument,” he said. “No one can really teach that. So every night, for a couple hours, I tool around on it.”

It made me think about how we learn.

Formal instruction

Most people take lessons or classes to learn something–to swim, to play the piano, to speak French, to do yoga. A teacher can guide students to learn the fundamentals. But if there’s no self-motivated practice and freestyle “tooling around,” there’s no real learning. Learning from a teacher counts for maybe 20 percent of ability, and the other 80 percent must come from independent practice (and, of course, natural talent).

exoticwood-back-closeup_web.pngDylan played competitive tennis into his 20s. As a kid, he took lessons but eventually, at age twelve or thirteen, perceived that the conventionally taught “mechanics” were wrong for him. So he experimented on his own.

“When I changed my grip, for example,” he says, “I could immediately tell that it was mechanically correct and efficient. The technique was different from the standard way kids were being taught to play, but I could feel the correctness in my body.”

Instead of automatically deferring to well-regarded “professional” coaches, he relied on his his own instincts. For him, learning is about “feel, execution, and repetition.”

“Detailed instruction sometimes complicates things,” he says. “A person tries to learn by analyzing and becomes stiff, like trying to match a template.”

My conversation with Dylan made me realize that I tend to rely too much on formal learning. Even now, I sometimes blame my lack of progress in something on the lack of available instruction.

28__320x240_nat-reso-close-up-1For example, I studied Japanese casually as a child (afterschool nihongo gakko), took two years of Japanese in college, and then revisited the language as a working adult through evening courses. Today in Vancouver there are few options for Japanese classes in town, and so I never crack open my Japanese books or arrange conversation practice with my native-Japanese friends. If I were more self-motivated about learning Japanese, I might be quite proficient by now, honto ni.

Same with pranayama, which also has few class options. While I practice pranayama more than I do Japanese, I could be more regular, more diligent–with or without a teacher. Actually, in my opinion, infrequent pranayama classes suit me. Between classes, there’s enough time to practice the techniques taught. I know, firsthand, that if I learn one technique in a class, I need to practice it 100 times on my own even to touch it.

65__420x_img-1008Independent learning

The trouble with lessons, classes, and formal instruction: they give the impression that you’re learning, when you’re actually only being introduced. In school, which I took seriously, I experienced real learning only when I actually cared about the subject. Good grades are misleading. (A person can attend a top-10 law school, get a JD, and pass the bar exam without deep knowledge, believe me.)

Thinking about Dylan and his gleaming bluegrass banjo makes me smile–and reminds me of the importance of teaching myself. Some of us might like the structure of formal instruction, especially with the right teacher. But there’s much that we can, should, and must do on our own.


  1. Here, here! Luci. It’s really the time spent at home mastering a pose, or enjoying a personal pranayama practice, that builds up the understanding of yoga. You make a very clear analogy with the banjo and Japanese learning.


  2. Thank you for this! I’m a relatively new yogi and was bewildered when a teacher once seemed very dismissive of my home practice (which I’ve done right from my first class) since I described it as fooling around and trying stuff out. I always thought in combo with good instruction this should/could be a rich approach. Teachings give us confidence and a good basis from where we can take off and fly!


  3. Luci,

    Your recent YogaSpy posting prompts these thoughts …

    When I first came to live in Vancouver I took a course at UBC in public speaking. I felt I needed to improve my skills, and certainly I believed I had to overcome my inborn shyness about public speaking. One of the exercises we had to do was to give a three-minute impromptu speech on a topic of our choosing – I chose as my topic, The eagerness of North Americans to take courses !

    When I was a student at Cambridge studying architectural history, the only obligation I had to fulfill was to attend my weekly session with my supervisor ( tutor ), at which I had to present an essay. I did not have to go to any of the many lectures available to me – it was assumed that students at Cambridge were grown up enough to decide for themselves how to organize their time and studies.

    It often surprises the extent to which North Americans feel they have to be spoon-fed; if they want to find out about a subject they feel they have to sign up for a course. ( As a newcomer to Vancouver I guess I quickly got into the swing of local habits by taking the public speaking course ! )

    Respect for the amateur is now lost; the autodidact has no credibility. When I first went to work in an architect’s office – nearly fifty years ago now ( I was an office boy ) – I came across many highly talented designers who had never seen the inside of a school of architecture. And the twentieth century architect whose work I still admire more so than the work of any other architect of the time, Denys Lasdun, never completed his formal architectural training. Indeed, many of the greats in architecture received no formal training at all in a school of architecture.

    Learning on the job is very much like learning on your own – you find out what works and what does not work by observation, by trial and error, by experiencing what actually works for you.


  4. Learning is different for everyone. Others can go with self-learning, while others prefer formal instruction so that they can avoid any bad habits that may form due to lack of proper technical monitoring. However, it does take a strong person to veer away from “standard” methods and create his or her own style of execution.


    1. The tyranny of the teacher !

      Undoubtedly many of us prefer “formal instruction” to avoid forming “bad habits”, to keep us on the straight and narrow, so to speak. My only problem with this is that the straight and narrow of one instructor may not be the straight and narrow of another. I have taken Iyengar yoga classes for some years, with a number of instructors; and I understand that in the Iyengar teaching community there is an eagerness to ensure instruction consistency. I have, however, and not surprisingly, experienced different ways of doing things. For myself I now prefer not to use a belt when doing a shoulder stand, for I find that the belt just gets in the way; and one of my instructors is quite happy with this – taking the view, I believe, that one should learn not to rely on the belt for support. But most other instructors ask my level of class to use belts. I guess one of the consequences of an extensive architectural education is that one becomes something of an iconoclast, which is perhaps no bad thing. But we iconoclasts tend also to be ‘pains in the neck’ to teach – we are always asking “why?”. I rather like this quote from Scott Fitzgerald, “Either you think — or else others have to think for you…” Personally, I would rather think for myself … and accept that ‘occasionally’ I make a mess of things ( my wife would say ‘often’ ! ).


      1. Many thanks for your two comments, which might outshine my own post, Robert! Independent learning is a slippery concept: Does it arise only in certain people? Does it depend on one’s intrinsic interest in the subject?

        Regarding iconoclastic yoga students: I am delighted when students ask questions or propose their own way. By experimenting and thinking on their own, they are doing real yoga, from within. So, ask away! My conclusion is that Iyengar yoga students (and teachers) can veer slightly off the established rules if there’s a good reason;-)


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