For several years, “Sam” regularly attended my yoga classes with his wife. One day, she arrived alone and said, somewhat apologetically, “He needs it, for sure, but he just didn’t see enough change.”
Sam was lean and fit at middle age. He enjoyed running and had tight hamstrings, a troublesome shoulder, and occasional back pain. I suggested poses to practice at home, but I doubt that he did.
I wondered if I could have done more to encourage him to continue. Why do some people get hooked on yoga—or anything—from day one? Why do others start and stop?
Well-known for his Inner Game coaching philosophy, Timothy Gallwey proposed three factors that affect commitment to any endeavor:
In the PEL Triangle, performance is typically given top priority. Performance might mean achieving a goal, winning a game, getting a job done. In yoga, performance is commonly all about asana and physical perfection, but could mean spiritual development or being a better person.
What about enjoyment? In general, people commit to endeavors that they enjoy. While enjoyment is the stick factor, however, its definition is subjective. Is enjoyment dependent on performance? If you’re “good at” something, you probably, but not necessarily, enjoy it. What if something is a struggle? Some welcome—even enjoy—a worthy challenge.
If performance and enjoyment are strong, learning is occurring—or is it? Learning and performance are not necessarily linked. A great performer might be learning very little, while a terrible performer might be rapidly gaining new knowledge.
Balance the Triangle
To commit to an endeavor, you need a balanced triangle. If the triangle were a three-legged stool, it’s ideal to have three strong legs.
If you’re fixated on performance, it’s hard to relax enough to enjoy and to learn. You might be a natural. At first, everything might be easy. But long-term, high-level performance requires continuous learning, which is sustained by enjoyment.
If you find no enjoyment and no learning in something, you must ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and “What is really important to me?”
At least one leg of the triangle must be solid. If all three are flimsy, it falls apart and you quit.
I suspect that Sam attended yoga classes mostly to accompany his wife. He was attentive and sociable in class, but probably didn’t enjoy yoga for its own sake. He was seeking physical benefits for his sports and well-being. But, since he didn’t practice outside of class, his learning stagnated, as did his performance. His yoga triangle lacked at least one sturdy leg.
Of course, it’s not always wrong to quit something. Before I first tried yoga, I took a few hapkido lessons. I wasn’t clear on what I was seeking: Martial art? Distance sport? Yoga? During my brief hapkido experiment, I bruised my shoulder trying to perform a passable fall-and-roll. I felt self-conscious and fake doing the “hyah!” I was performing as a clumsy rank beginner, if that—and I wasn’t enjoying myself enough to practice and to learn. I quit. Soon after, an acquaintance persuaded me to try a yoga class. From that day I was hooked.
Which Side Needs Attention?
Yoga asana came naturally to me, so my initial performance was decent for a beginner, but clearly undeveloped. Since I loved it, however, I took numerous weekly classes, as many as I could. I absorbed not only the poses, but also Sanskrit terminology, prop use, and class etiquette. I read up on BKS Iyengar, about other lineages, about the eight limbs of yoga. I subscribed to Yoga Journal and realized that a whole yoga subculture, unbeknownst to me, existed.
A dozen years later, my practice developed to the point when I decided to teach yoga. And what’s the status of my yoga triangle now?
Whether I practice yoga on my own or with a teacher, I always enjoy it. That hasn’t changed. With experience, physical performance can become steady and reliable. I can count on my body and “muscle memory” to perform most poses; I don’t backslide too much if I can’t practice when busy or away from home. Mental performance is another matter—being a truly good person, unaffected inside by the world outside, will be a lifetime challenge.
Is learning continuing? Yes, although nothing can match the initial rate of learning. (Such is life. We learn most when we’re beginners. Don’t our brains develop most rapidly during the first five years of life?) Also, I used to take a lot more classes and workshops. Now, especially with Covid restrictions, I take almost no classes and study primarily on my own.
What about you? Are you driven by performance, enjoyment, or learning? Why are you doing yoga? What does it mean to you?
Image: Sandy Blaine workshop, Costa Rica, July 2003, Luci Yamamoto.
I’ve been practicing yoga going on five years now, and I am still enjoying and learning from every practice. And, of course, performance comes with this enjoyment and learning from practice after practice. I have often wondered how many friends who share my same interests, my same values, my same philosophies… do not see why I’m so crazy about yoga. I wonder if it’s because I am retired and have more time to invest in my practice. Or maybe I’ve become more patient the older I get. In this world of immediate results, maybe my friends do not understand how excited I get about learning a new posture after a year of attempting it over and over again. A recent experience also makes me believe that maybe one needs to let go of whatever is holding them back before they can face and embrace what yoga or anything in life can offer them. When they are finally ready, I am happy that there will be teachers like you ready to help them on their path.
Good to hear from you, Keith. I’d highlight where you write “…face and embrace what yoga or anything in life can offer…” Maybe yoga per se means nothing to your friends, but something else is serving as their yoga.
I know how serious you are about Ashtanga yoga. You’re in that wonderful “first five years” early period; enjoy it! Your pandemic practice of doing up to 108 Surya Namaskar daily is a real inspiration to me. With thanks and aloha!
That three pronged model makes so much sense, and in every type of serious practice too (yes, iyengar yoga is a serious practice, an art form even).
I just finished a video on forward extensions, a class taught by Lois Steinberg. I do a lot to ruin my practice by running. The tightness in hamstrings and hips is especially apparent after a long run. But yoga is so much fun now with all the online instruction and freedom to practice anywhere and at any time, and with senior teachers.
I feel that I wouldn’t have made it through these difficult days without yoga. The mental chatter is apparent on the days I don’t do it. So, in a sense, I am not overly concerned about results – I might never get that proper forward fold, etc. I’ve done enough yoga to know that it is ‘my’ practice. It is a practice for life, as many inspiring, older people demonstrate every day on zoom.