December 2, 2011

What Are You Good At?

Whatever It Is, I Bet You’ve Worked Hard At It.

What are you good at? Go ahead. No need to be embarrassed. Make a little mental list of the things you’re really good at. The things you get compliments on. The things that make you feel proud and confident.

Now think about it. How did you get good at these things?

I guarantee you weren’t born good at singing or playing golf or organizing events or drawing. Sure, you may have been born with some natural talent. But that talent would not have blossomed into ability without good-old-fashioned hard work. Interestingly, the work we do to develop our abilities often looks nothing like our full-blown ability.

Let me back up to explain.

To become a really good tennis player, you don’t go out and play matches. Instead you stand on the base line and serve entire baskets of balls one after another. You then move to the service line and return forehand after forehand for hours at a time. Then, you do the same with your backhand. Until you’ve developed your strokes – the foundational elements of the game – you cannot win regularly. It’s when your strokes are so reliable that you don’t have to think about them that you can begin to stretch yourself in challenging situations. If your backhand is solid, when your opponent zings a shot to the far corner of your court, you can lunge toward the ball, arms fully extended, feet barely on the ground and return the shot. If you’ve worked really, really hard, you may even be able to decide if you’re going to send your return down the line or cross-court.

Our hard work — the practice, the drills, the study, the repetition – creates a foundation from which we can reach and stretch ourselves further than we’d ever imagined possible.

Each and every yoga posture in our practice is a little example of this. Whether we’re standing in a lunge or seated in a simple forward bend, we cannot fully stretch into the pose without first finding – and developing – the foundation. In a lunge like Warrior (Virabhadrasana), we first check the alignment of our heels. We then root our feet solidly into the ground. Then we shift our weight so that our back foot is actively pressing into the mat, easing the burden in our bent front leg. Only when we’ve got all these basics in place can we really start to stretch the groin and work with our upper body. We cannot find the true gifts of the posture if we haven’t established a sound, supportive foundation from which to stretch.

The same is true for a seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana). This is an easy one to test. Sit on the floor with your legs extended. Flop forward over your legs. See where you land. Now, sit back up and create the foundation. Flex your feet, pressing out through the soles. Engage the muscles of your thighs as if you’re trying to pull your knee caps up your leg. Softly press the back of your thighs down toward the floor. With this strong, lively foundation, fold forward again over your legs. See where you land. I guarantee that anchoring your stretch has taken you inches and inches further out over your extended legs.

Though it can be easier to see the benefits of a sturdy foundation on our mats than off, with a little awareness, you can start to seek the foundations that support you in the activities that fill your days. Starting with things you’re good at can be helpful. How do you prepare for the oral presentations at work at which you excel? How do you train for those 5k races you like so much? What steps do you take before you put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard)?

Appreciating the work that leads up to success can inspire us to work even harder — and get even better — at the things we do so well. It can also foster a certainty that we can do anything we set our minds to doing. While the resulting growth and change may not be as immediately obvious as finally being able to grasp our toes in a seated forward bend, with diligent work, we can develop the foundational skills that will one day allow us to stretch ourselves, to grow, and maybe even to add one more thing to our mental list of things we’re really good at.

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