The Definition of Practice. ~ James Carpenter

Of late, I’ve been sitting semi-lotus in front of my yoga students and saying, “Practice.”

My voice is fully of gravitas, gravelly, and deathly serious.

Even still, I personally haven’t practiced much. I haven’t even been “practicing” the things that aren’t really practicing—like putting on Wah! while I wash the dishes. I’ve got friends who tell me that this is okay. They’re yoga friends, and it’s “all good, man.”

It is always “all good, man.”

When I started my practice, it was definitely not “all good.” And the thing that saved me (and I really mean that in the foaming-at-the-mouth, evangelical sense of getting “saved”) was accepting the feeling that sometimes things are just not that great. Not that good. Not part of a universal dance, or that we’re all just stardust.

Yoga was a feeling of relief in the beginning—full of those moments like, “Seriously? You feel that way, too? But you mean, it’s actually okay to feel that way? It’s actually something you can work with?”

I learned to open yoga classes with a single word—a theme reduced it to its most refined, most succinct meaning, and applied to practice.

Class begins with something like, “Today’s word is…”

But lately—or should I say for the last year—the day’s word has been things like, “depression,” “hell,” “doubt,” “fear.”

The class blinks at me, and some of them make a real effort (as all good American yogis try to do) to make what I’m saying seem uplifting and empowering to them.

I have a confession: it’s not meant to be uplifting. It’s not meant to be empowering. It’s meant to be about me, me, me.

I’m sure at one time or another, we’ve all dabbled in the completely delusional belief that aloofness, vagueness and melancholia are attractive to people.

You know, putting on a sad song, sitting by the window, looking out at the rain; imagining a montage of our tortured brilliance? And someone else (probably of the opposite sex) is watching us sitting there, and thinking, “Wow. I’d like to get to know that person better.”

Why is it all about me? It’s a good question to ask, I think, until it becomes just another excuse to think about myself. Got to watch that one.

Anyway, I suspect that the answer is an absence of practice. And I mean practice in terms of both the literal, explicit practices we do, and the non-literal, un-fun, un-sexy times when we don’t want to practice, get injured, lose faith, etcetera?

Members of the Broadway cast of “Godspell” do their flexible best. From left: Uzo Aduba (doing the wheel), George Salazar (extended-hand-to-big-toe pose) and Nick Blaemire (headstand).

I’ve been thinking that to really practice means to practice not practicing as much as anything else. And what does not practicing mean? I think it means dealing with those times when you feel like you’re not good enough, strong enough or prepared enough to get what you want. In yoga, it’s those times where maybe you get injured, and then think about those other students at the studio who can bend more deeply, and comport themselves with a greater feeling of spiritual attainment than you can. You resent them.

You’ll never be like them.

Then what’s left to do?

Maybe the practice of not practicing is the same thing as a snake shedding its skin. For me, when practice is going well, I am beset with fantasies about how I look to others: how powerful, brilliant and enlightened I must look to everyone. Then, when shit happens, the practice goes sour and I have to let go of all those images of being an ignoble creature of light passing on sacred wisdom, to become a balding, semi-out-of-shape dude who can barely touch his toes; these days, I ask myself, what’s the fucking point?

For me, the answer came in half of a song lyric: if we want to exemplify practicing yoga, then we also have to exemplify starting over.

I think that’s practice. That’s what’s pure.

James Carpenter is grateful to his many teachers for the gifts they’ve given him–most specifically to steal their best ideas and pass them off as his own. For their sake, he won’t list any names.




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Ed: Kevin Macku/Kate Bartolotta

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Alexa GK Apr 26, 2013 8:11am

I was at a talk given by Ven. Amy Miller recently, and she said something that "resonated" (no pun intended) with me: that when we're practicing meditation, often the moment of most natural and genuine meditation might be when the gong sounds, especially at the end, and we are like, "huh? oh!" and we let go of the trying. RIGHT!!??! I love this moment now, whereas before I would immediately think, "oh shit, I haven't been meditating"…
soooo your post was kind of another angle of this, I felt! thanks!

Christine Apr 2, 2013 8:49am

Great conversation, James! I love your observation that what we're inviting is a sense, like in asana practice. I find the same cul-de-sacs in my practice – fantasizing about what it would be like *if* I come back, realizing the distraction, thinking about the distraction, circling in on being present and flying into orbit again. This is practice, working with our reactions, as Robert points out. For many of us this conversation creates a community and opportunity for reflection and realization we would otherwise miss. Thanks for sharing your experience.

James Carpenter Apr 2, 2013 6:52am

Thanks Robert. Better late than never right?

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