“Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attend to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.” - The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” - Vince Lombardi
Perfect practice is a popular concept in business and self-help literature. It's often illustrated with flashy examples of success: the professional basketball player who shoots 100 free throws every day of the year, the best-selling author who writes 1,000 words before breakfast, the motivational speaker who spend 400 hours rehearsing a 4 minute speech. In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell claims that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. (To put that in perspective, there are about 8,800 hours in a year, and a typical workweek ranges from 2,000 to 4,000 hours per year.)
You don't need to win a national championship, the Nobel Prize for Literature, or devote 3 years to a single skill to experience success. With much, much less you can still experience perfect practice and the success that it creates.
How? Take a vocabulary test.
Most of us, at one point or another, have been given a list of words to learn. It's easy to scan the list a few times and think we've learned the words. But take those same words and put them on flash cards, shuffle them up and go through them. Odds are good that when you see the same words out of their original context and out of order, you'll find you didn't know them nearly as well as you thought. Scanning the list a few times is practice. Creating a challenge and little bit of stress by mixing up the words is more like perfect practice. Practice means we might do okay on the test. Perfect practice means we ace it.
On the yoga mat, the results of perfect practice will, more often than not, be subtle. Let's say you've decided that you want to master vrksasana. (Yes, you want to be the very best tree you can be.) Commit 15 minutes a day for a week - less than 2 hours - to accomplish this.
To practice, you might repeat the pose, in the same room, first on the right and then on the left, with the same foot and hand positions, for the same length of time, every day. To perfectly practice, you might read about vrksasana in Iyengar's Light on Yoga, then Google "vrksasana" to find photographs of other people in the pose. When you practice, compare how you feel in the pose with your eyes open, and then with your eyes closed. Videotape yourself in the pose and watch it. Teach the pose to someone.
Odds are good that with perfect practice, you'll find yourself demonstrating vrksasana flawlessly, while talking, smiling, and mirroring a room full of students. A person with a detached mind - that is, a mind that isn't fixated on nervousness or scrambling for the right word - can perform incredibly well.
There's no trophy, prize, or big check. Perfect practice means you might never land the cover of Yoga Journal, but there is success nonetheless. Success is leading a room confidently and safely into the pose, without a trace of nervousness. In other words, grace under pressure is the successful result of perfect practice.
Written in December 2011
I finished 200 hours of yoga teacher training a few years ago. It took - and I mean this literally - blood, sweat and tears to finish the course. Not only did we practice quite a bit of yoga, we learned the Sanskrit names and pronunciations for dozens of poses, studied a lot of anatomy, wrote sequences, taught classes, read yoga books and wrote a few essays.
The essays were our chance to practice explaining yoga themes in some detail and with a practical, casual tone, the same way you'd want to talk with yoga students or friends. This was last one I wrote. Reading it now, I have to laugh. This was my best casual and friendly tone of voice. (Yikes.)