I have watched plenty of tennis interviews over the years, and one thing that connects the very best players in the world as well as those trying to break into the top tiers of the sport is practice. They may wax poetic, dramatic, enthusiastic and frustrated about the number of hours they train on court, hitting hundreds of thousands of the same shot until the tennis courts close for the day, but all continue to show up early the next morning to go through the entire exercise again.
What, then, sets the legends apart from the journeymen?
When you observe professional tennis players hit the same shot on a split screen, you begin to see glaring differences in stroke production: maybe one takes the racket back early, maybe another has a loopier swing, while yet another one has a different way of gripping the racket. Yet all three can achieve great success because their technique is never haphazard, and has been honed to produce an amazing degree of consistency.
On the other hand, at the recreational level, each person may have an endless variety of ways of hitting even just one shot: maybe one is coping with a limited range of movement, maybe another is grappling with uneven strength, or maybe one has never had the guidance of a good coach. The differences in results between professional and recreational players can be quite stark and offers us valuable insight: one of the best ways to improve one’s skill level is to practice. And to do so consistently and repetitively until the skill becomes deeply ingrained in your body and mind. We must also practice with good technique and continue refining our technique in order to realize our full potential.
For most yoga practitioners, we start out our journeys as recreational yogis unaware of our true potential. We drop in on a few classes here and there, enjoy the experience, and eventually get hooked because asana is both challenging and extremely satisfying. As in tennis, this is the point where our skill sets begin to lag heavily behind our aspirations, and like recreational tennis players going for too ambitious a shot, lots of beginning yoga practitioners fall into the same trap of going for too much, too soon.
We tend to forget or completely overlook that skilfulness is actually being able to navigate and integrate a lot of smaller, simpler actions into something more powerful. Let’s look at it from the point of view of learning how to be tennis player. First, a tennis player one has to learn a bunch of smaller skills like footwork and foot placement, how to balance one’s center of gravity on their feet, being able to wind the trunk up to generate power, pulling the racket back in a smooth motion while using the other arm as an active counterbalancing point, as well as hand and eye coordination just to be able to hit a forehand while in a stationary position. Once this basic stringing of smaller skills becomes ingrained in the tennis player, then we witness the becoming of a formidable, stationary forehand. At this point, the tennis player is then given additional exercises to practice in order to enhance the basic skills and develop the ability to hit the ball as cleanly and as consistently while running.
Towards this end, a coach may start revisiting footwork drills and incorporate more agility work to help the player learn how to stay agile and be able to move quickly in many different directions, then trunk must be retrained to revolve more efficiently while the racket is being pulled back to compensate for the opponents ability to hit the ball in many different ways, hand and eye coordination must be heightened so the player learns to recognize trajectory, speed, power and spin, and new instincts to move towards and meet the ball must be integrated and accepted by the player in order to enhance competitiveness and efficiency.
There are no alternatives, no shortcuts or no ways of making the process any easier. Yet, there are plenty of tennis players who continue to show up in their training in the hopes of realizing and maximizing their potential.
Now let’s look at it in the yoga perspective and see Plank Pose as the equivalent of the stationary forehand. In the same way, this pose also a lot of smaller actions strung together: being able to push the floor away consistently with your hands, being able to keep your knees and legs straight, being able to use the entire corps of core muscles to support the lower back and entire trunk, being able to keep your head lined up with the rest of the spine, etc.
Once all these little, simpler actions can be executed consistently, then practitioners can then start re-working and enhancing the skills that they already have in order to build the formidable strength necessary for the practice of Chaturanga.
In most yoga classes that I teach, I often no longer offer the option of taking the “traditional” vinyasa of chaturanga-updog-downdog, mostly because a lot of students seem to be unwilling to put in all the hard work that a pose like Chaturanga demands. The traditional Chaturanga-Updog-Downdog transition can prove to be “too much, too soon” if it is not carefully, mindfully executed.
I always remind the people who allow me to lead their practices that repetition is a great. However, it also is a double-edged learning tool that must be subject to continual discernment and refinement, because the grooves left by the sheer number of times we do certain things, can be quite deep and difficult to undo and can physically be hurtful in the long run.
If we practice something just for the sake of practicing it, and we execute it in a haphazard manner, I think that our bodies and minds can potentially learn a very different lesson: that it is okay to not pay attention and just keep doing things blindly.
I have been lucky enough to have been guided by a teacher who tempered and directed my enthusiasm and ego in practice, so that I could work more efficiently and authentically in my asana practice, and better discern more valuable reasons why we do what we do on the mat.
Ultimately, when we step on the mat, there is an opportunity to realize that true potential if we are willing to put in consistent work, time, patience and effort. If we choose not to work on the discipline of technique, or patiently go through the drills, exercises and utilize this discipline of yoga to expand our awareness of ourselves, in some way, we may be resigning ourselves to a space of unrealised potential.
Marc Macadaeg is co-founder, Faculty Head and senior yoga teacher at Urban Ashram Yoga. His unique style of teaching vinyasa has attracted many practicioners who are looking to deepen their asana practice and their understanding of yoga. He has been a pioneer of the signature FNR (Flexibility Not Required) Program of Urban Ashram Yoga.