solitude, self-practice, svadhyaya
Recently I have been reading up on a book exploring the pros and cons of extroverts vs introverts. Quiet by Susan Cain explores how the modern society has come to favor and praise the extroverted type of people. Being an introvert herself, she talks of the unrecognized and underestimated powers of introverts.
I happen to come across a couple of paragraphs in the book that made me instantly think of Ashtanga (what else would I think of for this blog?). A group of researchers conducted a study on how extraordinary achievers become so great at what they do. In a now-famous experiment, the team, led by Anders Ericsson, compared three groups of violinists and found that those in the most elite group of musicians spend most of their time practicing in solitude (all three groups spent the same amount of time practicing). The results were consistent with other kinds of expert performers, from professional chess players, athletes, and college students. "Serious study alone" is the strongest predictor of skill.
"In many fields…it's only when you're alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which [has been] identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful--they're counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them."
Sounds familiar? In a Mysore room, we focus on our own practice, what aspect of the practice (asana, breath, focus, etc) we need to work on, and how. Each day when we come to our mat, we can measure (ideally without judgements) how our body and breath feel today, and how that in turn affect the practice. Maybe we feel tired because we stayed up late last night, therefore the "revision" would be to get to bed earlier. Or we feel slightly bloated due to the late night dinner, and in turn we would become mindful of eating a lighter dinner earlier. If we don't practice enough or follow a set of disciplines, then there is no tapas to burn through our samskara. In addition:
"Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the tasks that's most challenging to you personally. Only when you're alone…can you go directly to the part that's challenging to you. If you want to improve what you're doing, you have to be the one who generates the move."
That last sentence clearly indicates svadhyaya, or self-study. And that is why a Mysore teacher is not one to guide the class in unison, but rather to make only a subtle presence in the room and to guide/assist when necessary. And we all know that Ashtanga yoga requires the deepest of the deepest self-generated motivation. How else are we able to wake up at insane hours in the morning to go through 2 hours of "torture" when you're only half-awake? Lastly, because you follow the Ashtanga sequence, you are not "allowed" to skip the asanas that you don't like or are not good at. Ashtanga forces you, in a good way, to face your fears and challenges of those postures on your own. While there are most likely a handful of others in your class who are also stuck on supta kurmasana, your bodies are, after all, different. How you individually work the posture out depends on you alone. How they work that asana out is their own business.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested and any party. You might even realize that you're not the extrovert you think you are (and vice versa). There are shy extroverts and outgoing introverts in the society, as Susan Cain points out in the book. The definitions for introverts and extroverts are not simply a matter of black and white--it's less of how he/she behaves and more of how he/she looks at the world that defines introversion and extroversion more accurately. I've always thought myself to be an introvert, and after some reading, I can definitely confirm (FYI: reflective, observant, would rather stay in on Friday night and read than go out, don't like small talks but rather meaningful conversations, think twice before they speak). But again, nobody can say they are 100% introverted or 100% extroverted.