Solitude in Practice

This is a post I wrote about six years ago-– I thought it was worth reviving here on the new blog.

I recently read a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. A fascinating read, if you’re into things like that. In one part, she writes about expertise, and the ways that people achieve it. You may have heard that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, which in yoga practice terms (roughly 10 hours per week, let’s say) would mean about 19 years. (You think Yoga Alliance has a teacher training for 10,000 hours?) But what kind of practice are we talking about? Cain cites a study of violinists, divided into three groups based on how good they were. Here’s what the study found:

“[T]he two best groups spent most of their time practicing in solitude […] The best violinists rated “practice alone” as the most important of their music-related activities. Elite musicians–even those who perform in groups–describe practice sessions with their chamber group as “leisure” compared with solo practice, where the real work gets done.” (80)

Practice alone! That sounds familiar. Ashtanga is characterized by this “practice alone” model, even in a Mysore setting where the teacher is available if needed, but otherwise we are left to do the work on our own.

Cain continues: “What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has 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.” (81)

There is always something hard in an Ashtanga practice, something “just out of your reach.” And that something is different for every person. In this method, you are confronted by that something every day, no escaping it or circumnavigating allowed. Every day, until it gets easier, and then there’s something else to frustrate you. Boom. Progress.