On the Rewards of Fidelity


Today, a student asked me about my themed Ashtanga Yoga classes. She’d tried Ashtanga before, she said, but quickly got bored with the tradition’s fixed sequences. She wanted to find out if my themed classes offered more variety.

It wasn’t the first time someone had told me that they found the repetition of Ashtanga monotonous. Besides the rigor of the discipline, the repetition is one of the things that turns potential practitioners off the most. What I tell these people unfailingly is that it’s the unwavering fidelity to the practice of the same that provides the most opportunity for growth. The performance of a pose occurs on many, many levels, and students often mistake its mere external execution as competence (if not occasionally mastery).

Nothing can be farther from the truth. Even after six years in the practice, I find many elements of the most basic poses still unfolding within me. I’ve had to re-engineer my Chaturanga Dandasana, my Adho Mukha Svanasana and my Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (my current flavor of the month) a number of times. Outwardly, not much seems to have changed; inwardly, there’s a world of difference.

Ironically, however, my fidelity to one practice on the mat didn’t translate to fidelity to one career off the mat—at least for a very long time. One of the biggest dramas I nurtured during my twenties was how I hadn’t managed to find my vocation despite having worked (sometimes simultaneously) in a variety of fields and industries. There were so many things I enjoyed doing; which one of them was supposed to be my calling?

In the end, circumstances chose for me (and I mean this in a highly nuanced sense that’s explained in the footnote at the end of this post) and my life now is almost exclusively focused on yoga. For a good while, I grieved the sudden loss of occupational diversity, the simultaneous closure of multiple doors, the abrupt termination of so many avenues of exploration. (What about my university teaching career? The intended doctorate? The foreign language studies? The marketing consultancy? The ghostwriting business? The life coaching practice? The travel photography?) I bitterly resented what I felt to be the telescoping of my life onto a single point.

Now, almost two years after the telescoping began, I find myself unexpectedly…happy. In the same way that the repetitive performance of the same poses produces the laborious but rewarding fruits of Ashtanga, my “forced” occupational monogamy with yoga has resulted in a laborious but unexpected contentment. My enforced fidelity to the discipline has led to a viscerally felt appreciation for its depth and complexity. Now, all the energies that I used to disperse among different fields of endeavor are being directed to a single channel—and I absolutely love how simple it’s made my life. As Cal Newport put it so well, passion is “the feeling generated by mastery” rather than the enthusiasm we feel for what often turns out to be a merely “superficial interest.”

So do I miss the diversity and novelty afforded by my previous life? Very surprisingly, not at all.

Thank goodness.

* Circumstances choosing for me is just linguistic shorthand for: I made a choice with consequences I neither anticipated nor desired and I had to confront those consequences whether I liked to or not.

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