It is interesting how much thought I have given to the concept of improvement throughout my life. It started early for me, as a 10 year old playing competitive tennis. Winning was so much better than losing, and rising on the rankings list became an obsession. Inevitable burnout at age 12 lead to a divided focus between water sports and running. High school was all about getting better, both inside the classroom and out on the track or in the pool. Everything was measured, scored and graded and the drive to achieve reverberated throughout my head. The academic fury peaked in college and pushed aside any athletic efforts. I finally re-emerged in the workplace, as if returning to the surface from a ride over a waterfall, and I re-discovered the joy of sport and competition as an alternative to the politically affected perceptions prevalent in the modern workplace.
In so many ways, my desire to compete in sports as an adult has been fueled by the highly subjective systems in control of the corporate world. Success at work does not always come to those who deserve it. I longed for a level playing field, an objective measure of my ability, and a way to concretely identify progress and cleave it from failure. This may sound so horribly black and white, but to the engineering mind, "maybe" might be the worst answer anyone can give.
I have found there is absolutely no substitute for hard work when it comes to making improvement, at least with running, yoga, and tennis. And while I have had rough spells, even rough years, hard work always brought me out of any stagnation. The real joy in hard work is feeling the glitter in those tiny moments of progress along the way, where the distance from the starting point becomes visibly substantial.
Today I did parsva bakasana (side crow) for the first time. It wasn't pretty. It was completely unexpected. I have been working with Shane, an incredible student and teacher himself, and something about how he phrased his instructions today got past my natural filters of what I can and can't do. As my toe left the ground, a smile found its way onto my face and the morning turned into a blur of happiness from there. I think even Shane was a little surprised.
Looking back at my addiction to yoga, I've made it through a solid year of what has become a consistent practice. I have taken a few minor breaks to focus on specific races but I've never given up and I find myself easily re-invigorated when I reach milestones along the way. I remember the feeling of my toes first touching the floor in halasana and so many other gifts along the way. I distinctly remember November 14th 2010 as the day I descended an entire floor deeper into my relationship with my mat. As that day approaches, I feel something special even though the day itself is as arbitrary as any. It's as if I am looking forward to my first birthday as an adult.
The funny thing about hard work is that sometimes it is really hard. There are mornings when I lie awake in bed, 30 minutes prior to Shane's arrival, when I anticipate the pain I will feel from the twists he will ask me to do. I envision the disappointment that will wash over me when my strength gives out, or the shame that will engulf me when he has to use all 4 of his limbs to pry me into shape. I hear his words reminding me to glue my feet to the mat, scissor my hips, squeeze my shoulders together across my back, etc before he even arrives at my house to start. Every time I hear him say "vigorously" I know I should have been giving more on my own, I could have tried harder to start with, and I hate myself for needing him to voice it for me instead of being able to voice it for myself. Those are the low moments. It is so easy to think I am unique, that I am the only one who experiences doubt or fear or shame. And yet, the modest amount of life experience I've had allows me the perspective to assure myself that this is natural. In order to improve, everyone must experience these moments where we question our effort, our intentions, and our dedication.
When it comes to running, 2011 will undoubtedly be the lightest year of racing in a decade. And while I have no legitimate PR's to show for this year, I still feel as if I have improved somehow in my approach to running. Even while getting dropped by my fitter friends I feel a renewed peace to accept that speed may not always be the deciding factor in my love of the sport. Exploring this new dimension of coaching offers me a joy unlike any other I have felt previously, I can now feel another's improvement as if it were somehow part of my own. The beauty of watching someone else run faster, train with more enthusiasm, or simply supporting another human on a life changing decision becomes so very engrossing and addicting. I reach further understanding of how my father must have felt, at roughly the age I am now, while he coached me through those early years of tennis. In addition to the coaching, I've had a few pacing moments this year which were unique and special and I have a few more planned before the year is done. Pacing is like coaching except you skip the entree and go straight for the dessert. It's all glory and reward for only a modicum of effort.
Sometimes in a hot yoga class, when I feel like I'm going to fall over and die, I think of how much easier it would be if I were out for a run. There is a known pain scale with running, one I have become intimate with, and one which I can predict, measure, and ration. Yoga is still new for me, there are still moments where I completely shred myself and have to limp out of class and lie on the ground outside in order to breathe. It is for that very reason, for the potential to improve, that I drive myself forward on my quest.