Solitude in practice; or why Ashtanga is the best style of yoga

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:ย “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.

This entry was published on March 15, 2012 at 6:57 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

23 thoughts on “Solitude in practice; or why Ashtanga is the best style of yoga

  1. Nice post thanks for this one. Love the quote…but then I would having always practiced alone…. So is it 10,000 hours for any kind of practice I wonder or is ‘deliberate practice’ a fast track, mastery in seventeen and a half perhaps years in said or something

  2. Reblogged this on citymouse and commented:

  3. I look forward to these posts ๐Ÿ™‚

    I discussed this book with a friend recently as well as kitchen vs studio practice, the kitchen practice being more “therapeutic” because it’s done in solitude. Both are learning experiences, but sometimes i feel like I’m training for the Ashtanga Olympics when I practice shala style, which is great, I just can’t maintain that in everyday life. I love the 10,000 hours to be an expert at something bit, and how falling so short of that we call people experts in fields these days – student for life, yo.

  4. Krisna on said:

    Malcolm Gladwell, as I’m sure you know, devotes a chapter to this 10k hours concept in hi his compelling and highly recommended book “Outliers.” It is a fascinating concept, especially when applied to the Beatles in Hamburg or, closer to home–as you do–to a personal yoga practice. Best.

  5. “Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less usefulโ€“theyโ€™re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.โ€

    Thanks for posting this quote, it’s so true. When it’s been a good practice it’s much easier to get on the mat the next day.

    I’m another mainly home alone practitioner, some days it’s hard to avoid distractions, especially on difficult practice days, at the Shala although potential distractions come to mind, you can’t do anything about them.

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  7. Spirit Fire on said:

    Hm. I find my yoga practice is solitary, even in a room full of people in yin Hatha poses. The combined energy of people makes the practice that much better.
    I don’t feel the metaphor for violinists practicing alone is quite accurate. The range of sound a violin makes is limited by strings, wood, glue/resin, and other materials, etc. The work a human can do during asana practice is profoundly deeper and far reaching. Yes, I acknowledge there are some limitations to the human body. The violinist is attempting to achieve their perception of a certain sound, often times they are playing someone else’s composition. If you are practicing Ashtanga, you too are following someone else’s composition (as I understand it. I have not actually tried Ashtanga yet – other than having some exposure to some of the asana blended into a vinyasa flow class). Don’t you find that limiting? Why not compose your own music?
    I truly believe there is a place for both solitary practice & group practice. Much more like prayer or meditation. There is no right/wrong way to get closer to your diety/dieties of choice and there is no best/worst way to find your ideal yoga practice.
    Here is a mantra to contemplate:
    Sare Sa Sa Sare Sa Sa Sare Hare Har
    (the universe is infinite in its creativity)

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Spirit Fire. What a violinist does is different than what a yogi does for sure, but the comparison came to mind because of the way Susan Cain describes this method of “deliberate practice.” It resonated with me based on my experience practicing in a Mysore setting, or alone, vs my experience in a group class. As for your question of why ashtanga, and don’t I find that limiting– that could be another post. ๐Ÿ™‚ Suffice it to say that for me, yoga practice is not at all about expressing my creativity. For that, I sing or I write. I do yoga so that I can live in the world in a more harmonious way. So that I can deal with struggle, or grief, or pleasure, without having it derail me. Ashtanga works quite nicely for this purpose. As for your last line, there is no right/wrong way– absolutely.

  8. ” Suffice it to say that for me, yoga practice is not at all about expressing my creativity. For that, I sing or I write. I do yoga so that I can live in the world in a more harmonious way. So that I can deal with struggle, or grief, or pleasure, without having it derail me. Ashtanga works quite nicely for this purpose” I love this.

  9. Sandra on said:

    Love this post. I thank a friend for sharing it with me. I listen to the girls above me 11 & 9 play their musical instruments every night for a minimum of 10 minutes (alone). When I ask them why they do it alone they say? 1) Because my music teacher recommended it 2) I learn how to problem solve on my own.

    My thoughts: It’s the aha moments we are looking for and often when we are moving fast or in a group we may find that we bypass an opportunity or the moment.

    This is why I love the Mysore method – thank you for the post it truly is part of The Art Of Practice – regardless of what we practice.

    • I love that! Smart girls, smart music teacher. So important to have a quiet space to be able to hear the aha moments when they come. Thanks for reading, Sandra. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Completely agree. Thanks for sharing!!!

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  12. walkingyogini on said:

    A thoughtful and engaging blog.

    Kitchen vs shala practice is a fruitful tapestry, but exactly how real is it? As I get ready for a solitary practice in Gokulam while registered at kpjayi (b/c of insomnia last night), I find myself revisiting this page and fretting about a continuum within the continuum of solitary vs. collective environments for practice.

    First, I do not believe we are practicing in solitude if we are blogging about practicing in solitude; it’s a literary conceit. No one is an island and it’s increasingly impossible to pretend. On the flip side, one reason I still practice with others and believe in practice with others after 12 years of practice…is because 1. my response in a crowd is to focus and paradoxically, 2., the crowd is a singular collective entity.

    In other words I believe the physical place where we practice does not unfold or define our practice so much as where and how we unpack our conscious spirit/unconscious shadows. One can see or not see just about anything in a solitary or a group practice situation. Thankfully too, because things do change, and we need to be adaptable.

    I salute you for testing these slippery waters. I salute Pantanjalim for helping to bring us to this (promised) land.

    If we practice with surrender in our hearts then all is good, and God is everywhere.

  13. It is said that mastery of the ashtanga primary series comes after 1000 practices. So if on average I practice 5 times a week (with moon days and ladies holidays as days of) that would take me around 5 years! Has anyone here done that? 1000 full practices?

    • I’ve heard the “1000 practices” thing too– but having done that, I must imagine that it’s really closer to this idea of 10000 hours, because mastery? Not yet. There’s always more depth. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for reading!

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