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The Risk of Learning

I’ve been practicing yoga regularly for about nine months now, attending classes several times a week at a studio less than a mile from my house. It’s done wonders for my back, which has long been beset by debilitating (though mercifully intermittent) pain. I’m not naturally strong or flexible, but I’ve marveled at the incremental progress I’ve made, class by class, as the months pass by.

I was finally starting to feel like a modestly capable yogini when I recently discovered during an intensive workshop that I had been doing chaturanga – a fundamental pose that one does countless times in each class – wrong. Not a little bit wrong. All wrong. My initial chagrin was magnified a hundredfold when I discovered that I am nowhere near strong enough to do it properly.

It’s not the end of the world. There are modifications. Until my shoulders are strong enough to support my weight where it is supposed to be shifted, I can move through the pose on my knees. Still, I walked away from the workshop feeling crestfallen to the point of despair.

I recognized this feeling. It’s the one I wallowed in throughout the entire unit on long division when I was in the fourth grade. I would slump over my desk staring at my workbook, willing myself not to cry. I just could not understand it. The teacher was bewildered; I was a reasonably bright kid, but I shut down completely when asked to divide large numbers.

I’ve invested a lot of energy avoiding this feeling – understandably. Who revels in feeling dumb, or weak, or incapable? It’s far more fun to focus on the things you do well.

(This is why I don’t scrapbook. I took one look at my first lamentable layout, and thought: Oh dear, this is long division all over again.)

I’ve done such a fine job of avoiding failure that I can’t point out many times in my life that I have triumphed through sheer grit and determination. Rather, I quietly walk away – or distract myself and others by upping my game at the things that do come more easily.

Yet there is something to be said for having the humility to keep going when you feel dumb, or weak, or incapable. There is something to be said for putting in the work to do something that is as worthwhile as it is hard.

At the beginning of every yoga class, each student is invited to set a personal intention. I am ever seeking to integrate my faith with my practice, so my intention usually has something to do with praising God with my body, or experiencing joy in the Lord. But at the beginning of the chaturanga workshop where I realized I was doing it so wrong, I had set a different intention. It was an intention that I thought was practical, but almost too simple – certainly a lot less spiritually grand than my usual intentions.

I had set out to learn.

To open yourself to learning is to risk. Learning means letting your pride go. Learning means allowing yourself to be humble – even allowing yourself to be humbled. Learning means lowering yourself to your knees, if that’s what it takes.

I’m beginning to see that setting out to learn is as spiritual an intention as any – on and off the mat.

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  1. Mrs. Frugalwoods

    That’s awesome that you’ve integrated yoga into your life! I’ve been practicing for about 7 years and it was only in the last few years that I could fully do chaturunga correctly, so don’t sweat it :)! What I love so much about yoga is that it encourages everyone to come to their mat with an open heart and mind and to do what feels right for their body.

    I think there are so few times in life when we really focus on what we need–physically, emotionally, spiritually. And for me, yoga has facilitated many realizations about what I need as a person, and what I want to give back. It’s a beautiful practice and I wish you all the best as you continue your journey with it!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Yes, it’s the fully integrated nature of yoga that is really “working” for me right now. I love that I’m exercising, praying, relaxing – all at the same time. And it’s not a matter of multi-tasking. It really is a beautiful practice. I’m grateful that I finally realized this – I tried several times in the past to take it up and wasn’t quite ready for it yet.

      Thanks for reading, and for your encouragement!

  2. Barefoot Hippie Girl

    I love this. I don’t do failure well either. But, I like the idea of having the goal of learning. Oh, and I’ve been doing Pilates lately. I am so not flexible or capable. I am doing it in the privacy of my home-with DvDs and YouTube clips. I am learning, and making progress. It is good!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      It is good!

      (I’ve done many a Jillian Michaels DVD in the privacy of my own home – huffing and puffing and collapsing in exhaustion!)

  3. Erin

    Thank you for the thoughtful article! This is a skill I’m trying hard to teach my kids – resiliency. I had a conversation with my 30some year old sister recently and she expressed regret that she never persevered with the “hard stuff” in her life.
    I want my kids to know that “hard” doesn’t mean run away – it means work harder!
    Also, I hope to be a role model in this….

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Resilience is exactly the word that was on the tip of my tongue, that I couldn’t quite come up with. Thanks for giving me the word to describe what I’m working on here!

  4. Mandi

    I am a perfectionist, with a serious, almost paralyzing, fear of failure, and I can relate to this post so much. This is a lesson I have been opening myself up to more and more and one I have to reiterate to myself over and over. I love your words. Thank you for sharing them.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      I used to say that I was too imperfect to be a perfectionist, and I said that without a slice of irony. Thanks for reading, and blessings as you learn to let yourself fail. 🙂

  5. Alissa

    Beautiful. The risk of learning.
    Bev Bos – a wonderful early childhood educator – says that the best thing we can do to help our children get ready to read is to give them opportunity to take risks. To jump from something “high up,” to test the monkey bars, to try to climb… and to allow them to succeed and fail and try again. Because, learning to read (or learning anything) requires a lot of risk, and a lot of failure, before we will succeed. So, kids that are willing to risk and fail and try again are going to be better learners.

    And we, as adults, who are willing to risk and fail and try again are going to learn better as well. This is a hard lesson in humility, for sure. But maybe I can start thinking about the things I’m not good at as “an opportunity to risk and learn…”

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      I appreciate your invitation to think of this in terms of children, too – I have a tendency to over-protect my kids, just as I have a tendency to over-protect myself. I need to learn to let them take risks, too.

      Thanks for reading, and for your response!

  6. Stephanie

    It’s very important you learned where the mistake is because, as you may also have learned, doing this posture over and over again incorrectly can cause you a serious injury that would prevent you from enjoying your practice. This fact is why I avoid fast-flow classes because I know I will do it incorrectly to keep up with the others in the class.

    My intention for going to yoga class is to show up on my mat. That I am there is all that matters. Anything else that happens is a bonus. Yoga is one place I can let go of the grip on my perfectionism just enough to learn something.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Yes – the emphasis in this workshop was all about doing this properly not for the sake of “getting it right”, but to prevent injury. I realized that I graduated myself out of beginner classes too early – my studio has several Yoga 1 classes with far more instruction and modeling, but I only went to a few of them. I’m learning that shortcuts are not wise in yoga!

      Thanks for reading, Stephanie, and for joining the conversation.

  7. NewFarm

    I’ve run up against enough failure now to remember the Big Ones: failed at not-being-taken-advantage-of-relationship-wise, failed at choosing a career with growth potential, failed a couple of important certification exams. I had the good fortune in each of those cases to be mentored by older women who said, “well, change that.” “Leave the abuser, put the extra work in and pass, go back to school.”

    So now, as I turn 40 (and having recovered by FAR from at least those three failures), I’m starting to look for opportunities to fail for a purpose: skills that I envy, that are particularly frightening, and jump at them. I’m going to paint purposeless but colorful art that maybe no one will like, I’m going to learn to shoot a beautiful live creature that nonetheless threatens me and mine, I’m going to learn to tolerate gory stuff, I’m going to get over heights, and I’m going to learn better debate skills so I’m not afraid to argue. And be a killer mobile app security guru. Those are the things I regret not doing sooner, that I’ll regret always if I don’t get to them later.

    Yoga might have helped me learn this kind of discipline. But one has to In yoga and elsewhere.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Yes: back to the mat, again and again and again.

      Blessings on this new chapter of your journey!

  8. Absolutely Tara

    Love this post. It was great how you tied everything together with being open to learning. I completely understand and am dealing with opening myself up to learning this very moment. How well timed. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Yes, indeed. I do not know why it has taken me so long to realize that I am a perfectionist!

  9. jo(e)

    Ah, that kind of thing happens to me all the time. Just as soon as I feel like I’m getting good at something, the universe does something to humble me.

  10. Linda Dew-Hiersoux

    Yoga has also provided me with many similar “aha” moments. A question that I have been contemplating lately – what constitutes “scaling” in my faith practice and the practice of our people? What are the “scaled options” for folks who are just learning about Jesus? The simple model of scaling our practices has helped me so much as a pastor. Thanks for your reflection. Be kind to yourself. Sounds like you are ready to learn at your own next level. Wonderful.

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