thoughts from the mat, part 2

One of my favorite yoga teachers frequently reminds us "it's yoga practice, not yoga perfect." The whole point of yoga practice is to learn to tune into your own body and figure out where you are -- physically, mentally, spiritually. The effects of yoga build day after day, as you return to the mat and attempt your postures again. Some days I'm flexible, other days my hamstrings are tight; some days I can quiet my mind, and other days my main challenge is trying to remain present in the moment of whatever breath or posture is my focus.

When I was much younger, I studied music, and continued to play up through college. I grew to really love my practice time -- something which as a young child was just a routine part of family life became my own as I grew older. Practicing a piece of music is a lot like practicing a yoga pose: you have an idea(l) in your mind of what it should eventually sound like -- but the daily act of sitting down to the instrument isn't just about getting somewhere, reaching a goal -- it's about the process. I would spend at least 30-45 minutes just with scales and etudes -- exercises that I think of now as sort of the equivalent of the Triangle and Eagle poses I do every day. A kind of focusing discipline which contributes towards some larger improvement: strength and flexibility in yoga, precision and technique in music.

I've been trying to think about ways to understand what an equivalent kind of practice might be in my professional life. One of the things I've always liked about academic work is that you're always starting fresh every few months. New students, new materials to teach. And certainly each research project involves new ideas, texts, or arguments. But all that newness can also be overwhelming -- or, in my case at least, lead to perfectionism. When my yoga teacher reminds us that our class is practice, she's trying to get us to stop the litany of self-criticism that so many of us have running in the background like some hypnosis tape. So I've been wondering about what I can designate as my academic practice time -- what are the repeated actions that are part of my work and which could let me focus and build strength, flexibility, or balance.

This might be a way to reconceive what sometimes has felt to me like "wasted time" in my research and writing process. I read a text, mark key passages and take some notes as I'm reading, but then have to go back to transcribe quotes from those key passages. It's too disruptive to transcribe them while I'm reading -- and, when I can make myself sit down to do it at some later time, it often affords me a chance to review (and re-view) the text in useful ways. But often I put it off -- and then while I'm writing an essay I have to flip through the source texts to locate passages and type them in. Not efficient in terms of time or mental acuity to be doing that during the writing process.

All of this is in part an attempt to think about (and hopefully redefine) what "counts" as work for me. Several other people have also been talking about these issues in ways that suggest it's a shared concern, at least for humanities scholars. In graduate school, I had some good friends in the sciences -- I used to envy their regular trips to the lab to collect or enter or process their data (during some phases of their work). A few hours collecting data, however tedious it might be, definitely counted as work. But my sitting on the couch thinking hard about an argument for my dissertation seemed so much more nebulous.

I don't entirely know what the relationship between practice and work might be. But it seems worth pursuing.