In June, one of my favorite yoga teachers offered up a theme for the month’s classes: “life is practice, practice is life.” She was quoting one of her favorite yogis, Judith Lasater, and the statement is a reference to the fact that people who do yoga regularly refer to their ongoing “yoga practice.” But as Katy reflected on the Lasater quote in each of her June classes, she got me thinking about the many senses of the word practice, and they way it is a metaphor for our lives.
Of course, I had to consult my trusty Merriam Webster dictionary as a guide to thinking about the word practice. Practice is a both a noun and a verb with several meanings.
The most obvious application of the word practice in yoga is the verb form that means to work at something repeatedly so that we can become more proficient. We practice shoulder stand over and over, aiming to become more proficient in aligning our bodies in the inversion. I “practice” many things in my life in order to become more proficient. For example, I write regularly in order to hone my writing skills. If we do something rarely or occasionally, we are unlikely to become very proficient at it, so if we really want to develop a skill set, we need to practice it regularly.
Practice also refers to carrying out or applying some set of principles or ideas. We often say that people should practice what they preach—they should engage in actions that match their words. There’s a popular bumper sticker that prompts us to “practice random acts of kindness,” a reminder that being kind should be a matter of habit or custom with us.
Another verb form of practice means to be professionally engaged in activity. Lawyers practice law, and doctors practice medicine. I practice coaching. There are techniques, knowledge bases, and codes of ethics that guide the way that professionals engage their work.
These professionals use the noun form of practice to refer to their body of work: a medical practice or a law practice. The noun practice can also refer to those things we do customarily. We call certain actions “common practices” or “best practices.” Of course, not all things that we label practice are positive. We also refer to “unethical practices” or “unhealthy practices.”
I’m finding it helpful to think about “practice” as a metaphor for life. Every day, I do things repeatedly--often things that I have done for years. They can be habits of eating and exercise, patterns of thinking, or approaches to interacting with others. They can be mindless habits, or I can approach these elements in my life consciously seeking the “best practice” for my life.
Since Katy’s June classes, I’ve been trying to think more deliberately about the way I practice life. For example, I’ve tried to be more conscious of how I consume news media. I have written before about the challenges of trying to stay engaged with the news in conscious, healthy, and responsible ways in these trying times. For the past month, I’ve been trying to think carefully about when I will read or watch the news, which news I read and watch, and how I will process that news instead of repeatedly clicking headline after headline and tuning into a cycle of outrage. I’m trying to make my consumption choices a habit by “practicing” those conscious patterns over and over.
Another thing I struggle with is eating enough fruit and vegetables. Like most every adult who pays attention to any health advice, I know that eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day will reduce my risk of heart disease and certain kinds of cancers as well as Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and a host of other maladies. But while I like most vegetables, but I’ve never been a huge fan of fruit. And fruits and vegetables spoil quickly, so I can’t stock up on a large supply too far in advance. Before I know it, the produce drawer is empty, and I don’t feel like shopping for food. It is not unusual for me to only have a couple of servings of fruit and veggies a day.
I’m working to make fruit and vegetable consumption a more deliberate part of my life practice by consciously purchasing and eating them. That means keeping a bag of frozen strawberries or blueberries and a container of yogurt in the fridge so that I can have a smoothie when there’s no other fruit in the house. It means making sure there are frozen veggies available in case we don’t make it to the store for fresh ones. It means trying new recipes in order to find tasty options for preparing these healthy foods. It means making sure I eat a fruit or a vegetable at every single meal, not just at dinner. It’s easy to fall back into my default practice—not having fruits and vegetables on hand—but I’m working to choose the best practice for my diet.
Practice is a powerful notion. Health and wellness writer Brad Stulberg puts it this way: practice is “approaching things that matter deliberately, with presence, and with the intention to improve and grow.” We can choose to repeat actions until we become proficient. We can seek out knowledge bases and best practices for living our best lives. And we can treat our lives as practice or a body of work—a collection of conscious actions designed to help us grow.
I’d love to hear from you about how you apply the notion of “life is practice, practice is life.”