What Makes practice, Practice?

by Kim Ivy

Intent. Grace. Humility. Consistency. Routine. Perfection. Imperfection. Motivation. Rest from Motive. Conscious Awareness. Doing something different. Doing the same thing over and over. Flow. Feeling good. Fun. Nine-year-old Zamora who has studied with me for four years says practice is “repeating something over and over until you gradually get good at it.” I love that a nine-year-old understands the concept of gradually! So, what does makes practice, Practice? The overwhelming theme that has emerged is this: Intention. Practice is many things, but primarily it is bringing our intention into whatever we are doing.

It is said of Qigong training that practicing your form for one hundred days in a row will accomplish true change. It is believed that this length of time and consistency is needed for the alchemy of movement, breath and intent to seep deeply into the muscles, tendons, bones and bone marrow. It is also thought that it takes this much repetition to learn the practice for oneself (in contrast to following a teacher) so it can be a useful lifetime tool for longevity and health. Of course it takes much longer than one hundred days to gain even the rudiments of Qigong skill, and practicing regularly within a busy life of family and work can be challenging.

At my school, we jump-start our sagging winter mood with “100 Days of Practice” that begins with the excitement of the Chinese New Year. This year, everyone was invited to participate by practicing anything a person chose for 30 minutes a day (+/-). If a day was missed, just start again the next day and kept counting. 120 people (out of 200 students in the school), students and their friends from Spain to the Yukon to Seattle, emailed me to sign up.

Their chosen practices were delightfully varied. People devoted themselves to thirty minutes of treadmill, meditation, Taijiquan, walking, career improvement, non-work reading, Qigong, diet/exercise, energy work, listening, playing, beadwork, playing the violin, or being outside every day. My favorite might be the person who will go to bed 30 minutes earlier every night. For me as a teacher, spending time on my own practice is most challenging. I chose two particular forms that I want to improve on. I realized that my martial arts have always been my practice, yet as I began to absorb such varied choices from so many different people, I began to wonder, “what does make practice, Practice?”

Practice comes from the old French word “practiser” which is derived from the Latin “practicare” which means to perform, carry out. Given that definition, anything anyone does could be considered practice. But practitioners know the concept of practice takes on a deeper meaning. I appreciate the distinction my student Ellen makes. “For me, ‘practicing’ involves repetition in order to gain a level of proficiency at something, but ‘having a practice’ is more about being fully engaged in something because it is a part of my life. It defines me in a way that other actions of mine do not.”

I have come to feel that Practice for me is the intentional act of bringing conscious awareness into whatever I am doing. This could be swimming, Tai Chi, cleaning the house, relationships. For me, this conscious awareness also carries with it the intention to improve. How can my stroke be longer and more relaxed? How can I better connect my movements to my core? How can I be present while cleaning the tub? How can I listen better? I bring to my practice not just repeating something over and over but the act of self-reflection: I practice and I observe. I practice again. I tweak and adjust and tear apart and build up again. I create an opportunity to know myself better. Gradually this habit seeps into the rest of my activities. The result of Practice is that over time, I have a more engaged relationship with my whole life.

At some point, we take the lessons out of the classroom, off the pages, and into the practice process. We propel ourselves beyond the initial lesson and into a more intimate place -- a place where it is just us and what we are practicing. Our inner voice and direction seeps out. What about doing it this way? How does this feel? We ask ourselves about our own experience. This is where significant transformation takes place.

Over my years of practice, I have come to believe that our intuition points us to a deeper instinct. This instinct is embedded deep into our humanity. It is the instinct to improve ourselves. To fulfill this often-unconscious drive, we seek out experiences and teachers to help us, to show us, to point us in a certain direction. We may not know what it is specifically so we look for teachers and experiences to ignite an innate fire in us – to bring this urge out of dormancy and then to motivate us on this very instinctual path. At a certain point it is then up to us to blow on the flame, to tend to the coals, to find more fuel. This is practice. As we blow and fan and hunt for more fuel we become strong, more capable, more self-determined and we become more conscious. Over time we become ready to receive deeper layers of lessons.

“But I can’t practice on my own." "I will do it wrong." "I will set an incorrect path.” Truly these are the worst things to allow ourselves to believe. I think of a baby, learning to walk. They have no “I can’t do it” verbiage yet. They don’t even know this way of thinking is an option. They just wiggle and push and grab and fall and get up again. Something deep inside the baby drives her to get up, grow, develop, improve, and keep at it. After the baby walks, how much more improvement is available to the human being? So much more!

When we stifle the practice process by choosing to engage in negative mental activity, we close the door on our growth and all that is available to us. We deny our natural instincts, our intuitive guidance. Gradually over time we become smaller, weaker, fragile, less connected. It is a terrible death because we are still breathing but we are not growing. Human beings are the only living beings that can purposefully separate themselves from their nature. Animals don’t do it, neither do plants or babies. It is when we become "smart" enough that we can make that choice. It is a great sadness for me that so many people use their intelligence to intentionally, willfully, purposefully, consistently allow their flame to flicker and die out.

To that end, I am human. The inertia of sitting on the couch, lazing around, is so compelling. Staying asleep in relationships and just letting life go by beckons. It is not that I never make that choice. I do. And it scares me when I do. In fact, I might say Practice is a conscious choice to keep myself alive. I don’t mean keep myself living -- I can keep myself fed, sheltered and clothed. I mean truly alive. Engaged, purposeful, self-reflecting, intuitive, lively alive. At times it is a ferocious choice. A tough choice. But I fear cold coals. And I deeply trust the fire of Practice to keep me going.

As I attune to and intentionally nurture my deep human drive to grow and improve, I connect very intimately to the bigger world that is doing the exact same thing. I look around. It is spring. Plants are pushing up out of the ground, budding and blooming. As I practice I keep my own growth fed and this keeps the icy winds of complacency from blowing down my neck.

My public work is to light and nurture the Practice fire in others. In doing so, I witness people who practice and others who do not. I try many things to keep the diverse flames going and to teach people how to do it eventually for themselves. Sometimes I am successful. I have come to know that truly the only thing I can do is keep my own practice alive and in that way provide an example for others.

Time has shown me I am not perfect nor will I ever be. In fact Practice has erased that as a goal. Practice has revealed to me that there are days when I don’t even know if I will be able to keep my own Practice nurtured over time. Practice has shown me that it is not an automated process of inspiration and motivation. The truth is this: there are flat days, sometimes flat years.

Yet there are moments (not days, weeks, or decades) when I feel utterly connected. I feel myself with -- with what? With nature, with breath, with the people around me, with the birds singing. Myself with. And when I practice, I practice not to achieve those moments. In fact, I have every realization that perhaps I won’t feel them again for a very long time. I practice not to get moments of connection; I practice because I know they are there. Practice gives me the vehicle, the method, the habit, the discipline, and most importantly, the trust to keep myself fired up no matter what. Practice supports me and then, by some act of Grace and Humility, it reveals me.