Would 10,000 hours be enough to call yourself a yogi?
Matt Ryan asked me to write a blog about the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be effective and efficient at something to an expert level (* for note from editor see below). He said , is 10,000 hours enough to be considered an expert in yoga? For a bit of background the idea was popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote a book called Outliers. In which he suggests that natural ability and innate talent aren’t required in order to become proficient at something. He comes up with the magic number of 10,000 hours (on average) of practice. Citing examples like David Beckham, staying after normal team training and racking up hours of free kicks on his own. Or the Beatles playing all night shows and touring relentlessly before they even released their first single to become the phenomenon that they were. While Bill Gates grew up as a computer nerd to become a tech industry magnate. The theory has a ring of truth. It’s an old idea after all, “Practice makes perfect”. Anyone can achieve anything if they put their mind to it and put the time in. Could I actually become good at writing blogs if I spent 10,000 hours on it? A theory I wouldn’t want to test. I wasn’t really sure I had any answers. It’s a philosophical question in itself, whether or not talent exists and if hard work and practice are all you need to strive for. But is it even possible to be good at yoga? Do you need any talent to do it? Should you be striving to be good at yoga in the first place or is it something different? The more I thought about it, the more I realised I had an opinion on it. Hopefully this blog makes you think or is at least a teeny weeny bit entertaining.
For reference 10,000 hours is 416.66 consecutive days. Since we need to sleep and eat (I’m easily an expert at those), we can break things down a bit and get a better perspective. I have been doing yoga for about 9 years. At an average of 1 hour of physical practice per day. Which is conservative, some days I do more than that. With breaks during times of illness or injury it gets complicated. I teach yoga as well so the practice that I am doing varies. But for the sake of argument lets say I did do 1 hour every day for 9 years. That is only 3285 hours. Pitiful! Way off the 10,000 hour magic number. I also don’t consider myself to be naturally good at it… being a tall, heavy, hairy bloke. But how important is it to put a figure on it? Do these rules apply?
What does it mean to be proficient at yoga or to be a yoga expert anyway? It depends on your goals. Everyone gets into yoga for different reasons. Some people get into it to chill out a bit or manage anxiety and depression. Others for a workout. Others to relieve some kind of chronic pain or manage an injury. People’s goals can change day-to-day or in the moment. It’s a difficult thing to quantify and doesn’t necessarily require 10,000 hours to have worth and be effective. Yoga is a deep term with different meanings. It has changed and evolved over thousands of years but some elements have remained the same. Broadly speaking it is a practice that promotes living well in one way or another. However in ancient times of the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures where the term Yoga comes from) it was a way of shaking up the status quo and renouncing societal norms, in an attempt to live a simple life in nature being one with the universe. This was often practised less on a yoga mat, and rather by living naked in the wilderness smoking lots of groovy drugs. Can you even be an expert at that? I don’t think you can make a sport out of who can be the highest, least clothed bum around (or is that pro wrestling?). Yoga and what it means to people is a lot more complex than just getting into a difficult posture and taking a picture for instagram. It is a bit of a cynical way of thinking about it, but you are more likely to be judged on your number of instagram followers these days, rather than the number of hours you have practised, how much it is helping you cope with life, or indeed the quantity of drugs you have smoked while nude.
As for the physical practice and people’s fitness goals, these are pretty subjective. The ideal yogi in the media is the perfect body beautiful. We romanticize postures like handstand, splits, and leg behind head. You often get people put off doing yoga, saying “I am not bendy enough”. As a teacher you know that is nonsense. But we are sold this ideal and told that we can achieve anything if we try hard enough. Through the commercialization of yoga we are told that we are incomplete and made to feel insecure by images of physically fit people in crazy difficult poses and sold the idea that anyone can achieve this. Like we will be better people if you buy the same yoga pants, sign up to the class, get the DVD. In reality we are all products of our genetic heritage and have different biomechanics due to body types, bone structure and injury history. Some people will never be able to get their leg behind their head or into the splits. But that is ok. Should you even be aiming for that as a goal worth spending 10,000 hours on? How open do your hips need to be? Being able to get your leg behind your head is not necessarily a sign that someone is a yoga expert. Some people can get into those postures with very little effort. How important a talent is that? In a sense Gladwell’s theory applies to yoga. In that, talent is not necessary and putting the time in is all you need to reap the benefits. It is quite egalitarian. Yoga isn’t a sport or a competition though at the end of the day and isn’t about striving for peak physical performance. Goals in yoga are quite personal and relative to the individual. When you think about it, ability, talent and proficiency are also subjective. As phenomenal as The Beatles were I wouldn’t say that they were the most technically proficient band in the world. The Sex Pistols changed music and could hardly play their instruments at all. Being good at yoga is not so easy to quantify as the simple acquisition of legendary postures like they are Pokemon. Getting into a posture, a tricky bind or a handstand doesn’t change your life. Once it happens you realise there is no reward. Just more postures to ‘get’. No medals are given out or secrets of the universe are revealed to you. You aren’t instantly a better person. Matt once said to me “You can’t beat the practice, Bazza. The practice always wins”. It really stuck with me and taught me a lesson about chasing simple physical goals. Some lessons I learned the hard way through injury, which teaches you about non-attachment. It is very humbling to start from square-one and makes you see the practice in a different way. You realize you are barking up the wrong tree a little bit. You can’t win at yoga. Its not the point.
It gets trickier when you think of yoga as a form of meditation. Traditionally the physical practice was seen as a gateway to the more spiritual and meditative methods, with early yoga scriptures having surprisingly few postures in them. The real juice was the meditation. In that case isn’t yoga a goalless practice? You might have the goal of a clear mind/happy life/enlightenment experience, but there is no guarantee those will happen. You shouldn’t be focused on those as you are missing the point a little. It’s all about the present moment and dealing with the here and now. It sounds kind of zen and maybe a bit nihilistic to say “there is nothing to achieve”, “there is no spoon”, “you are the yoga” etc. But it’s just an example of how linear progression doesn’t strictly apply. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t have goals. It is human nature to an extent. It’s just to highlight that chasing goals is sometimes missing the point in a practice that it about non-attachment. It is hard to quantify the benefits and put a figure on that experience in terms of total hours and spirit points gained. You could see it as 10 minutes now, is better than 10,000 hours in the future.
It gets into hippy dippy territory when you start thinking about a person as already complete and Yoga as a state that is innate to all of us, revealed through the practice of breathing, moving and simply being. Or in the case of meditation, just sitting and staring at a wall. It is hard to quantify how good someone is at simply being themselves. Or admiring their epic technique for intense wall staring. If yoga is about living well, compassionately and ethically, how do you measure that philosophy? In yoga you follow certain principles as a guide to living well, that are more just jumping around on a mat. For example Satya means honesty in thoughts and actions. Ahimsa means respect for living things and non-violence. They sound like religious tenets (and are kind of obvious when you think about them). Being a yogi can mean dedicating your life to being honest and kind and doing no harm to others. Generally this translates to being more compassionate or “don’t be a jerk”. Does this stretch into being a vegetarian/vegan and doing no harm to any living being? Are you still an expert yogi if you eat meat? Now there is a thorny question. It reminds me of those Awakened AF parody videos you see online. I think they have a point sometimes. You can put 10,000 hours into doing yoga, call yourself an expert and still be a bit of a jerk. A jerk with their leg behind their head is still a jerk. As evidenced by various ‘Yoga Master’ sexual abuse scandals that rear their head from time to time. You can get that ‘cult of personality’ and corruption going on when you start handing out titles. Yoga doesn’t make you immune. When I think about it I am reminded of Buddhist Priest Brad Warner, and how he tends to shy away from the title ‘Zen Master’. He doesn’t put much stock in receiving Dharma Transmission as there are a lot of jerks out there calling themselves Masters, misusing their insight, claiming to be experts and selling the ‘secret sauce’ to a happy life. I think there is some of that in the more commercialized aspects of the yoga community too. You wonder how ethical that is. A yoga expert is difficult to define. Do you need 10,000 hours of compassionate living? Would an expert yogi even consider themselves one?
There is debate in the yoga community about how many hours are enough to become a teacher. Some people are against certification and regulation. Others feel that if the community doesn’t regulate itself then the government will step in and there needs to be some kind of standard. 200 hours is considered the minimum amount to be called a qualified yoga teacher. Others think 200 hours is a stepping stone and 500 hours is the real target. There are courses that cram the 200 hours into a fortnight in Spain. Others spend a year or two doing the same 200 hour qualification with practical and coursework assignments. You fill in an application for such a course and state that you have been practising yoga for several years beforehand as a foundation, but people can lie about it. As we have explored in this article it can be hard to pin down exactly what constitutes time practising yoga. It can be an hour a day on the mat or it can be a thing you live 24/7. Furthermore teaching is an entirely different kettle of fish. As with anything, you can have all the ability and knowledge in the world but breaking that experience down and being able to pass it on to others in a meaningful way is a different skill and might be a 10,000 hour experience in itself.
Critics of the Glandwell’s theory suggest that it only really applies to learning something with fixed rules, like chess or playing an instrument. If the rules are less stable then the theory goes out of the window. As this article has explored there are a lot of facets and subtle nuances to yoga and the definitions of ‘practice’ therein. Do you need to have 10,000 hours in all disciplines of yoga? Are the different methods comparable? What about time being a yogi “off the mat”, living compassionately and ethically? Do you need to meditate for 10,000 hours as well? Or is it all linked? More questions than answers there but stuff to think about.
In conclusion, after that vague ramble. It is hard to quantify what a yoga expert is. I don’t think that 10,000 hours is enough, it certainly doesn’t stop there. You are always learning. You are always changing. The goalposts are moving all the time. Pattabhi Jois is famously quoted as saying “practice and all is coming”. It isn’t really specified what that “all” is. It might have been there all along for you to find. You might find it and lose it from time to time. It is a Life long practice, a continuous journey, without any goals. Other yoga clichés to throw out there are “we are all beginners”, “we are all students”, and I still find those soothing. There is so much to learn and yoga is so deep that it might be impossible to ‘get it’ even in one lifetime, let alone in a mere 10,000 hours. But that is not to say that it is pointless. The very opposite. It is tremendously worthwhile and there is so much to get out of it from the first hour of your first class, to 10,000 hours and beyond.
* Note from Editor
Baz when I asked you to write a blog about the 10,000 hour theory I didn’t mean for you to write 10,000 words on the subject ! It’s gonna take people 10,000 hours to read the bloody thing !( Just kiddin Baz , you know I love you mate , the blog’s ace ).