When you see a young, lithe body bending into challenging yoga postures, it's easy to assume that they were just born that way. New students sometimes quit because they lose faith that they'll ever be able to bend their bodies into yoga asana perfection. But yoga is a path of effort that requires years of dedication. Some of the best teachers are the ones who struggled the most along the way. The most intense and arduous journey makes a more salient and dramatic story to tell upon its completion. Success in yoga is not measured by the advanced postures -- it's measured by the depth of the inner process. The best yogis are the ones who master not just the physical acrobatics but also the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the practice.
It's too easy to say that everyone who can lift up into handstand, bend deeply backward or places both legs behind their head is naturally gifted. If that were true, you would be either blessed or cursed from birth. Yoga is about the inner journey and even those lucky few with natural talent need to put in the work to reach their maximum potential. Excellence demands a certain minimum level of practice before its can be expressed. Researchers who studied aptitude ultimately settled on the magic number of 10,000 hours as a minimum for determining expertise in a given field.
Neurologist Daniel Levitin says "the emerging picture from such studies is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert-in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery...This is true even of people we think of as prodigies."
Even if you're born naturally flexible you still have to practice to let those gifts flourish and reach the level of mastery. Without dedication, devotion and hard work over many years; natural talent will remain untapped. Many people point to the musical genius of Mozart, who started composing at the age of six. Some of his "early" pieces were actually written while he was in his teens after he had been writing music for more than 10 years. And his magnum opus was composed on his death bed, the culmination of a lifetime of concentrated study, practice and dedication.
With yoga practice it would take more than a few practice sessions to reach the 10,000-hour point. If you assume two hours a day, six days a week and then factor in all the days of when you did not make it to the mat, you would need almost 20 years to get to 10,000 practice hours. Of course, some students practice for three hours every day and others even practice twice a day and do technique workshops to explore yoga asana in the afternoon. This would accelerate the time it takes to reach the 10,000 hour level.
Maybe the best teachers wait for their students to reach the equivalent of 10,000 hours of experience before giving them the authority to teach. My teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, asked students of Ashtanga Yoga to make at least eight trips of around six months each to Mysore, India before considering them for the highly level of qualification, Certification. This honor was not given to many students of Ashtanga Yoga and those who did receive it certainly put in the work.
The practice of yoga is a great equalizer. Pure practice is the determinant of whether you will succeed. It doesn't matter if you're naturally flexible or strong if you sit on the sofa and watch TV all day. It matters that you get on your yoga mat and start practicing today. Once you reach a certain level of realization through dedicated practice, you have the fruits of your labor to share and are then qualified to teach what you know from direct experience.
So many people assume that I was a gymnast, a dancer or just naturally gifted when they see my regular practice of the Ashtanga Yoga Advanced Series. I was never a gymnast or a dancer, nor was I naturally gifted. I had a little more natural flexibility when I started but nothing like what I can do today after 14 years of practice.
The first time I tried to put my leg behind my head, it didn't go, and the first time I tried to stand up from backbend I hit my head on the ground. When I tried to lift-up in any strength posture I faced the fact that I was a weakling who could not lift any part of my body off the ground. It's through years of practice, both through my traditional practice and many afternoon technique sessions, that I have the strength and flexibility in my practice today.
If I can do it anyone can. The only difference is a few years and a few thousand hours on the yoga mat. The benefit of yoga isn't something that materializes out of thin air. You have to work for it and then you receive its grace.
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