Building Capacity

Today, during my morning yoga routine, I did five long breaths bent over almost double, and then went into “high plank”, which is sort of like the first part of a push-up. Then I dropped into low plank: elbows bent, nose and toes on the floor, belly almost but not quite touching the carpet, and everything else parallel with the floor. Five more long breaths, and then I turned my feet over, resting my insteps on the carpet instead of my toes.

Then I pushed up into upward dog. Five more long breaths, then downward dog, to stretch my hamstrings and lower back.

High plank to low plank to downward dog is a challenging series. Even people who do twenty pushups at a time without challenge have trouble doing one such. My usual habit is to do the body bend, the high plank, the low plank, and… collapse on the floor before pushing up into upward dog.

It’s not pretty.

I weigh close to 300 pounds. Doing anything so energetic as pushing my full weight off almost the floor without folding up in pain or embarrassment is challenging, to say the least.

When I first started doing this particular yoga series, three weeks ago, i could not even reach my toes, much less put my fingers under them as the directions required. But first I got to the point where my fingers brushed the floor, and then the flats of my fingers. Eventually it will be my hands. When I started, I couldn’t stay in high plank for five full breaths. Then I couldn’t stay in low plank for five full breaths.

For all this time, low plank to upward dog wasn’t even on my radar as a problem; I would simply try to do it, and the act of trying would make my abdomen collapse onto the carpet. Oh well.

Yesterday there was no indication that today would be the day I’d finally succeed. I didn’t almost succeed; I failed as much yesterday as on all the preceding days.

Yet without those preceding days of trying and failing — almost two months of trying and failing daily— I wouldn’t have ever succeeded. And I wouldn’t have tried and failed daily without a year and a half of getting up every morning at 5am to do standing meditation and other preliminary yoga. And I wouldn’t have made it through that first year and a half without making a formal promise to myself and keeping a daily journal of my progress for the first six months (It was so frustrating to write “no work today” too many days in a row, so eventually I got up and did the work).

Think of all of the capacities that it took to do this one thing — high plank to low plank to upward dog: journaling, dedication, willpower, patience, tolerance of failure, memory (to learn the order of postures for six different series of daily exercises), and more. Shutting out ridicule when I did it in public. Shutting out my own critical monologue. Tuning out distractions.

It turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to learn all these things. It took me months in one sense… but years in another. Yet we sometimes ask kids to do it right the first time.

How do we account for the idea that we’re asking kids to build capacity, instead of grading on a daily basis? How do we make grades count more at the end than at the beginning?

How, most of all, do we build our teaching programs so that our students focus on the capacities they build in themselves rather than the grade we award them?

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