The Amazing Riches we can Reap from Regular Practice

Caitlin at barWhen most of us embark on a new activity that involves practicing on a regular basis, we typically hear a voice inside us saying “I don’t wanna.” Even though we’ve been excitedly thinking about making this change in our lives, actually doing the work towards learning something or changing our habits is not a walk in the park. At the beginning the practice is boring, and it’s tempting to decide instead to have a snack, do our laundry, reorganize our files, or watch the news. How long do most people have to struggle with feeling this discomfort while turning in a new direction? Sports psychologist Gregory Chertok wrote in this week’s San Francisco Chronicle that, “for a behavior to become an ingrained action…it takes four to six weeks of ‘consistent’ action,’” that is, regular practice.

Don’t be discouraged if in the past you’ve been derailed by the tedious process of “engraining” a new behavior and given up! Our brains and muscles are hardwired with a surplus of potential to learn countless skills, and we keep much of this resource for life. You can tap into it any time and acquire a dazzling new piece of yourself, plus a surprising bonus for having stuck with it: a new-found pleasure in doing the very task that was such a drag at first.

My father, who died three years ago this month, knew of these riches. He wrote about them in his book about learning called “Mastery,” and towards the end of his life he personally demonstrated that you don’t have to be young to benefit from practice. To illustrate how someone can use practice to sharpen a skill and find joy, even during his last days, I want to reprint this story about my father that I wrote for this blog shortly before he died:


In the summer of 2003 my father George Burr Leonard had most of his stomach and esophagus removed. He lay in the intensive care unit for three weeks falling in and out post-surgical psychosis as we hopelessly tried to reason with him. We were overjoyed when he came to. We were also relieved to learn that the doctors had gotten out all of the cancer. My father was declared okay to go on with his life.

george leonard masteryAnd what a life he had to go back to. My father is a pioneer in the emerging field of human potentialities, the investigation into just how far we humans can go towards maximizing our inborn potential for growth in mind, body and spirit. He is the founder of three life-enhancing techniques that have touched tens of thousands of people the world, is past-president of Esalen Institute and The Association for Humanistic Psychology, is the author of twelve books on the human potential (my two favorites are “Mastery” and “The Silent Pulse”), is a fifth-degree black belt in aikido, an accomplished jazz pianist, and the writer and lyricist of musical comedies. In person, my father is funny, sweet, enthusiastic and playful. His favorite words are “joy” and “generous.” He, as they say, lights up a room.

Dad never planned to retire, no less to get sick, or even old. After his recovery he leapt right back into his life. The problem was, he had trouble eating. At first we family members figured he wasn’t trying hard enough. We advised him to eat fattening foods, eat more often, drink Ensure, see specialists and healers, take pills and remedies, and he did them all. Nevertheless, in the face of all the wizardry the medical and healing worlds could offer him, he became thinner and weaker.

In 2008 when my father hit his 5-year survival mark, a supposed measure of post-cancer recovery, he was no longer joyful. His disease had seriously affected his body and mind. He couldn’t drive and became house bound except for increasingly frequent visits to the emergency room. He stopped writing and playing the piano. His friends didn’t visit him as much. He became despondent and at times could not be consoled.

Then four months ago, one of Dad’s many doctors prescribed something he had never tried. “He took out his prescription pad,” my father told me, “scribbled something on it, and handed it to me. It said,

‘Practice the piano 15 minutes a day, seven days a week.'”

And that’s exactly what my father has done.

George Burr Leonard and Burr Leonard

I visited my father today. He is still stooped, but his eyes are lit up with his old good humor. He eagerly told me about his piano playing and to my amazement of his enjoyment of being retired. “It’s fun,” he said. “I can stand back, look at the world, and laugh at it.”

What amused me about the prescription that finally healed my father’s spirits is that it was for his own medicine. Most of his books give emphasis to the power of daily practice as the foundation for positive change. In “The Life We Are Given” he writes:

“Any significant long-term change requires long-term practice, whether that change has to do with learning to play the violin or learning to be a more open, loving person.”

As a reader and fan of his books, I took this idea when I was in the process of developing the Bar Method and used it to guide both students and teachers. I discovered that, just as my father prescribed, regular practice – whether it be simply attending class three times a week or, just as important, really practicing the exercises while doing them – changes us inside and out more than we initially believed possible.

Read more on Mastery vs. Fitness Trends.

“The Four Horses” One More Lesson From My Father

Reading Mastery, a book about learning by my father George Leonard, inspired me to rethink how I taught exercise. Last week I shared with you Mastery’s advice on sticking with learning something even though you’re frustrated by your lack of progress. This week I want to tell you about one more insight I got from Mastery that has had a lasting effect on me. This piece of wisdom originated from a Zen parable called “Good Horse, Bad Horse.”  My father retells it as follows in Mastery.

“In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen mastery Shunryu Suzuki approaches the question of fast and slow learners in term of horses.

four horses‘…it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run. When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse…’

But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says. When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of the practice…. The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones.”

At first glance, this parable sounds ridiculous. Obviously a talented person would learn skills better than a slow, maladroit one, right? I decided to find out if there was any truth in this notion by paying closer attention to the performances of my less talented teachers. After a year or so of observation, I was amazed to discover that there was actually something to be learned from the “Good Horse, Bad Horse” parable.

Some of our teachers who started out to be terrible ended up making amazing changes in their teaching. The opposite was true for a few of my most apparently gifted instructors. The first teacher I ever trained in 1992, for example, instantly picked up the lingo of the classroom. She had such a facility with words that my staff teased her about sounding “like a little ‘Burr clone.’” Unfortunately, this teacher turned out to be a classic “first horse.” The superficial skills of the job came easily to her probably as a lot of things had in her life. The problem for us was, she never took class, had no idea what her students were feeling during the workout, and had no desire to connect to them or apply herself. A few months after putting her on the schedule, we fired her.

SusanAnother one of my teachers named Susan (at left with me in 1993) was another story altogether. Susan had a very stiff back and could barely get into the abdominal “curl” position. After months of struggling to get better at curl, Susan gained a deep understanding of the exercise and became the best curl teacher we’d ever had. My partner Carl and I started to appreciate the advantages of having a “fourth horse” on our staff.

Soon we opened our eyes to the possibility that our students as well as our teachers could be “first horses” or “fourth horses.” We saw that our hardest working students and not necessarily our best students were the ones who were on their way to transforming themselves. Students who “got the tuck” the first day weren’t necessarily the ones who went home with the best results after two years. It was in fact some of the less conspicuous members of our classes who were on the trajectory towards the most dramatic changes: Students with very tight hamstrings who patiently spent a year stretching at the stall-bar (where there are lower rungs) until they gained the flexibility to put their leg on the regular bar; students with little body awareness initially who at long last learned to stand up straight and pull in their abs; even students who used every excuse in the book to tell us why they couldn’t get to class regularly and finally managed to carve three hours a week out of their lives for exercise – these students, our “fourth horses,” became in our minds our race horses.

When you walk into a Bar Method studio today, the first thing you notice is its welcoming atmosphere. Staff and teachers alike share the conviction that everyone – anyone – can improve if they work at it. I credit in part the “Good Horse, Bad Horse” parable for teaching us to embrace the potential in everyone.

Read a Roadmap to Mastery:  Wisdom from my Father.

Read The Bar Method as a Path to Mastery.

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A Roadmap to Mastery: Wisdom From My Father

Last week I talked about using The Bar Method as a personal path to mastery. This week I want to share some fantastic advice on this subject from a book by my father George Leonard called Mastery, The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. Mastery draws on Zen philosophy and the Japanese martial art of aikido to come up with effective ways to learn any worthwhile skill, whether it be tennis, playing the guitar, or being a great lover.

Mastery coverMastery was published in 1992, the same year I opened my first exercise studio, so it happened that I read the book just as I was struggling to develop my teaching skills. Its insights made an enormous impact on me, and I adapted them as the basis of the Bar Method’s teaching technique that hundreds of our instructors around the country use today.

The premise of Mastery is that to learn to be good at anything, you have to accept a daunting reality for which most people are not prepared: Your progress will come in “relatively brief spurts,” and that each spurt “will be followed by a slight decline to a ‘plateau’ or skill level just a little better than the last level.” In other words, to be on the path to mastery, you need to accept that most of your learning time will be spent on a “plateau” of no apparent improvement.

How true! In my experience, learning never proceeds in a straight ascending line. You have to resign yourself to sticking with it even though most of the time you usually don’t seem to be making progress. Most people want something in return for their trouble, namely the feeling that they’re better every day. How do you motivate yourself to keep going in the face of this apparent lack of progress?

To illustrate how frustrated people can get when confronted by “the plateau,” Mastery conjures up four imaginary people, each representing a different learning style and only one of whom is truly on the path of mastery. Do any of these types resemble you?

Dabbler curve1. “The Dabbler,” says Mastery, “approaches each new sport, career opportunity, or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He or she loves the rituals involved in getting started, the spiffy equipment, the lingo, the shine of newness.” In the end, the Dabbler doesn’t stay with it because to do so would mean, according to my father, “changing himself. How much easier it is to jump into another bed and start the process all over again.”

Obsessive curve2. “The Obsessive,” the second type, “is a bottom-line type of person, not one to settle for second best. He or she knows results are what count, and it doesn’t matter how to get them, just so you get them fast.” The Obsessive hires coaches and makes every conceivable effort to get results. “When he inevitably… finds himself on the plateau, he simply won’t accept it.” The Obsessive’s story ends dramatically when he flames out. “When the fall occurs,” my father writes,” the Obsessive is likely to get hurt. And so are friends colleagues, stockholders, and lovers.”

Hacker curve3. “The Hacker,” the third character, is happy just learning to do something in a mediocre way and never improving. “He’s the physician or teacher who doesn’t bother going to professional meetings, the tennis player who developed a solid forehand and figures he can make do with a ragged backhand…The Hacker looks at marriage or living together as primarily an economic and domestic institution.” The problem with being a hacker is that “when your tennis partner starts improving his or her game and you don’t, the game eventually breaks up. The same thing applies to relationships.”

Mastery curve4. The Master is different from the Dabbler, the Obsessive and the Hacker because she or he has learned to love “practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself. Rather than being frustrated while on the plateau, you learn to appreciate and enjoy [the plateaus] just as much as you do the upward surges.”

You don’t have to be a master at everything, of course. A master can be a hacker at something – let’s say you like to strum your guitar every once an awhile – a dabbler at something else – you paint your bathroom, don’t like the color but leave it, then you try a rock garden in your front yard and it’s not great but you leave it, etc. – an obsessive at something else – you collected 600 friends on facebook, got overwhelmed and closed your account – and a master at a few things that are really important to you – you are a wonderful, caring spouse/partner, and for the past 20 years you’ve gotten up at four in the morning four days a week to go surfing and are dedicated to your practice of the sport.

Mastery includes a deep appreciation of being in the moment while practicing a skill. Being present while completely one with your actions produces tremendous life-enhancing benefits, no matter what the activity you are engaging in and no matter what stage of excellence you have obtained. The Bar Method in my view is one discipline that can serve as a guidepost to mastery itself.

Read more about Bar Method as a Path to Mastery.

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The Bar Method as a Path to Mastery

“I have grown bored at The Bar Method,” a student named Gabrielle wrote me a few months ago. “The Method has become too repetitive, too predictable, and I’ve lost most of the fun.”

Gabrielle started attending the Bar Method in the early 2000’s, lost inches around her hips and waist, and fell in love with the class. Gabrielle and I exchanged a few emails on the subject of her dissatisfaction with class, and I learned that her work schedule had limited her to taking classes at times where there were a lot of beginners.

Burr leg lifts PasadenaEven so, I wondered if Gabrielle was missing out on what to me is most fun about taking the Bar Method whether or not beginners are present in the class: working towards mastery. This mind-set can mean one thing to you – possibly learning how to pull in your abs as you breathe – and something else to another student — maybe achieving a dancer’s posture. Whatever your goals, if you perform the exercises with the objective of mastering them, the Bar Method’s consistent structure becomes anything but boring. It becomes the very thing that empowers you to push the limits of your potential for coordination, strength, beauty and mental toughness. Repetition + focus = practice, and focused practice, experts on learning tell us, is the ultimate key to achieving significant, long term change, in other words to gaining mastery.

The Bar Method is especially suited to the pursuit of mastery in the physical realm. Its tight structure, precise positions and small muscle isolations give you a chance to overcome movement habits such as tensing your neck when you raise your arms. The mirrors in the classrooms allow you to check your alignment and performance, and – most fun of all – the ever-present possibility of going “deeper,” “higher,” “lower,” or “farther” keep the door open for new change. Have you been reluctant to work lower in thigh-work because you’re not strong enough yet? Or are you really holding back because you’re afraid of the burn? If you stay focused, eking out the answer to this question in the heat of the moment can strengthen not only to your muscles but your mental toughness as well.

Focusing on mastery pays off as well by giving you a second wave of dramatic body changes well after the initial sculpting and slimming down have been achieved. Take posture for example. I often wonder why some advanced students who regularly take Level 2 classes don’t take advantage of the opportunity to work on theirs. If they would just focus on that one change, they could radically change their appearance. In the same way, students who hunch their shoulders whenever they lift their arms, who lean forward during thigh exercises, or who have trouble pulling in their abs could transform their bodies by using the hour to focus on their weak areas.

Next time you go to class, try taking it with your own customized set of challenges in mind. You might find that the class can feel as exciting as a triathlon. The almost 30 years that I’ve taken this method of exercise has taught me to love the the classes that I struggle through most or want to do better at than before. Here are some private goals I set for myself during the class:–During one-weight lifts trying to keep my arm parallel to the floor,–During push-ups, getting my chest down to elbow height while staying in good form,–During thigh-work maintaining a more intense burn than the last time I took class,–During standing seat-work keeping my back absolutely vertical,–During arabesque looking in the mirror and seeing my working foot above my shoulder,–During round-back keeping my working leg absolutely “ballet” straight, and–During flat-back, lifting my feet up towards the height of my knees (pretty impossible!)

If you’ve been bored by class lately, make a no-holds-barred list of every conceivable way the Bar Method could change your body and spirit for the better. Then see how close you come to making them happen!

Read about the Seattle Bar Method’s fitness challenge and all the different ways people changed after taking The Bar Method for four months!