By Micah Elconin
“What is the difference between practicing and being a practitioner?”
Ido Portal poses this question in a recent blog posted to his youtube channel. Ido teaches a system of physical training that he calls “movement culture.” His methods pull from a variety of sources integrating the martial arts, yoga, dance, strength training, gymnastics and many other forms of physical training, play and psychology. His vision and approach has echoes of the philosophical foundations of hatha yoga - that we can find immense meaning, perhaps THE meaning we seek through experience of our body.
In this short monologue he goes on to describe the ways in which simply practicing is a temporary state contingent upon a variety of things that may or may not be in our control. One engages their practice IF they have the time, the energy, the health, the motivation etc. He then contrasts this with a practitioner, someone who embodies the principles of practice regardless of circumstances. He describes how “changing scenarios like aging, or losing motivation, or being depressed … should be respected, but it shouldn’t be too respected.”
Ido describes an approach where one continues to explore, work, and grow despite changing circumstances. Engaging, or I should say “experiencing” one’s practice from this place of stable commitment is powerful. Certainly easier said than done! As climbers, many of us are seeking something. It might be a peak experience, a deeper sense of connection, or maybe some better understanding of ourselves? We will encounter bumps in the road, likely more often than we would choose, but if we want to really reach our potential, it’s essential that we cultivate a mindset where we can thrive despite changing circumstances.
This idea really struck me and I did some thinking about how I try to embody the Practitioner, specifically as it pertains to my climbing and coaching. I can’t speak for Ido, but from my own experience there are some fundamental qualities that seem to be critical components of the archetype as he envisions it.
It begins here. If you want to really discover what you’re capable of as a climber or tap into the sweetest nectar of peak experiences, you absolutely must be all in. Commitment is essential regardless of your goals and dreams. Even if all you are looking for is a stable place/activity to ground yourself or to cultivate a sense of peace despite the often hectic world out there, there’s no shirking a fundamental commitment to doing the work.
Sri K Pattabhi Jois, the man who introduced what he called Ashtanga Yoga to the West, is an infamous yoga teacher to say the least. The efficacy of his system and his teaching methods are certainly debatable. As a former Ashtanga yoga “devotee” I have mixed feelings about his legacy as a teacher. However, there are some basic philosophical underpinnings of Jois’ methods that I still firmly believe.
Jois did not have much patience for excuses. “Anyone can practice. Young man can practice. Old man can practice. Very old man can practice. Man who is sick, he can practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people; lazy people can’t practice Ashtanga yoga.”
Of course, I’m extrapolating this across other disciplines, especially climbing. Your excuses are nothing other than that. When you’re ready to actually grow and discover new levels of experience, leave your complaints at the door and just start doing the work. Then keep doing the work regardless of what life throws at you.
Regardless of how motivated you are or how perfect the plan is, things will almost always take longer than you want. Just wanting it more is not going to make it happen… right now. But this is a long game and we’re really only just getting started.
This is not to say that we should just let go of that “get it done” attitude. Yes, there are going to be days when everything is really humming and you actually check the box on those big goals or feel the chain pull onto a new larger gear, but these moments are the exception. Most of the time it will feel like you’re just holding pace, perhaps with moments of tailwind adding fractional wattage to your performance in the gym or out on the project. And yes, you’re going to have downright crap days - far more often that you want. Just keep at it. Like a bad day with your romantic partner, the faster you let it go, the faster you’ll be back to building the good stuff.
I won’t belabor the point because you all already know, but plans only work if you actually do them. If the plan is to hangboard twice each week and you only get it in once every two weeks, you’re not going to get as much out of it. You might even think “it doesn’t work.” If the cue is to climb on terrain easy enough that you do NOT get pumped, but you can’t help but project the new set, it’s not going to work. Before you pass judgment on any new technique, exercise, or plan, make sure you’ve given it time to actually create change.
Many athletes lose patience with their climbing or training because they are bored by the repetition of training. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable. Repetition is a fundamental component of learning and adapting. It’s also an incredible tool for cultivating focus and self awareness. I’m not sure who said it, but my wife recently read a quote to me that resonated deeply, “Exercise teaches the rewards of process.”
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Yes, repetition is essential, but it's not enough on its own. At some point, your body will need new stimulus and life will eventually throw a curveball that has the potential to stop you dead in your tracks. This is when we need to be creative.
Climbing is an especially potent practice because it engages just about every part of our body, mind, and emotions. This “complete” nature also means that there’s always something to be working on. This is incredibly important to remember when shit hits the fan.
I’m going to say this again because it’s important. There is ALWAYS something you can work on.
Broken leg? You’re in luck. It’s time to get those fingers strong.
COVID got you in bed sick as a dog? Read those books you’ve been wanting to get to. Get smarter and grow the quiver of modalities you can draw on.
Work and family commitments sucking up all your time? Shorten your sessions. Sure, maybe you’ll miss a few, but keep at it. Cultivate a sense of gratitude for the time you are able to spend cultivating your practice.
The list goes on and on. I think you get the point.
Creativity is also essential for managing the small disruptions that occur, which often de-rail commitment to process. Sometimes your project is wet and you need to figure out a different plan on the fly. Sometimes the gym isn’t set up quite right to implement the workout you envision. Sometimes your schedule changes and you need to rearrange the order of operations.
Whatever it is, there’s always a tension between commitment, patience, and creativity. Yes, I’m telling you to stick to a plan with fierce commitment, but you’ll also need to learn how/when to adapt in ways that support long term success. This is very much a case of holding lightly and far easier said than done. Stick with it. Be patient. You’ll get there.
In one sense curiosity is quite similar to creativity. One might even argue that curiosity is what allows us to be creative. Before you can make a change, or try something new, you’ve got to at least be curious about how things might work out. Beginning from a place of assumption is not going to get you very far on a creative path.
The curiosity that I’m most interested in is self curiosity. At face value, my job as a coach is to write training plans, provide feedback on performance, and help encourage the athlete to continue pursuing their goals. This is all great stuff, but behind it all my primary goal is for the athlete to cultivate a sense of inner curiosity about their climbing and themselves. As Practitioners, this might be the most valuable skill we can develop.
Sets and reps are not that complicated and there’s an internet full of ideas that one can explore to “learn how to train,” but true growth and deep adaptations occur below the surface. Every breakthrough I’ve seen in my athletes is accompanied by a relatively obvious (to me at least) shift in their emotions, mindset, or for lack of a better term, spirit.
For simplicity's sake, let’s just call this massive bucket of stuff “inner work.” There’s obviously numerous modalities, practices, and techniques that support inner work. I can’t say I’ve explored them all, but I’ve definitely dived relatively deep into at least a few. It’s my experience that self curiosity is the primary prerequisite. In one sense, inner work is the practice of witnessing ourselves and simply being curious. You can meditate, talk to a therapist, journal, or pray. It doesn’t really matter. Self curiosity is the first step for beginning to peel back the layers and having the opportunity to work with the most subtle and powerful parts of yourself.
Cultivate your ability to be curious in all your training and climbing. Develop the habit of reflecting on performance and attempt to be as objective as possible when doing so. Simply observe what happened or what’s happening. Most of us begin with judgment and come back later to backfill on top of that. We fall off the boulder problem and the first thought is “I can’t do it.” What would happen if instead we were able to greet these moments with objectivity and curiosity? What actually happened? What can we do about it? There’s something there. Find it.
I’m a Tool fan. The band, not the objects. Ask my wife and she’ll tell you that home renovation projects are not one of my strengths. But I digress. Yes, I love the band Tool.
Writing this piece and thinking about the difference between having a practice and being a practitioner, I’m reminded of the lyrics I used to have pinned to the door of my bedroom in college. Perhaps I’ve overcomplicated Portal’s message. It may be the that the most important thing we can remember is to,
“Spiral out. Keep going.”
From the song Lateralus, it’s a rallying call to seekers. The ride is wild and it’s rarely a straight path. You’ll often feel lost and the farther you go (grow), the more rarified the air and more delightful its taste. Don’t stop. Keep going.
ABOUT MICAH ELCONIN
Micah has cultivated his climbing practice for more than twenty years. Based in Eugene, Oregon he coaches local athletes through his business Good Stone, and offers remote coaching as a part of the team at Climb Strong. Micah has climbed all over the world including dozens of first ascents on the Central Coast of California and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Despite entering his fourth decade in 2021, he continues to slowly, yet steadily, improve.
As a coach, Micah draws on a variety of experiences to support his athletes. He is well versed in climbing specific training modalities and holds multiple Performance Climbing Coach Certificates. He spent the first half of his twenties deeply committed to Ashtanga yoga practicing under the guidance of Steve Dwelley and Michele Nichols. He also spent 3 months at Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. As a former professional chef, Micah has extensive culinary experience and holds Nutrition Educator and Natural Chef’s certificates from Bauman College. He’s also earned an MBA in Entrepreneurship from University of Oregon and a BA in Philosophy from University of California at Santa Barbara.