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Bird by Bird

Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a masterpiece on the subject of writing. The book got its name from the time Ann’s older brother, aged 10, was struggling to write a report on birds. The teacher had given the class three months to write it, but her brother waited until the day before it was due to start it. He was terrified and paralyzed by the enormity of the project. And instead of chastising the boy for procrastinating, Lamott's father, a writer himself, put his arm around his son's shoulders and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird".

I love this story because it describes not just how to write, but how we learn to do everything, from walking to swimming to yoga. We want to nail it right away, we want to have that sense of accomplishment, but we have to take it a step at a time, bird by bird. To master a complex yoga pose, we break it down into smaller individual skills. It’s like learning the alphabet before we can write a novel. It’s like learning to crawl before we can run.

The process of putting together these separate skills so you can do something harder is called integration. Integration is what turns your flailing and splashing in the pool into actual swimming. It’s what happened when you rode your 2-wheel bicycle for the first time after lots of failed attempts. It’s what turns a wobbly side plank into a beautiful Vasisthasana pose like the one pictured above.

The thing we need to remember is that we can’t decide when integration happens. It takes a different amount of time for every single person. And it reminds us there are no shortcuts. You can’t skip any birds because they all have something to teach us.

The next time you want to learn something new or get better at something, just break it up into smaller skills and get busy. Don’t skip any steps. And don’t give up if you don’t get it right away.

I told you in a previous blog that certain yoga poses make me feel like I’m flying. I think I’m learning, bird by bird, how to harness the power of the flock.


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