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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Begin Again...and again, and again, and again.

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few. ” ― Shunryu Suzuki"

A few years ago I saw myself as an advanced yoga practitioner. I mean check me out: I had been to retreats in foreign countries! I knew the sanskrit names for (most of...) the asanas. I could (almost always...) hold a forearm stand. I was clearly advanced right? Wrong. As I continued to deepen my practice I realized that not only was I about a decade short of qualifying as "advanced," I was also misguided in having a desire to call myself that. 


In Zen Buddhism there is a concept known as "shoshin" or the "beginner's mind." Having a beginner's mind does not refer to how much you have been taught or how long you have been studying, but rather to your attitude regarding knowledge itself. Have you ever been called a know-it-all? Well this is like the exact opposite. While they may have years of study under their belt, someone with an understanding of "shoshin" maintains an openness, curiosity and lack of preconception about the topic they are studying. 

There is no better place to begin cultivating your "shoshin" than on your yoga mat. Unfortunately however, the opposite scenario is very easy to fall into, as I did. When you've been practicing for a year or two steadily you may start to think "I got this," and become bored with the "beginner's poses." All you want to do is practice and perfect arm balances, binds, and inversions. You rush from asana to asana because you assume you can predict what's coming next, rather than remaining present and engaged during transitions. Pretty soon you're just going through the motions in class until you finally get to wow everyone with your ability to jump back from eka pada galavasana or transition from crow to headstand and back with ease.  You're complacent and cocky. You stop paying attention to the teacher's cues entirely because you think you know everything already. 

If you're lucky, something comes along to snap you out of that mental state. Maybe an injury forces you to go back to basics and rebuild your practice from square one. Or maybe one day a teacher calls out an alignment cue during Warrior One that happens to capture your attention. You've never heard it before. You start to play around with it in your body and something shifts. All of a sudden your Warrior feels subtly but completely new, rather than like some pose for the newbies in class to be working on. You start to wonder what else you've been missing while on your mental ego trip. Maybe you start to question your mastery of the practice altogether. Your curiosity returns and your practice becomes reinvigorated.

This is where we as yogis should strive to remain: in a state of wonderment about the practice at all times. Eager to get on our mats to play and explore. Willing to throw out everything we thought we knew so that there is room to discover a nuance that we had overlooked. Enthusiastic, humble, curious and open. The most seemingly simple poses become the most fascinating and nothing is ever mastered. Placing your feet on the mat becomes an art form as you start to delve deeper into your tadasana. Forget about having mastered your Warrior 1 entirely, you're so fascinated with the degree of lift in the inner arch of your foot and the amount of pressure your applying to your back pinky toe that you can't imagine ever being "done" with the pose. 

Most of us feel embarrassed or ashamed to say we are a beginner at yoga- or at anything for that matter. Few of us go back and take a Basics class once we've been taught the fundamentals of asana because we're so eager to move forward, matriculate, and achieve. In a practical sense, that would be like a calculus student going back to remedial math, just to make sure they had fully grasped their time tables, right? Yoga just isn't like that. It's not wholly linear. There is an opportunity to discover something new even while covering the same subject matter time and time again, for years and years and years. 

Ask any yoga teacher or yoga student of 10+ years and they'll likely tell you they still have plenty to learn. They have an excitement and a freshness about their practice.  Their eagerness is buoyed by the tiny breakthroughs and revelations that occur each time they step onto their mat. Without a beginner's mind almost any trade, subject, hobby, or vocation becomes tiresome before too long. With a beginner's mind however, a lifelong practice that never loses its novelty becomes possible.