The beginner’s mind should absolutely have a place in your yoga practice. At The House of Yogi (THOY), we see yogis in every stage of their yoga journey. I thought it would be a good exercise in svadhyaya (self-reflection, a niyama) to consider the value of looking at the practice like a beginner – no matter where we are on the path.
Veteran yogis, this is your chance to think about how far you’ve come and discover ways to practice with new eyes. Rookies, I hope you come away from this realizing that unfamiliarity with the practice doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
What is the beginner’s mind?
You can apply the beginner’s mind to any aspect of your life, but the concept originates from Zen Buddhism. It’s the practice of seeing something anew – even when it’s familiar to us. You can approach things as simple as breathing and eating with a beginner’s mind. The more advanced you become in whatever you study, the more critical it is to assume the perspective of a beginner.
Consider how it feels to look at something for the first time
Think about the first time you visited a new place. The types of plants growing outside, the quality of the air and light, and even the way the water tasted to you may have seemed unusual. Peoples’ clothing and speech stood in stark contrast to what you knew. Every detail came into sharp focus as your brain worked to make sense of the unfamiliar.
In yoga, it’s the same way. Even the stillness and silence of savasana (corpse pose) can be overwhelming for the rookie yogi. Doing an asana (pose) for the first time and trying to engage muscles you never realized you had is an all-encompassing endeavor. New pranayama (breathing techniques) can be dizzying as we grapple with the instructions while changing airflow into and out of our lungs.
Experience can lead to stagnation
As yogis, we tend to develop muscle memory. We can flow through a vinyasa without thinking about how the proper alignment for phalakasana (plank pose) sets us up for the adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog) we’ll be doing two steps later.
There’s comfort in the familiarity of knowing where to go without having to think. This level of understanding enables us to add complexity to our practice, but often as our comfort level grows, our attention to detail suffers.
5 Ways to keep your practice fresh
1. Put aside what you think you know
You’re probably not going to hear too many yogis talk about how awesome they are. Ego isn’t just an outward expression of our capabilities, though. Consider your thoughts about each posture. Do you curse silently when your teacher tells you to go into utkatasana (chair pose) again? Do you immediately label certain asanas and pranayama techniques as “too easy?” We grow to think we can predict what our experience will be.
Beginner’s don’t know always know whether something is too easy or too hard. They don’t realize that chair might make them want to stare daggers into the wall in front of them. While some may look at that handstand and think, “Yeah, right,” there are loads of rookies seeing the same pose and thinking, “Why not?” They execute to the best of their ability.
A beginner who can move beyond self-limiting thoughts can have a real experience minus all the baggage. They aren’t bound by the prejudices of hundreds of repetitions. (Besides, there’s no such thing as a pose that’s too easy. Try a truly mindful tadasana (mountain pose), and you might just break a sweat.)
2. “Do this like you’re moving through honey”
Teachers often cue a posture this way because we tend to rush as we learn what they’re asking. How often does your leg pop up into three-legged dog without thinking about which muscles you’re engaging? Do you swoop through chaturanga (four-limbed staff pose) without taking time to marvel at the various alignment checkpoints that make this position possible?
Slow down and appreciate everything that goes into each breath and movement. Don’t worry about being a little slow either. Sometimes, when I’m practicing, I’m wind up a step behind class. It has never derailed the class, but it has made me appreciate what my teachers are trying to teach me.
3. Stick to your breath
Teachers often tell us when to breathe. Lots of us aren’t used to thinking about something that is supposed to be automatic. As a result, new yogis are constantly calling their attention back to their breath.
After a while, it’s easy to lose track of our breathing. Even as our teachers remind us to return to our breath, we assume we already know what to do and charge ahead. Independence is an important part of doing yoga, but only if it’s helping you have a great practice. It doesn’t hurt to stick closely to your teacher’s instructions (like a newbie) and take each breath mindfully. The possibilities for what you can achieve on your mat increase exponentially if you have control over your breath.
4. Know that your edge will be different every day
It’s common to think, “Well, I could do it yesterday, so today I should be able to go right back to it.” The quality of your warmup as well as the state of your body and mind impact whether you can do what you did yesterday.
Injuries can be particularly humbling in this way. Once I injured my wrist, and even though I’d done downward-facing dog at least a thousand times at that point, it was well beyond my edge. I had to find substitutions that would accommodate where I was that during that time.
The edge of your abilities may not always be so obvious. Perhaps you’ve been carrying a heavy bag on one shoulder, and now your body is slightly out of alignment. Maybe you partied too hard last night or you’re coming down with the crud, and you just don’t feel good enough to do all those fiery vinyasas. When viewing practice with a beginner’s mind, you pay attention to where you are every day. You’ll be able to take care of yourself, and you’ll be open to lessons that present themselves in the moment.
5. Notice common patterns of movement
THOY instructor Hannah Block often takes us from class and into our everyday lives with the invocation, “May our practices be more clever than our habits.” On multiple occasions, I’ve heard instructor Ashley Segal ask us to consider whether we’re moving out of habit. These teachers are onto something.
Does the invitation to pedal out the feet in downward dog or gently sway in uttanasana (forward fold) prompt us to move whether we need it or not? Are we moving just because someone told us to, or are we using our energy to get what we need? Just because we can sway or flop or hop or fly doesn’t always mean that we should.
It is what it is
New yogis, the trials of unfamiliarity are blessings in disguise. Remember that most things on the mat (and in life) are neither inherently good or bad. They simply are. Your fresh perspective is more of an asset than you think.
Those of us who’ve been at this yoga thing for a while have new challenges to face when remembering to stay in the now. We must set aside our preconceptions about the practice so that we can have the experience of practicing.
Regardless of how many hours you have on the mat, I hope your practice sets you free. May that beginner’s mind stay with you as you move through your day. When all else fails, turn to wonder.
What do you do to stay present on your mat? Let us know in the comments below.
Want to dive deeper into your practice? Expand your knowledge with THOY this fall.
Angelina Phebus is a freelance writer, a purveyor of stories, and a voracious reader. She is looking forward to using what she has learned in YTT to help people realize their gifts through consistent yoga practice, whether that is in a class setting or through writing. Connect with her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/angelina.phebus), or check out her blog (https://angelinaphebus.com/).