I had the extreme good luck years ago to find myself in an Ashtanga yoga class taught by Richard Freeman. I suppose I had influenced that luck somehow; I had just entered Naropa University’s masters in psychology program. They required us to take an elective class that emphasized a contemplative body oriented discipline. I had been curious about yoga, so in Boulder, Colorado in 1992 I found myself at the Yoga Workshop. Richard’s specialty was his Level One class for beginners. We never did more than one or 2 sun salutations, a few standing postures and perhaps 3 seated postures over a 2 hour period. It was exhausting. I’m sure that when added up, the total time I have spent in trikonasana is well over 12 years.
Yoga teachers complain to me sometimes that they have “only beginners” in their classes. I love beginners. I always want to be a beginner. One sure way to stop learning is to become an expert. When I did my first meditation retreat, I read a book by Zen teacher Shunyru Suzuki Roshi called, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” He wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Being a beginner is humbling. Humility can be a profound teaching, if we are brave enough to face it. I started teaching yoga during this retreat when participants asked me to help them loosen their muscles that had begun to ache after sitting for ten hours a day. I was a beginner, teaching beginners, and I had no idea what I was doing! Luckily, no one died.
What I love about teaching beginners is the complete absence of preconception. Being a beginner means opening to something new. Openness is the most important tool we have when learning. Openness is not just about flexible hips or shoulder joints. Openness means acceptance, curiosity and humility. If I cannot do a posture as a beginner, I can accept that; after all, I have only just begun. But if, after 10 years I can still not do that posture, I might invent excuses and try to hide my embarrassment or vulnerability. Conversely, I may do that posture so easily that I do not accept that you cannot do it. I have had students come who have gorgeous asana practices with bad attitudes. I have had students with “bad” asana practices and gorgeous attitudes. I find the latter to be the more advanced student and much better company.
When push comes to shove, as it often does in the world of Ashtanga practice, I think we all need a little more acceptance, a little more love, and a little less pressure and competition. As someone said to me recently, “People just need to feel better about themselves.” You may think that this is a recipe for lethargy, or new-age namby pambyness. Of course we can go either of those routes. But if we keep your wits about us and our strength intact, most of us can afford to adopt a little more love and acceptance in our practice, and in our life.
The most important teaching Richard Freeman ever gave me was to listen to myself, even if everyone else was doing something different and telling me to do the same. With practice, innate wisdom will develop its voice, and at the same time, we learn to hear it. And the more we practice, the more we will come to know this voice of wisdom. It is there always.
Yoga practice evolves constantly. Injuries, age, failures, change—life goes on regardless of our agenda to accomplish a certain yoga practice. But what remains constant is the steady flow of breath, guiding us to the insights we seek. So the true beginner’s approach to yoga is to learn to come back to the breath, again and again.Featured image by Ulrike Mai, South Africa. Photo by Bishnu Sarangi, India
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