20 years ago this month, I had the good luck to find myself in an Ashtanga yoga class taught by Richard Freeman. It was my first yoga class. Richard’s specialty was (and is) his Level 1 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. We learned how to breathe deep into the core and to explore sensations in previously uncharted areas of the body. It was exhausting. I’m sure that when added up, the total time I have spent in trikonasana is well over 12 years.
Sometimes I hear people apologize that they are “only beginners.” I love beginners. I always want to be a beginner. One sure way to stop learning is to become an expert.
Suzuki Roshi wrote about “beginner’s mind” being the place where mind is fresh, and you are open to possibilities, in other words, in the present moment.
Some students have passed the time of life when they will be able to develop the strength or stamina to do an entire series, or they have other limitations that inhibit a strenuous asana practice. But a beginners practice? Anyone can incorporate. And to be honest, I have found that a more gentle practice allows me to settle more deeply in meditation.
What originally drew me to this Ashtanga practice was Richard’s constant reminder to keep coming back to the beginning. So that’s what I keep doing. Back to the beginning: back to the mat, back to breath and bandhas, back to my ideas about how things should look. Over and over I keep reinventing myself to reflect the truth of the moment as I evolve. And it is never as I think it should be. I keep thinking I should be more of this and less of that, somewhere else on the spectrum. But I’m not. Being a beginner is humbling. But humility can be a profound teaching, if you are brave enough to face it.
As a beginner, you have a complete absence of preconception; you have no idea what you are in for! Openness is the most important tool you have when learning something new (like how to live your life). It is also how to keep practice fresh. If you lose this, you lose the whole point of practice. Openness is not just about flexible hips or shoulder joints. Openness means acceptance, curiosity. If I cannot do a posture as a beginner, I can accept that; after all, I have only just begun. But if, after 20 years I can still not do that posture, (or maintain that ideal relationship or the perfect teaching situation) I might encounter embarrassment or vulnerability, and THAT is powerful medicine.
The way forward is not always linear. Sometimes we take 2 steps ahead and then 8 steps back. Sometimes you have to get creative to make your way through to the next stage. And creativity rarely follows convention, if ever.
The most important teaching Richard ever gave me was to listen to myself, even if everyone else was doing something different and telling me to do the same. I love him for saying this. You know yourself better than anyone else ever will. Your innate wisdom will develop its voice, and at the same time, you will learn to hear it. And the more you practice, the more you will come to know this voice. It is with you always–it is the voice of your heart. But to hear it, sometimes you might need to become a beginner again—to keep coming back to the breath, and to not knowing, again and again. And again.