Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Originally written for and published on thesankalpaproject.ca.
It is part of our natural inclination as human beings to fear the unknown. We seek comfort, stability and reassurance in knowing what lies ahead. Anyone across the globe right now may be able to relate to this fear of uncertainty as we all try our best to keep to ourselves in order to do our part in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Uncertainty is what makes trying anything new a bit scary, whether it’s a new job, a first date or a yoga class. What we do not always realize however, is how living in this anxiety about what might happen is, more often than not, a lot more uncomfortable than the actual new experience ever could be on its own without this fear. In Buddhist tradition, this is referred to this as the second arrow of suffering; the suffering that stems from one’s reaction to a particular event, rather than the pain that may or may not exist directly from the “bad” event itself. For example, the extreme anxiety you give to yourself by reading endless news articles about the pandemic. An open “beginners” mind allows us to be more receptive to new possibilities and can work to keep us from getting caught in the rut of our own expertise, our inner critic which often thinks it knows more then it does. So how do we do this? How do we jump into the unknown guns blazing, willing to except and find contentment in whatever happens? And what better time to start yoga then right now? Here are some tips to help you cultivate and embrace an open beginners mindset to get you get out of your head and onto your mat!
Widen your perspective: Curiosity
There are many reasons people look to develop a yoga practice, its not uncommon to be attracted to yoga at first for the physical incentive of performing the poses or asanas. The physical incentive of yoga is a great place to start, however it is enlightening to acknowledge the beautiful opportunity to contain the energies of the body to focus the mind when we practice yoga. Be curious about all that yoga has to offer. When we come to the mat focusing only on our physical practice, there is plenty of self-induced pressure to perform. When the mind is consumed with thoughts about what our poses look like, how we might look compared to the others in the class, or self-judgment for wobbling or falling out of a posture, we set ourselves up to be pierced in the heart by the second arrow of suffering as discussed above. We might feel this second arrow as embarrassment, shame, frustration or self-doubt. Yoga is most definitely a great way to stay in shape, and if that is your motivation to get yourself to your mat that is awesome! It is useful to keep in mind that when we rid ourselves of the evaluation of the practice being “challenging enough” or “a good workout”, we are able to move away from such narrow expectations of how our practice should look and feel, and are exposed to a wide potential of positive experiences. When we take a step back from our desire to carefully craft washboard abs, and ability to achieve the most difficult expression of a posture, we make room to notice the breath that carries us through our practice if we marry it to our movement, and acknowledge the sensations in the body that we can use to cultivate a sense of opening, grounding or empowerment. Overall when we approach yoga with curiosity rather than expectation, we are more likely to think of our experience as positive more consistently. You may be familiar with the expression “Yoga is not about being able to touch your toes, but rather what you learn on the way down”.
Accept the Acceptance: Compassion
We live in a world in which we are no stranger to competition. In a society in which we are constantly pushed to strive for more it is natural to feel reassured by accomplishment and linear forward progression in anything that we do. We want to see our own improvement, and know that we are on track towards our goals and that the time and energy we invest is worth it. We even see this over social media as people post about using self-isolation time to “get ahead on projects” and “spring cleaning”. It is often that we reside to comparison with others to ensure we are progressing the way we think we should be. This can only lead to a sense of impatience and perhaps even frustration with our yoga practice. Just as it is important to strengthen the muscles of the body in yoga, it is equally important to strengthen our sense of compassion for ourselves in this process. The good news is that unlike many styles of exercise that encourage comparison to past and present goals such as weight training and running programs, this sense of acting compassionately towards one self is already encouraged and available to us so long as we choose to listen and accept this foreign sense of acceptance offered in the space of yoga. Accept the offer to take a resting pose like child’s pose or savasana in the middle of class if your body is calling for rest. It takes a lot more courage to do this while others carry on then it does to ignore our intuition and allow our ego to convince us to push through our pain in fear of “giving up” or “standing out”. Accept that the teacher is not looking to see you perform perfect postures and when they offer advice, they are not saying that you are doing the pose wrong per se, but rather guiding you to find the expression of the posture that will feel good in your body and help you find stillness in the pose rather than sitting in tension or pain. Accept this unfamiliar space of the yoga room that is inclusive, non-judgemental, and there for you to free yourself of what no longer serves you and just let go. When you do this, this space becomes sacred to you. It has no deadlines, no expectations, no countdown on the clock, and no cellular rings and buzzes – it can stay this way so you choose to accept. This can sound a lot easier to do than it actually is, but a space in today’s world that provides you with the opportunity to completely disconnect is rare, choose to see it as a gift and accept it for what it is.
Say Hello to Your Breath: Prana & Possibility
Yoga in all its definitions encompasses the connection of the mind, the body and the breath. Just like any first experience is, a yoga class for the first time can be overwhelming. There is a tendency as a new-comer to expend the majority of energy mimicking the postures with the body in fear of sticking out, looking as though they cannot keep up, or feeling as though they have failed. As our focal point in a sense becomes protecting our ego in this way, it can be easy to disregard the teacher’s ques to follow the breath. Perhaps this is because others cannot physically see our breath, and since breathing happens naturally weather its in our attention our not, it becomes easy to disregard when we have yet to experience its influence on our practice. Breathing exercises and breathing throughout ones yoga practice with intention generates prana, or “life force”. Breathing with intention calms the mind and is what allows us to expand and lengthen in each pose, contributing to the opening of the body and thus, the release of tension. The breath helps us breathe through Tapas, or the fire and heat we generate through our practice. For example when our muscles are burning and we want nothing more then to come out of the pose, rather than allowing the sensation to cause us to react, we turn our attention to the breathe to guide us through. Further, one can focus their attention on sending the breath and thus, prana, to the exercised muscles in the pose, fueling them with “life force” or energy. The breath is available to guide us through our practice and helps keep us from drifting from the present moment. This will take practice and it is important not to get discouraged if we feel as though we keep loosing our breath. In fact it is a very common and natural instinct to hold one’s breath while trying to balance. So long as we acknowledge it as a tool to access to bring us back to the present moment and make an effort to access it when we realize our mind has drifted, we are working towards the connection of the mind, the body and the breath that lie beneath the spiritual and physical benefits of practicing yoga. Attention to the breath generates possibility within one’s yoga practice to feel deeper, stay present and cultivate a sense of non-reactivity. A good yoga teacher will remind you throughout the duration of the class to find your breath and to stick with it, accept this invitation with intention.
Curiosity, compassion and prana can successfully work together to keep an open mind in a beginner yogi. By approaching our yoga practice in the beginning with curiosity rather than expectation, accept the nature of the practice and space of yoga for what it really is, and make a conscious effort to use our breath as a guide, we become more receptive and are more likely to view our first experience as a positive one. I believe this mindset is fundamental to a long-lasting and loving relationship with your mat and your yoga practice.