The Realm Of The Beginner
By Joyce Englander Levy, September, 2017
“September feels like a beginning—even more so than January,” Jenny Hudak says, smiling.
It’s true—it’s a fresh start after a long, hot blast of a summer. In the spirit of that back-to-school feeling, our focus for this month is beginnings. It’s like a return to that first yoga sutra, atha yoganusasanam—“now we begin to practice of yoga.” This mantra can accompany us through our whole life. We can take refuge in it when we’ve been away for a while, and when we feel intimidated to come back. We can recite it to ourselves when we are standing around waiting for class, and instantly we are in tadasana.
A focus on beginnings reminds Maggan Daileader of a chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
And can you imagine if Rodney hadn’t tried yoga for the first time so many years ago?
“Upstairs from the Berkeley Ballet,” he says, “where the Ballet Mistress, Sally Streets, of the Oakland Ballet, taught master classes, was the location of The Yoga Room.” He goes on, “Iyengar Yoga was being taught there by a handful of what seemed like a group of outcast hippies of U.C. Berkeley. A good ballet buddy of mine, David Lee, and me who were always looking for new ways to open our relatively tight bodies wandered upstairs to see what the yogis had to offer. And we thought that it was going to be at best a new way to get more turn out, better extension and longer, more sublime lines. We imitated the poses well, and the sequences made sense, and we felt already proficient at adapting to the yoga vocabulary very much like learning a new ballet. What we weren’t expecting was a complete shift in consciousness. Walking out, down the side of the building, we both turned toward each other and proclaimed how good we felt and what a magical effect yoga practice had on us. Now I know that this revolution and magic takes place in every cycle of breath, the inhale a birth, and the exhale a death. I really don’t even know what is beginning or who is witnessing the manifestation, but I am getting a sense that it is pure beauty and joy.”
As I am writing this newsletter, I am overhearing some students talking. One mentions that she has been away from her practice because she’s been taking care of her sick mother. She says that being in class today felt like coming home, but also like she was a beginner again. The other student laughs, and says she has never gotten over feeling like a beginner. Wise woman.
This reminds me of a stanza by ee cummings:
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and supple and thirsty
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
How many people start yoga because they want to feel more supple or youthful? If we can overcome the notion that yoga is for a certain person who is already flexible, or calm, or likes lycra pants—or someone who has more free time, or doesn’t have human ambitions or struggles—then we can enter the realm of the beginner. We can overcome our know-it-all havens, and awaken a fountain of youth that wells up right in the center of our own center.
Carrie Schneider says, “Yoga came into my life through the gentle urging of one friend and then another. ‘Yoga,’ I had told myself with customary rigidity, ‘was not for me.’ I was a runner and a lap swimmer, and there was no way I was going to give up a two-hour workout to go sit around some patchouli-infused room with a bunch of hippie-dippie, Birkenstock-wearing, ’60s throwbacks twisted up like worms. Maybe it’s beneficial, I figured, but so is cod liver oil.
“One evening I was winding down at the NYTimes Mag editorial desk and planning to head over to the pool, when my friend Kathy called. The circumstances are foggy: Had I left my goggles home? Was the pool closed for repair? But this time, when she said, ‘You should come to yoga,’ I yielded, with minimal whining. ‘All I have to wear is my bathing suit,’ I said. ‘No one cares,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how to do it!’ I protested. ‘No one does, the first time,’ she said. And so I took my first yoga class—in a black racer-back Speedo. It was hard! But by savasana, I’d found my practice for life.
Chrissy Carter says, “The first time I stepped foot on a yoga mat, I was in college. My dance professor used yoga to warm us up before our modern dance class, and I was intrigued. I thought it was a little weird, but, hey, it was a modern dance class so everything was a little weird. I kinda liked it, although I didn’t know why. I remember feeling comfortable in the newness and awkwardness of it all, not realizing that what I understood as ‘unfamiliar’ wasn’t actually my experience of the postures, but my experience of myself. Yoga felt like coming home. It gave me the tools to walk the road that led to what Richard Rosen calls ‘the country of the Self.’ Now, all these years later, I’m more comfortable in my own skin, but I still appreciate that feeling of newness that never quite went away. I always feel a little bit like a beginner in my practice, struck in awe by the wonder of it all.”
Isn’t it nice to know that even seasoned practitioners, and devoted yoga teachers like Carrie and Chrissy started out reluctantly, and still feel like beginners? But that is the whole point of yoga! Is it yoga if we aren’t feeling supple and hungry and thirsty and fearless and wrong and new?
I started painting 15 years ago. I was terrible. But I secretly loved how bad I was. I had zero skills. I was uncoordinated, and my canvases were laughable (although that didn’t stop me from giving them to friends as presents). I appreciated visual art, but I had no idea how to make anything from my mind appear on a canvas. I think it’s precisely because painting is so foreign to me, that I find it so therapeutic. I can’t possibly perfect it, or make a living from it, but I enjoy being absorbed in the process of discovery.
Sometimes we feel a knocking inside—knock, knock, knock. And if we open the door to inquire what’s there, it’s usually a question. “What would it be like if you tried….”
Joanna Sesny, one of our Beginner’s Club teachers, has felt this knocking. She says, “Whatever I’m being called to do, I must take a step in that direction. Because if I don’t, it’ll continue to circle me, orbiting around until I muster up enough courage to inch forward. That humility coupled with willingness to try something new is such a fertile ground for learning.”
Beginner’s Club teacher Terri Walker reminds us of a quote by Plato about the importance of beginnings: “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”
Yoga, courage, and beginnings seem to go hand in hand. We need a little courage to start yoga. And then yoga gives us the confidence to try other new things.
Menna Olvera says, “For my final teaching weekend for the 200-hour teacher training, my dharma talk assignment was “Beginner’s mind.” I didn’t realize what it meant until I did a stand-up comedy class. I was clearly a beginner and full of fear. I needed at least one drink at open mic night to even muster the courage to be the beginner in the line-up. I didn’t know the proper protocol of open mic night, and I was the only person talking about perineums and pelvic floors. After that, the more I did open mic nights, the more confident I became. And then I realized that it’s the same with my yoga practice. Every time I step on the mat to practice, there’s a beginning point. These days, I’m open to exploring what inspires me on the mat.”
Rodney says, “Is the practice helping us to see what’s right there, in plain sight? Is it awakening our senses so what we are hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling what is actually happening?”
This is the practice of yoga. As the moments unfold, and time carries us through the current, are we feeling, sensing, living? Are we willing to begin again and again? Or are we stuck going through the motions of sun salutations?
We welcome you to join the conversation on beginnings. Share with us your stories, poems, anecdotes, and photos by replying to this email. Take a Beginner’s Club class even if you’re a seasoned practitioner. Leap up into that first handstand! Follow us on Instagram @TheYogaShanti for more inspiration and to join the conversation throughout the month.