beginner's mind

In Bikram yoga, as in Ashtanga and some other styles, we practice the same series of poses each session: 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. It's the same class whether you are a complete novice or a very experienced student. There are a few postures, like Dandayamana - JanuShirasana, which involve distinct stages (the first not even shown in the illustration) that you work through as your practice strengthens. But mostly, you are encouraged to hold each pose, using correct form, with the rest of the class. Teachers offer modifications for those who are injured or ill. But there's no moment where the class divides into "beginners" and "experienced," no special hours of the day for one or the other group. And I really like that aspect of this yoga.

I was surprised this morning to realise that it's been 2 years since I began studying Bikram style yoga. I still think of myself as a beginner -- and that's really good for me. Intellectually I've always been drawn to the Buddhist concept of "beginner's mind," which is often phrased as the need to "always bring an empty teacup." As a student of anything, if you are concentrating on what you already think you know, then you are less open to what someone else can teach you.

I've been drawn to this concept probably because I know it's an area that I have to work on. I was frequently a bored or impatient student when I was in school, preferring to do things on my own. I know now that if I could revisit some of those situations, I'd do things differently. Also, I hate being new, young, awkward, or incompetent -- all the things I tend to associate with being a "beginner." I didn't like being a 6th grader in junior high, and I didn't like being a newly minted assistant professor -- and the similarities between those two positions were more striking than you might think. I don't like to be at the bottom of the ladder -- not because I want to be on the top -- I prefer to be in the middle somewhere. Somewhere where I won't be noticed or picked on just because I'm new -- but also somewhere where I can share my opinions and be listened to.

In my professional life I'm still occasionally a beginner (as on various committees and councils I'm serving on this year, things I couldn't be elected to prior to getting tenure) and I'm trying to bear that position gracefully. But it doesn't come easily to me.

Which is why this yoga is so good. Sure, I'm familiar with the postures, and I know the sequence. But so does everyone after their first week of class. I like that there are no new postures thrown in, the superficial challenge of getting into a tricky balance or a deep stretch. In other classes I've taken, my competitive tendency can distract me from truly focusing on what's going on internally. In Bikram, it's the same sequence every day -- and yet it is not exactly the same. Each day my body & mind respond differently. I wish I'd been keeping a yoga journal all along to record some of these responses. I know, for instance, that I can now sink further into Supta - Vajrasana as my bad ankle heals. I know I'm stronger in certain postures than I used to be, or more flexible. But over time, my perceptions of the postures -- which I like, which are difficult for me, which feel beneficial physically or emotionally -- are always changing.

I've been thinking of my yoga path as a kind of spiral -- you get familiar with the sequence and then you really start to learn and grow. You keep coming back around to the same postures, to the same issues, but they're slightly different. Or you're slightly different. It all adds up to beginner's mind. In the best possible way.