Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

This is a popular quote by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki from his book Zend Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He argues that it is important to always keep a Beginner’s Mind, which means to always keep an open mind, stay eager and without any preconceptions even if you are an advanced student. I read this book about a year ago and today it crossed my mind again when I was thinking about my own yoga practice. Recently I have been following quite some yoga classes with different teachers because I think it is important that I continue learning from others. But increasingly I found myself feeling frustrated during these classes, often taught by young people who seemed to come straight out of their yoga teacher training. Now mind you, neither am I old nor super experienced myself. So what was so frustrating then? I think my frustration had to do with, what seemed to be, their lack of knowledge about how to teach poses in a safe way.

A few weeks ago, for example, I experienced some discomfort in my neck. My physiotherapist told me something I had also learned during my teacher training, which is not to take the head too far backwards under any circumstance. So when I went to a yoga class that week I told the girl who taught the class that I had a neck issue so that she could keep this in mind. When we reached Camel pose her instruction was to drop the head completely backwards. She soon realized that I was not following her instruction and quickly added: “or not.” This is exemplary for situations that I often encounter in yoga classes. For me this is not really a problem, because I know about proper alignment and I also know what my body can and cannot do, but a beginner who suffers from an injury might actually be worse off after such a class.

Let me give you another example. Many yoga teachers instruct their students to turn the back foot out almost 90 degrees in Warrior I pose and then rotate the hip so that both hipbones are squared forward and are parallel to the front of the mat. Even though for a few individuals this might work, most people are in danger of causing damage to their back knee giving that they have to twist the knee in order to square both hips forward. This actually happened to me once. Thankfully there was a lot of focus on alignment during my teacher training, so I now know that for most people it works better to turn the toes more inwards to face the corner of the mat and decrease the distance between the two feet until they are ready to take a wider stance.

This morning when I was driving to an Ashtanga yoga class, I reminded myself to just do my own practice if necessary, having the preconceived idea – based on prior experiences – that the yoga teacher was probably going to tell me to do something that I did not want to do. So at some point during the class everyone was in Warrior I pose while I did a high lunge on the ball of my back foot. We were then instructed to face the other short side of the mat, and I turned to do my high lunge on the other side, now facing the wall. The yoga teacher, a man in his late thirties, suddenly stood next to me and told me to place my back foot on the mat along with some other instructions that I did not quite get. I was probably not listening because I thought he was trying to make me do Warrior I his way. Determined as I was I told him, with slight frustration, that I could not do that because I would twist my knee. To which he responded very openly saying: “okay, we should talk afterwards.” And then he gave me some further instructions and it turned out he was trying to make me do Warrior II pose instead, where you do turn the back foot out almost 90 degrees. So in this case my “expert mind” had reached the wrong conclusion and it was blocking me from truly enjoying this yoga class and focusing on what is most important, namely the breath and turning the focus inwards.

Eager to challenge my preconceived ideas, I had a talk with this yoga instructor after the class and it turned out that we largely had the same ideas about how to perform a safe Warrior I pose. This made me feel relieved but even if it weren’t the case, there should not have been a problem. In yoga it is very important to listen to your own body and your inner voice or instructor for that matter. What works for me does not necessarily have to work for someone else, so if it does not feel right in your body to perform the pose the way the instructor tells you to, adjust the pose, but make sure you keep an open mind (neither condemn the teacher nor yourself), stay calm and focus on your breath. Then the magic will happen… Or not, because part of the Beginner’s Mind is to expect nothing and to accept whatever happens once you get on the mat.