Approaching Yoga with a Beginner’s Mind

What's Mama Doing?Creative Commons License photo credit: bhollar

Shoshin is the Zen Buddhist term that means beginner’s mind. It refers to the concept of having an attitude of openness with no preconceptions when studying a subject, even at an advanced level.

When I first started taking karate I had no clue what I was doing. It was all new to me. I would practice the most simple moves; basic punches, kicks and katas (patterns), over and over again for hours. I was okay with this because I had no expectations going in. I knew I knew nothing! Beginner’s mind was not a challenge because it was just my natural state.

Several years later I had twins and injured my knee. I had to take a couple of years off.  When I went back after being away  I knew what I used to be able to do and I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to approach it differently. It was way more challenging at this point, now a brown belt, than during my first few months as a white belt.  I had to figure out new ways of doing things – ways that  worked with my injury and with my new schedule as a busy mom.

Having a beginner’s mind allows beginners to learn more easily and with less stress. For advanced practitioners, approaching their practice with a beginner’s mind allows them room to grow, change and improve.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few” –Zen master Suzuli Roshi

Beginner’s mind is sometimes likened to the idea of looking at life as a child does — with wonder, curiosity and unabashed amazement. On her blog a few days ago, Tina Vaughn (Yogini with a Twist) told the story about how her son was frozen in his tracks at the site of a little frog. He was awestruck. He wanted to share the experience with her and she wrote that this was a gift, a reminder that life is full of really cool things if you are open to seeing them.

How Can We Bring Beginner’s Mind to Yoga Practice?

In our yoga practice, especially if we have been practicing for awhile, it is easy to go into autopilot mode. We know the poses. We hear the names and automatically assume the postures without giving it much thought.

I was in a yoga class a couple of weeks ago and while we were in Triangle Pose the teacher challenged us to try it differently. She suggested that if we usually have our lower hand in front of the leg, to try placing it behind or on the shin or perhaps lower or higher than usual.

Now this was more challenging than it may sound. I like Triangle Pose and I have my way of doing it… I did put my hand in a different position and it felt strange! But I think it was a great exercise and an interesting way to shake things up and find a bit of that beginner’s perspective again.

In Yin Yoga, the poses have different names (eg. Low Lunge is Dragon). Although they take the same form, the approach is different — the poses are held longer and the physical focus is different (see this article for an intro to Yin Yoga). The names are different so that we don’t just fall into the poses as we normally do without thinking about our intention in the Yin practice.

To begin to cultivate beginner’s mind in your yoga practice, the next time you are in a yoga class try listening closely to what the teacher is saying and then actually follow the instructions. Don’t just take the pose in your usual way. Perhaps you will find something revealing in a new detail.

0 thoughts on “Approaching Yoga with a Beginner’s Mind”

  1. Thanks for the nod Charlotte 😉

    I think back to the asana part of my practice earlier this year AFTER undergoing abdominal surgery–I have to say, everything changed for me then. Because I was taken back to the beginning and I mean the BEGINNING, I connected so intimately to my body, actually building a practice each day that served me where I was.

    Following surgery, my initial practice was Mountain with deep breathing…that was it–it was all I could muster but don’t you know that the attention and respect I paid my body, because I was exploring new and tender territory, blossomed into this deeper intimacy (that stuck!) and I have grown leaps and bounds–physically, mentally and spiritually.

    You have inspired me to try something new in each pose–thank you!

  2. Charlotte Bradley

    Yes, I can only imagine what a challenge asanas would be after abdominal surgery… I wasn’t practicing yoga at the time, but after a c-section I remember being in complete shock when I could barely bring myself to a seated position in bed. I thought – huh, this isn’t my body?!

    It sounds like you went through a VERY challenging time. It is crazy difficult to start at the beginning – again. But what a powerful gift in the end – the connection and understanding of your body and the spiritual growth you experienced.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

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