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So good to be a beginner


Long before I practiced yoga, I spent an academic semester studying Zen Buddhism.  One of our seminal texts was Shunryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind,  Beginner's Mind."   I have always been attracted to the ideal he set forth, which was to be able to approach practice, to approach life, with the freshness, excitement and openness that brand new students bring to a discipline.  If we could only stay away from the arrogance and narrow-mindedness that seem to slip into our relationship with anything that becomes overly familiar!  My husband, early in our courtship, asked for two things : monagamy, and that I avoid taking him for granted.  He was asking, in other words, that we try to keep that "beginner's mind" attitude which inhabits new couples with fascination, gratitude and attraction. Being a perpetual student is one technique for keeping things fresh in my yoga practice, but the last couple weeks have given me another opportunity to remember Suzuki's book.

After the invigorating immersion in yoga we enjoyed in Bali, the exhausting pace of our tour in India and the fact that our entire group passed around a respiratory infection for two weeks gave me reason to interrupt my asana practice for a short time. During this most challenging part of our trip, my meditation also became unsatisfying and irregular. Our diets were very clean and vegetarian, but the climate and stress pushed hard at us and I wrote in my journal "my body is really unhappy here." Arriving in Europe, exploring Istanbul, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Croatia, Italia (per l'amore di Dio!) and southern France, our days remained packed with all we wanted to see, and we celebrated the bounty of European food and drink. Coffee with hot milk, wine, cheese, meat, pastries, gelato, crepes, butter and cream tucked in everywhere - everything was so delicious. I believe the apotheosis was in Plovdiv, Bulgaria where I had pork ribs in a sesame honey glaze that I sucked like lollipops because they were so amazing! Childlike glee coupled with practiced gourmand appreciation.

Every couple of days I would "stretch a little," - wiggle into a stiff and awkward downward dog, prop one foot up on the bed and see about a modified twisted triangle, maybe roll my shoulders and try gomukasana arms or an eagle bind. I did reconnect to my meditation practice during this time, and most of my "stretching" truly was to loosen myself up enough to sit still for that. Unfortunately a good eight weeks went by without a real sun salutation, and as we traveled north and west through the longest rainy and cold early spring of our lives, I didn't break a sweat once. My curves became curvier, joints became crankier, and I marveled at how fast my muscles atrophied. The only physical upside was the hope that a couple injuries I left Chicago with were healing from this "rest". Through the fog of dismay, I do stutter out proudly that I foresaw this situation, and had already planned a remedy. Our trip is structured to finish with three weeks settled in an apartment in Sancerre so that Jim can study French, and I can rebuild my practice and start redirecting my life towards the yoga career I have committed to. This part of the plan is one of the smartest things I could have done ( other than skipping those prok ribs, but that is just crazy talk)! There is a lot of work ahead of me, but I am finally back on track.

During a college weekend of games and parties, I was on a tug of war team made up of other students like myself: spectacle wearing bookworms unsure of where the sports facilities on campus were located. Our opposing team played field hockey and worked out "just for fun." The teams were supposed to be equal in body weight, so there were maybe 12 of us and 7 of them. I was the smallest, so they put me right in front, with the best view of that flag in the middle of the rope. There was no question in anyone's mind how this was gonna end, but we had to put in a showing. The judge's whistle blew, and my feet which had been dug into the dirt started to slide forward at a regular rate. My joints were all locked in stubborn opposition, but nonetheless that slide forward seemed inevitable and the flag's position was just a few inches away from ending the contest. My heart had already given up when something unexpected happened. I heard the story afterwards, because I didn't at the time know what was going on.

The anchor on our team was named Ginger. She was like the rest of us scholastic types, but perhaps softer and quieter, and certainly more amply bodied. When all was surely lost, Ginger made a noise. There was some discrepancy later what that noise actually was. A grunt? A growley groan? Just a determined hmph like steroidal ujaii breathing? At that moment, our fate shifted. Ginger made that sound from somewhere deep inside her, and then resolutely turned around in her rope loop and started pulling the other way. The woman on the rope right next to her also turned around and added her determination to Ginger's. Then so did the next woman, and so on down the line. By the time I realized I was facing the WRONG WAY, the shift in inertia lifted my feet off the ground, and as the other team let go when the whistle signalled OUR victory, I went sailing with my teammates into a pile of ecstatic, incredulous glory. We all need a Ginger on our team don't we? Something in ourselves that turns us around when we are sliding down a slippery slope and sends us in the direction we really want to go, towards the lives we really want to live.

So here I am turning it all around, and boy do I have "beginner's mind!" Child's pose is not comfortable, and downdog is NOT a resting pose! Um, ab-work? How can I get my foot from downward dog to a lunge, with grace? I don't have a mat, my knees hurt on the floor and my hands and feet tend to slide. Those old injuries are still factors to contend with. I rely heavily on the kitchen furniture to keep myself from falling over. Yeah, it's awkward, and that is part of the equation. Being a beginner is not just eagerness and epiphanies, but also chagrin, restlessness, frustration, hesitancy, inefficacy, and so on.

How lucky that I am not just a beginner! I am in this marvelous zen-like place straddling the experience of being a beginner with my experience and knowledge as a long-time student and teacher. I have the skill to work my hands and feet so that I can build stability. I have the patience to move slowly and mindfully, noticing assymetries as I rebuild muscular strength. I know when I should be using my core and not my joints to do a pose (disaster!). I have a practiced awareness of my body that few real beginners ever do. Since it is a home practice, augmented by some downloaded sequences, I can pause, repeat, modify, explore, refine, take a break, talk to myself, and so on. I'm enjoying moving around in my body in a way that I often suggest to students while we warm up - think of your mat as a canvas, and spill a lot of paint on it, smear it around, get creative and don't worry what the picture looks like. I couldn't cue what I'm doing, can't even articulate it to myself, but it's a pleasing way to send some fresh energy into those dark and dusty corners of myself.

I don't actually remember much from my first couple years of yoga.  I took classes in the neighborhood gym, and though I remember the faces of my first two teachers, I can't remember which poses we did, or how we did them.  I do remember how I FELT during and after classes - so refreshed and delighted with myself and the world that I returned whenever my busy schedule allowed. It is that feeling that I crave, and that feeling that drives me back to the habit of asana practice. A great physical workout is enough of an incentive to me to change what I eat, because my workouts feel stronger and more fluid, and my recovery from vigorous work is easier when my diet is densely nutritious. When my body feels great, I am more relaxed, in a more positive frame of mind, and my meditation is easier and more rewarding. When all those things are in place, it is easier to make wise choices and behave ethically, generously and lovingly. When the Ginger in ourselves changes direction with determination, it is like changing a keystone habit in our lives that causes a chain reaction, turning the whole team around and ending up in a pile of glory. It is so good to be beginning again. NAMASTE.

Posted by Stravaigin 04:59 Archived in France

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