The Beginner’s Mind

I went to the most lovely of yoga classes today–Yoga Basics. Before I go to a class, especially Yoga Basics or Beginner’s Yoga (yes, I take both of these on a regular basis) I like to remind myself to clear my head of any preconceived ideas or expectations that I have about the class or myself. I try to take my mindset back to that very first time I ever stepped in a yoga class–The Beginner’s Mind.

The mind of infinite possibility.

The mix of attending yoga classes geared toward people new to yoga and going into a class with an “I don’t know shit” attitude really adds to my practice. If I go in there thinking I know what will happen, thinking I know how I will feel, thinking I know anything at all, it cuts the opportunity for growing and having an awesome experience down by oh, 100% or so.

My sister Molly suggested that I write a post that’s for people who have never done yoga. I’ve been noticing recently that so many people are intensely curious about yoga and want to take a class, but feel too intimidated and scared to give it a try. So this one’s for you guys.

Honestly, yoga can be intimidating. I remember how that first class feels–you finally work up the courage to actually GO to the class, and then you see them. The Yoga Nazis. They arrive thirty minutes early, roll out their mats at the front of the classroom, start warming up by doing handstands and headstands and crazy arm balances, the instructor knows them by name, and they haven’t missed a yoga class since 1999. They are decked out in their favorite yoga clothing company.

They are also, without doubt, really really good looking.

And then there’s you, arriving just in time, mat-less, so you rent one from the studio and it smells like feet, the door squeaks really loud as you open it–Yoga Nazis stare–and you try to find a spot somewhere in the back. You have no reason in hell to own anything skin-tight or stretchy, so you’re wearing pajama pants and one of your Dad’s old t-shirts.

You feel like everything about you screams newbie–the borrowed mat, the pj’s–hell, these people are so advanced they can probably just feel how inexperienced you are. They can probably read your energy or something.

Yeah, I remember those classes.

That first class is enough to scare some people away for good. But just so that doesn’t happen to you, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: You’ve got it all wrong.

The Yoga Nazis are actually just people, like you and me, who yes, have probably been practicing for a longer period of time and can put their feet behind their heads, but know no more about living and dying than someone who has never done yoga before.

One’s mastery of certain yoga poses says very little about the kind of person they are. Maybe they are naturally flexible, naturally strong, naturally graceful and calm. They are no further ahead in this journey than you are.

These people also, from my experience, turn out to be very nice and helpful. Yoga classrooms are not elitist or hierarchical unless you go in there thinking that that’s the way it will be. In fact, Yoga Nazis don’t exist unless you go in there thinking that they do.

This applies to all things in life that you really have no fucking clue about, but go in there thinking that you do.

So go in with an open mind. Put aside all the things you think you know about yoga from movies, magazines, friends, pictures you’ve seen. Just take it all in as if you know nothing about it–after all, you don’t know anything.

Although our minds like to think we can, we cannot predict the future.

Trust that the positive things you’ve heard will accumulate from practicing yoga will come, maybe after one class, maybe after one month of class, maybe after years and years of class. But get ready, brace yourself–yoga has side effects, and they are really, really cool.

More than anything though, get ready to come to the realization that you, [insert your name here], are the owner of one (1) divinely made vessel for experiencing life, also known as a body. Don’t be surprised if this simple fact feels earth-shattering, celebration-worthy, and brings tears to your eyes. We forget it all too much.

Every time I practice, it’s a little reminder to myself: yo George, YOU HAVE A BODY. More precisely, you ARE a body. Your existence in this world is through that of a human body. Be thankful for this, praise your body, throw a party for your body! That’s what I do every day on my mat.

So, if you haven’t ever practiced yoga before, know that you have a precious gift that some of the more experienced yogis tend to lose–The Beginner’s Mind. Cherish that. Know that I and many others strive to achieve the mindset you have–that of no expectations. So be brave, and get ready. Yoga is one of the most awesome journeys you will ever go on.

Teaching yoga: work your abs or work your souls, it doesn’t really matter.

Teaching yoga is a very, very odd thing.

It feels nothing like practicing, I may even go as far as saying that teaching yoga is the antithesis of practicing yoga.

I teach a few classes a week at a gym downtown, and while the gym setting is less than ideal (the clanging of dumbbells and grunts from testosterone-filled men in the other room are the usual sounds that accompany savasana) I have really been enjoying the opportunities I get to teach.

It’s just…a weird experience.

There are the young, college-aged girls who walk in, sweaty from the cardio workout they just finished, and ask me if we can “work our abs.” Then you have the Moms who want to lose their baby weight and calm down from, well, being a Mom. You’ve got the dudes that can’t raise their hands above their heads because they’ve lifted so many weights without a single post-workout stretch, the older people who want to be able to keep moving, the first-timers, the girls who wear lipstick, the audible breathers, the hippies and the hipsters, the people who are scared to death of taking off their socks in public. And then, there are the quiet ones.

I love the quiet ones.

I love them all, every last one of them, but I especially love the quiet ones. Because maybe, just maybe, they’re here in my class, to ya know…find God.

I keep my hopes high. I keep my hopes high for everyone, because maybe when they say they want to “work their abs” it’s just that they’re just too embarrassed to say, “Can we work our souls?”

The truth is, for a while, I was really hung up on the fact that no one came to my class wanting anything other than physical results. One day, I even started class with something like, “Do you know that it’s possible to practice yoga without even moving?”

Bad idea. They all looked at me like…umm, WHAT, I did not come to yoga to just SIT HERE, we sure all hell better MOVE, and NO I’m not doing any of that chanting bullshit, that’s WEIRD and CULTISH and I’M NOT DOING IT.

So, naturally, I proceeded to work their abs.

I can’t force the other, non-physical sides of yoga on these people. No matter how hard I try, how well I articulate the philosophy, or if I make them sit still for an hour and fifteen minutes…it’s not going to work. They have to get to that point on their own, I’m just here to help and serve.

Besides, most everyone initially approaches yoga with purely physical intentions.

I started practicing regularly in my first year of college, because I heard it could improve my rock climbing. I remember my first class well–thinking, oh yeah, this pose will help me make those really dynamic moves, or, yeah, this one is strengthening my core, and, this pose will stretch out my back.

For a long time, I used to think that yoga was nothing more than stretching and strengthening the body.  Never once did I realize that it’s really about stretching and strengthening the mind–let alone finding God.

Steve Black was the perfect teacher to have as a beginner. He never used the word God or Soul or Spirituality or Enlightenment. But one day in class, without even knowing that the spiritual side of yoga existed, I was aware of it. I don’t remember the pose or what particular class it was, but I started feeling good. Really good.

I don’t even want to try to describe the feeling I got because it is just that dear to me. I won’t do it justice.

“If you speak about that which is very sacred, it goes.”

I have faith that everyone who enters a yoga classroom will come out of there fulfilled in some way–whether that be in a physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional way. Even if they just relax one muscle, for one one-hundredth of a second, and think ahhh that’s nice, then that’s good. They’re on their way.

Yoga, a practice!

Half way there.

Can you believe that? I’m half way done with yoga teacher training. I honestly wish we had more time together, much more time. If I had it my way, we would keep meeting for one weekend a month until the day I die, not just until May. I love this training and the people I’ve met through it.

I feel so lucky.

As you know from my last post, the yoga side of my life has been lacking for the past month or so, it’s like it got lost in the oblivion of traveling and holidays and change. I didn’t really understand why my motivation and inspiration was whittling away, every day a little more, until this past weekend at training. Understanding came to me in the not so rare form of sweat and sore muscles.

I got my ass kicked at training, via an ungodly amount of sun salutations. Don’t let the cool cosmic name or your past experience with sun salutations fool you. When I say ungodly amount, I mean it. Three or four of these will usually get your heart pumping, but we did far more than I could even count.

Each one of us had to teach three rounds of sun salutations. The first few rounds felt solid, like I was hanging out with an old friend–after all, Sun Sal and I go way back. The sweat was beading up, heart beat became more pronounced, breath audible. All was well in the body and mind of Georgie, in the beginning.

Then, as I kept going, breathing, sweating, moving, after we had all lost count of how many rounds we had done, stuff started happening. I had a recurring thought, not an enlightening one, not something that you’d like to think comes from practicing yoga but actually springs up surprisingly often:

Fuck this.

I read somewhere that doing yoga causes one to swear less…I haven’t experienced anything quite like that so far. Oh well.

After a few Fuck This and Fuck Thats, it hit me, as sweat (or tears, who really knows) poured down my face and I could barely even lift my arms above my head. It was time for me to quit thinking that all of the things I want to get out of this training are going to be handed to me in a nice little package tied up with a bow. Yoga isn’t like that.

Life isn’t like that.

I’m going to have to do the work. More work than I have been doing. Whether it’s practicing as I travel (to go climbing, see family, visit friends) even if I forgot my mat and don’t have a sports bra and I’d really rather just lay in bed for the extra hour in the morning…or by doing 83740126352 sun salutations in one day, I must do the work.

Yoga is a practice. It’s a daily practice. A lifelong practice. It’s insane of us to think that we can change or get a desired outcome by just sitting around, half-assing, trying just a little bit–but we all have had this mind-set at some point. We are disappointed when our lazy efforts don’t translate into astounding results.

Yoga is different from other forms of practice like with sports or a musical instrument, because there isn’t some big event where you must display your mastery, your hard work, your practice. There is no Yoga Olympics–and thank God for that. The yoga practice, like life itself, has peaks and troughs, and any given day can offer an awesome yoga experience or a really shitty one. What if the Yoga Olympics fell on a day of shitty yoga? I so admire competitive athletes.

I think that this little phase of laziness came from being very let down by yoga. At the beginning of training, I was learning so much about myself–well,  learning that there was so much more to learn about myself. Then the discovering started to happen. For some reason, (and I feel kind of silly even admitting this) I thought I was going to be realizing how wonderful of a person I am, how brimming with love and compassion and kindness my heart truly is, how I am made of divine material. Instead, I was shown some not so awesome things about myself. The further I go in to this training, the more I realize my ego controls my thoughts and actions. When I listen to my thoughts, I realize their common origin of negativity. As I look around with more attention, I see my constant stream of judgement.

Yeah…when I was told that I was going on a journey of self-discovery, I didn’t think I’d be discovering BAD things about myself. That was definitely not in the teacher training acceptance letter.

: )

It was all pretty disheartening. I didn’t want to do yoga anymore because I didn’t want to face any more truths about myself. But I got over that fear this weekend, somewhere between a Fuck This and a downward facing dog.

If I don’t practice, I won’t get through all of the muck that’s been covering up what I’m really made of. Despite everything, I still believe that deep down, layers upon layers down, maybe even a million miles down, what lies within me in is not negative. It is something quite positive, the most positive of all, it is love.

I just have to keep digging, and I’m half way there.