I leave for India in just a few short hours, but for the first time, I am going as a beginner.
Like all newcomers, I contemplate exactly how much effort I should put into practice? It is a true inquiry: how much do I let go and how much do I try? How does one create a new life? If I try too hard I risk injury yet if I stay in a place of safety, I never experience tapas or “the heat” of change.
If the strings are too tight, the arrow will not fly,
If the strings are too loose, the arrow will not fly. —Chinese proverb
Last night I taught my last class. It was sweet and quiet with the tender-kind of love a couple might enjoy after decades of marriage. A familiar, rich and satisfying love. I saw myself cueing the students to inhale exhale and realized that this was the last time. I was glad, and when it was over, I found myself facing a vast new world.
“You are this vastness. This vista you see, this grandeur, this enduring strength—if you go deeply enough inside yourself, you will find not something small but something immensely spacious.” Donna Farhi, yoga teacher and author of Yoga Mind, Body, and Spirit.
Earlier today, I got out of bed as a beginner might, with care and interest. The world is new; I grabbed my camera. The sun is rising for the first time, like me. It is Wednesday I will not be teaching tonight. My 6:30 class is no longer mine. The class has been passed on to the next generation. I feel free, and as I look down, I see my feet for the very first time.
“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. Less sure about everything it freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” Steve Jobs
Yoga teachers often instruct about letting go. But it is not easy. I have a tendency to keep myself tethered, emotionally, physically, and mentally. Being a beginner, I am freed from saying I have to or I should. Instead, I fly in the “not knowing” untangling myself from beliefs I held as “true.
“The notions and ideas we have about happiness can entrap us. We forget they are just notions and ideas. Our ideas of happiness may be the very thing that is preventing us from being happy. When we’re caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form, we fail to see the opportunities for joy that are right in front of us. “ Thich Naht Hahn, How to Love.
In practice, the liberation of letting go shows up as relaxing tension in the postures. On a more subtle level, the churnings of the mind release. These practices teach me how to let go in life as well. Let go of big things and little thoughts that keep me tethered and prevent change.
“Yoga is not about self-improvement or making ourselves better. It is a process of deconstructing all the barriers we may have erected that prevent us from having an authentic connection with ourselves and with the world.” Donna Farhi
Today, after 17years of working in the thriving yoga industry, my bags packed I see my hands for the first time. I’m headed to India to be with my teachers. India is the birthplace of our practice and its roots are in the temples, the people, the schools, and the hills. This time I journey, not as a teacher, but as a student. For the first time, I go as a beginner.
“After ten years of practice, you can call yourself a beginner.” B.K.S. Iyengar
I think, how after all these years can I call myself anything but a beginner? Before Chris and I roll out the door, I roll out my mats and choose. Which one to bring: one is heavy, one is familiar, and is one light? I select the light one; it’s easier.
When I think about being a beginner, I realize it means moving beyond the edge of what I know. Moving into the realm of adventure, I often tell new students in class, don’t be afraid. You are not broken! You are beginning. There is a courage required to be a beginner. One must allow for surprise!
I notice a joy as I close the suitcase and lift my purse. One last look around.
“The goal of asana practice is to live in your body and to perceive clearly through it. If you can master the 4 noble acts…of sitting, standing, walking, and lying down with ease, you will have mastered the basics of living an embodied spiritual life." Donna Farhi, Yoga, Mind, Body, and Spirit.
We climb into the car and chatter all the way. It is like a dream for me. I am traveling to one of my favorite yoga-practice-places and when I return, life begins new again. It is an adventure in every sense of the word.
“The first step (in yoga) is accepting that some deep work needs to be done and then deciding to make it a positive, uplifting experience.” Donna Farhi, Yoga, Mind, Body, and Spirit.
Today it seems I feel everything, the good and the bad: happy, sad, excited, afraid, delight and dread. The sky is crystal clear. I say good-bye to my husband. The journey is long but not grueling. I travel business class so the two legs of the 19-hour flight are enjoyable and I get to hang out in some cushy lounges. The plane becomes a metaphor. It is a device to take me from one world to the next. It illustrates my willingness to fly. I try to write a bit in the lounge as I wait for departure but nothing comes. It is too soon. I have not left yet. CNN is on a big screen and the old world is still way too close.
It’s not until I lie down in my seat, close my eyes and sleep that my old life disappears. I wake up alone but with eyes wide open. As a beginner, I think mindfully. I come back to the philosophical underpinnings of the practice: I am ok as I am, softness is as valuable as hardness, and safety is in my control.
Being a beginner shows me that I am more than I thought I was.
We are high in the sky; it is 5 AM at home, my regular waking time. Now, I can write.
It is not all pleasure, and I am not so sure of myself, but I am. The widespread feeling of inhaling is reflexively balanced by the contractive exhale.
“The inner—what is it if not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming. “—Rainer Maria Rilke
As students, we often want to hear what we already know. Then we can agree. The gifted student listens for what we do not know and opens to the possibility. Listening is the language of beginning.
“The process of perception has no ideal and so the process of practice has no ideal” Donna Farhi, Yoga, Mind, Body, and Spirit.
As I fly, I sit with Kamal; he works at the World Bank. He has sat Goenka Meditation 10-day retreat 2x. He is a Hillary supporter, as he says most World Bank people are…as he says most of Washington is? He articulated interesting ideas about the global economy and the pitfalls as well as the benefits of growth, change, competition, markets, philanthropy, and a natural balance that comes when we insist on one another’s light shining. "Laziness does not help anyone," He says. I listen like a beginner.
“ So every day, before you begin your practice, sit quietly for a few minutes and tune into yourself. Ask yourself, “ What do I need today?” Then let your inner guidance be guided by your voice. Some days this intuition may say, “ I think you should sit for thirty minutes to center yourself and then do just a few quiet postures; other days your intuition will say “practice Sun Salutations!”; and still other days it may tell you it is not good to practice at all. This deep process of listening to yourself will prevent you from being dominated by ideas, concepts and theories, and will allow you to move from the realm of yoga as science to the realm of yoga as art.” Donna Farhi, Yoga, Mind, Body, and Spirit.
Day one I am a beginner, and tomorrow I will be a bit more seasoned. Perhaps a bit less aware, but for today, I feel my spine for the first time, and it feels good.