I began my yoga teacher training (well, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it actually began long ago, but now I am officially enrolled in a 200-hour course) at Starseed Yoga in September, and it has brought a great deal of sanity to my topsy-turvy life. The teachers are knowledgable and supportive, and everyone in the studio is always so very friendly. As a result of teacher training and in preparation for when I teach more classes on my own, I have found myself in a few beginner classes both at Starseed and at the studio nearer my home – and let me tell you, they are HARD.
As someone who always welcomes a challenge, I do not respond well to “easing into” things. My usual modus operandi is to jump in not with both feet but headfirst, and wait to find out how deep the water is until I’m way underneath it, gazing back up trying to see the surface, awkwardly getting my nostrils full of water, and wondering how on earth I got there. I always make it back up to the top, but sometimes it’s a struggle and I often swallow a lot more disgusting pool water than was really necessary. However, I do think it makes me stronger and it definitely makes me appreciate just how difficult the jump and the ensuing battle with the basic laws of physics was.
Example: music. My parents made me take piano lessons for a few years as a child, but I hated practicing scales and “hands separately” so I quit. In high school I resumed playing of my own volition, but I jumped right in without a teacher, devouring music that was way too hard for me but thoroughly enjoying it. I continued on to study music at university, people pay me to do it, and now one might even go so far as to call me a professional musician. However, even now my main strength is not in performing perfectly rehearsed sonatas with an exquisite touch, or making my fingers dance over the keys to express delightful Romantic motives. I have on occasion been able to do such things – but what I’m really good at is sightreading. In other words, jumping behind a piano at a moment’s notice and playing whatever is thrown in front of me with the only delay being the time it takes me to check the key signature – and if there’s a soprano or someone on a podium waving his arms about who I need to be following, so much the better. I can get through just about any piece of music in this situation- it is not always pretty, but each time I plough through something I’ve never seen before, I get better at it and in turn, being a musician. Once I get through a piece once in this frenzied manner, it is a bit easier for me to go back to the beginning and practice it properly because I have an idea of the broader ideas behind it. I can go through and work technical things like tricky fingerings and focus on artistic ideas, like a sensible person would have done from the beginning. [Side note: I am not always a sensible person.]
My introduction to yoga was similar. The first class I took at age 13 was a beginner class which my mum dragged me to. I am not sure what I expected and my memory of the occasion is a bit foggy, but I remember thinking “these poses are too easy, I’m not getting a workout, and I am too frustrated by this arm-waving nonsense to be relaxed.” I did not attend another class until I was 18. This class was taught by Melissa, who to this day is one of my favorite teachers, and it was a modified Ashtanga Vinyasa class. I was sweating after the first sun salutation, the postures had many variations to keep me challenged, and I was too focused on not falling over to think about anything other than the current moment. Of course, my alignment must have been horrendous and while it was certainly a meditative practice, somewhere along the line I missed the part about yoga being kind to the body. In the following months I twisted and jumped and back-bended and head-stood – in other words, I did anything but “ease in.” I know I only got away with this because I am young, strong, and healthy – but if I hadn’t gotten into yoga this way, I know I wouldn’t have at all. I needed the challenges, both physical and mental, to stay present and interested. I needed to know what I was working towards.
So a few weeks ago, when I mentally prepared myself for an hour of boredom and walked into a beginner class, I got exactly what I expected: very basic postures held for a very long time, and lots of focus on alignment and breathing. However, rather than finding the postures frustratingly easy and boring, I found it refreshing to slow down and focus on tweaking each asana to make it work better. This is something so often overlooked in vinyasa and other flow classes, yet something that is so crucial. But at the same time, I think it is an aspect of yoga many beginners do not fully appreciate. It took me many months to understand the concepts of “active” limbs, opening chakras, and directing prana to specific areas, and to recognize the huge changes that subtle movements could bring to a posture. As such, I see many beginners with slumped shoulders and shallow breathing who don’t understand teachers’ instructions to adjust, and view yoga as simply “gentle stretching” rather than the mentally and physically challenging eight-limbed practice that true yogis delve into on a daily basis.
I realise that generally speaking, my sense of logic is unconventional and perhaps my headlong approach isn’t right for everyone. I’m certainly not suggesting that beginner classes be saved only for advanced students, or that people new to yoga be thrown into physically taxing Ashtanga classes. But once in awhile, jumping into something headfirst may make you a stronger person and offer you a dose of perspective. And those of us who are experienced in our craft, practice, or profession can always benefit from taking a few steps back, treating ourselves like beginners, and doing things in a way we are not accustomed to.