Would you believe that yogis who are considered advanced practitioners often feel jealous of beginner yogis? A famous quote from the great Zen master, Shinryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, explains why: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
If you are a beginner it can be challenging just to follow the teacher’s instructions. The entire learning experience involves a host of verbal directions using previously unknown vocabulary, not to mention a wide range of brand new sensations, physical and emotional. It can be very intense but the good news is that learning yoga can also be a very engaging experience.
This is exactly what advanced yogis envy. Their devotion to the practice is admirable but it comes with its own challenges. After you have worked with an encyclopedia of yoga postures for some years, it is hard to recapture the sense of curiosity and enthusiasm of a beginner’s mind. Boredom can even set in, as opposed to the sheer delight of new accomplishment that is completely natural for beginner yogis.
Yoga is a repetitive practice. Just like playing scales over and over in order to become a piano player, you do the same poses over and over. In Tibetan the word for this kind of practice is GOM, which translates to “a process of getting familiar.”
In yoga practice you are getting familiar with new adventures, such as going upside down and inside out. You are also getting familiar with feelings of fear, trepidation, and eventually accomplishment. Through dedicated practice, you will become familiar with your capacity for strength, stability, and clarity. And there is a certain kind of high that comes with this process, too, which can be described as physical confidence. That might be a new feeling, too!
This kind of fresh awakening is the opposite of a long time yogi’s experience. They know what pose comes next in Sun Salutation and they know the exact amount of pressure required for them to jump from Downward Dog into Forward Bend. That’s why I often encourage my advanced students to forget everything they think they know about a pose and wake up to what is happening right now. What are they feeling? What is their response to what they are feeling? Even if you have done a pose a zillion times, paying attention to today’s experience is what creates it afresh.
This kind of attention is called “embodied awareness.” The opposite is disembodied awareness, which is our more typical habit of awareness. On an ordinary day we normally have awareness of this activity or that activity, but we don’t usually get deeply involved in our thoughts and we certainly don’t get too involved in our thoughts about our thoughts.
Embodied awareness is when we consciously pay attention to our experiences — not later, but at the same time that they are happening. We notice thoughts that arise. We notice emotions that arise. And we notice the arising of all kinds of physical sensations— pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. But what really distinguishes embodied awareness from disembodied awareness is that we also pay attention to how we respond to all that we notice. Do we judge our thoughts, indulge in our emotions, avoid unpleasant sensations, or feel drawn to them?
Embodied awareness is called manasikara in Sanskrit and it means “activity of the mind.” It is said that all practice really begins when we start to consciously engage in the “activity of the mind.”
And believe it or not, this is actually easier to do when something is unfamiliar and new. Think of any relationship. When you first fall in love, there is a feeling of intense aliveness. You are aware of your body, thrilling emotions and your thoughts about it all! But after awhile, even the best relationships must go into a different phase because new is only new once.
So now that you know what embodied awareness is, you can start to do it on purpose, which is another way of saying that you can practice mindfulness meditation at the same time that you are practicing asana. In fact, I bet that you are already doing this.
Mindfulness means placing the mind. The mind is always moving around. Just like our body, our mind is meant to move. It time travels to the past and then flies into the future, then a memory arises which then morphs into plans for lunch and then….sometimes, it slows down and stops for a moment right here and now in the present. There is the feeling that you have just come to from a deep dream. And for just that moment, you feel very present and alive to your external environment and your internal experience.
Mindfulness becomes mindfulness meditation when you consciously place the mind. Here’s how to do that while you are practicing asana.
- Placing the Mind: It is helpful to give the mind a landing pad or home base. The breath works well since it is always and only ever in the present. You cannot be breathing in the past or the future.
- When you realize that your mind has left home base and gone off on a discursive tangent, no problem. That will happen many times. The important thing is that you notice it.
- In that moment when you notice that you were thinking, you have actually stopped thinking. For a tiny moment, you are present. In Tibetan this is called seshin, which means “presently aware.” Try to touch into this feeling of open presence.
- Then simply return your attention to your home base.
- Since you are doing this while practicing asana, you can also use any sensation as your home base. A feeling of stretch or strength or power or wobbliness. Like the breath, all feelings happen in the present. That includes emotions. Even if you were thinking about a past memory and it pulled up an emotion, you are experiencing that emotion now. So you can use physical and emotional feelings as a home base, as well as the breath.
When you start to approach your asana practice with embodied awareness, you won’t be a beginner any longer even if you don’t consider yourself a yoga adept. You have moved into maniskara. You will see how things change all the time and that will become more interesting to you then whether or not you can do this or that fancy pose.
About the Author - Cyndi Lee:
Cyndi Lee is the first female Western yoga teacher to fully integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and teaching. Founder of NYC’s OM yoga Center (1998-2012), she is now an ordained Zen Buddhist Chaplain and primarily teaches Meditation Trainings and Buddhist retreats all over the world. She is the author of Yoga Body Buddha Mind and May I Be Happy. Her newest offering, the OM Online Meditation Sangha will be launching in February, 2023. Learn more at cyndilee.com