Starting over: How to keep your Ashtanga yoga practice fresh
The Never Ending Beginning of Ashtanga Yoga
By Scott Johnson
When a new student comes into our Mysore room I’ll stand at the back next to them. We’ll watch the many practices that are unfolding in front of us quietly for a moment. Together. Importantly, I’ll watch them watching and there is so much I learn from that process. I can see excitement, fear, anxiety, curiosity. I always ask them what they see. What they feel. Whatever is coming up for them, I say, is all okay. To just begin from there. Generally, when people do stand there ready to meet the room they feel that they are throwing themselves into the lion of a space that seems to know itself. That is somehow separate from them.
“Everyone is experienced apart from me,”’ they say.
“And yet we all once began,” I reply.
I then point out the many different practitioners that are participating, mention that everyone was a beginner once and then I point out the ones that were just like them the week before, the day before. Where they are standing now. With me, at the back of the room. Watching.
The process of beginning
They’ll then place their mat down. I’ll stand next to them and say, ”Are you ready?” They’ll nod, and I’ll say, “Follow me, ekam, one – inhale”. We’ll both raise our arms up and begin the process of relationship between teacher and student, meeting Surya Namaskar A (sun salutation) together. Before you know it, I’ll have stepped away from them, leaving them quietly beginning the process of synchronising breath, body and mind. I’ll move on knowing they have started on that process and begin with the next person, wherever they are. Our new beginner will have blended into the room, becoming another piece of the process of breath and movement that makes the room come alive.
Then, another brand new person will come in. I will stand at the back of the room and we’ll watch. “Everyone looks so experienced,” they will say. And so it continues…
Moving beyond language
A Mysore room is a playing field of so many different varieties. People from all walks of life learning in their own time, under their own steam. The beauty is all of it can be held there. Everyone is validated and there is no hierarchy. As a teacher I know everyone, yet not many people practising in the room actually know each other. People recognise faces, energies, the sound of a breath but may not know each other’s names, or lives. This is okay. There is a sense of something becoming known, that can go beyond names. Moving beyond language is something cultivated in a yoga practice, trusting in the sensory process of feeling and noticing without having to name.
When I stand at the back of the room with that new beginner, I myself will begin too. Begin again seeing the room as if for the first time. With feeling. With fresh eyes, just as they are. What is there that I can see that is new, that I haven’t seen? That is opening up to being seen. That never stops opening up to being seen. It is a gentle and beautiful reminder of how we can remain open.
Sometimes when someone is new I’ll put them next to a more experienced practitioner, someone perhaps a little like them. Someone who I feel their practice will speak to in a way that captures their imagination and can perhaps light a little spark. There may be a knowing nod, or expression of connection, a gentle acknowledgment of each other. Nothing more. Then sharing the space together, practising next to one another. One responding to experience, the other to beginning something unfamiliar.
Holding the energy of beginner’s mind
I feel it’s important that we continue to hold the energy of the beginner in our lives. Of beginner’s mind. One of the many pleasures of being an ashtanga yoga Mysore teacher is cultivating a room that holds many different kinds of practitioner. All are welcome, and the set up of the self-practice method allows for both new and experienced people to be able to nurture their practices together, yet alone. Because we are helping people to develop a practice of their own we are able to meet each person exactly where they are. But in this room it’s easy for beginners to feel that they are new, are fresh. What gets more interesting and challenging is perhaps keeping that freshness as we become more experienced. It’s easy to get complacent and then lose the love for practice. To think, “I know”, “I should” or “Why isn’t this happening yet?”
What if, as we get deeper into the practice of yoga, we continue as if always a beginner, never letting beginner’s mind fall away? Can we meet our practice with a quality where everything is always new? Everything is always fresh? Every breath always free?
Nurturing the quality of beginning again
There is always an opportunity to see things anew. This practice always offers us a new breath to focus on, a new sensation to hold, a new perspective to adopt. When we let go of our stories and drop in to what is present as we practise, we can become open to what is arising. And there are always things arising, things that are new, that can be seen and met in an open way.
A yoga practice is a beautiful way to nurture and nourish this quality of the never ending beginning.
Each breath is fresh and new. Each movement is fresh and new. Importantly we are establishing a feeling tone to the way we are connecting with our body and this feeling is never exactly the same. Depending on the day, the quality in which we find ourselves in practice gives us the space to see what comes up in that moment. And each moment is new. Always.
So, rather than looking at our practice as just about developing strength and flexibility, how about we develop the ability to notice these moments, moments of interest, freshness, clarity and vitality? Of nurturing the quality of beginning again.
There is never a time we can’t notice this. That we can’t drop into the experience of our lives.