Yoga 101: Distilled Wisdom for Newbies
By Hayley Ebersole
An advanced practitioner is only advanced because they come back to the practice again and again with a beginner’s mind.
In reflecting back on eleven years of practice, I realize how most powerful messages of yoga escaped me for years as I sweated and panted my way through class on a never-ending quest for self-improvement. In an attempt to save beginners some time, I interviewed over forty long-term practitioners on a quest to discover and translate the essence of this complex and sophisticated practice, asking them what they wished they’d learned in the first few months of their practice. After sorting through various versions of the same statements again and again (with a sweet smile on my face), I’ve distilled them into six simple points.
1) Finding your Teacher and Style is like Kissing
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say they tried yoga and didn’t like it. While an asana practice might not be for everyone, what newbies don’t always realize is that there are as many styles of yoga as there are teachers.
In my opinion, no one is inherently a good or bad kisser, people’s styles and energy either resonate when they kiss, or don’t. Your experience might be entirely different from your best friend’s experience kissing the same person (not that I’m recommending testing that out). When two personalities meet there is a unique chemistry. Each yoga teacher has each their own unique flavor, training background, spiritual and postural outlook, personal relationship to their practice and life experiences that influence the way they share with their students.
The role of a yoga teacher is primarily to facilitate your experience with yourself. Try a variety of different teachers and styles and feel the effects on your body. If you aren’t feeling the class you’re in, use the opportunity to move deeper into your experience and your body instead of conceding to patterned reactions of the mind. Deepen and focus on your breath and then try a different teacher or a different style next time. Just like with kissing, eventually, you find the person with whom sparks fly- you are on the same wavelength and something just clicks, opening a entirely new realm of experience. Eventually, you find teacher(s) who you really mesh with, their words or the way they express the poses pierces your heart.
This practice is ideally undertaken with curiosity as an exploration with an open mind and an open heart. There are an incredible variety of types of yoga: yin, restorative, “hatha”, vinyasa, Iyengar, Bikram, Ashtanga, Shadow Yoga, Acroyoga, Anusara, etc. What style is right for you?
2) Empower Yourself: Your Body is Your Greatest Teacher
Yoga is a conversation with yourself. With practice, as you listen closely, it will tell you what it needs. Just because the teacher offers a pose and the rest of the class is doing- that doesn’t mean you have to. In the words of Abby Tucker “there are people who do more yoga lying on their backs in a hospital bed than standing upside down balancing on their pinky fingernail.”
Keep your eyes on the prize. What really matters about your practice? That you can do a handstand or that you feel calm, clear and connected in class and when you leave? Asana should be deeply easeful even when powerfully strengthening and challenging. Don't try to make your pose look like the person in front of you- use a block, bend your knees, take a break in child's pose when your body is asking for it. Practice as if the intention was to calm the fluctuations of the mind (citta vritti nirodha) and modify the poses accordingly.
You can’t judge a book by its cover. The same pose will look very different in two different bodies but both bodies may be receiving the same benefits regardless of modifications or perceived levels of difficulty.
3) Yoga is a Process of Self- Regulation
Use asana not as exercise but as a balancing tool. What style of practice would bring you into balance today? Moderate your own intensity not based on patterned reactions (pushing yourself beyond your limits or, alternatively, being lackadaisical) but on what energy will complement and ameliorate the state you’re in.
The most direct application of this profound yet simple concept is to stop practicing and move into child’s pose (balasana) when you find yourself pushing in an aggressive way that has less to do with your experience in the moment and more to do with an external goal, when you’re overly tired or when you lose connection with your breath. Moving into balasana when any of these conditions are present is the sign of a mature human being who understands the true value of the practice and is willing to release attachment to the ego’s stories about why they should be doing things. The story often, unconsciously, goes something like this: “I’m are not good enough unless I nail this pose.” When we articulate that sentiment in words, it’s almost silly and embarrassing, but that’s the nature of the mind- to judge and compare. This approach by beginners, as well as seasoned practitioners, is likely to lead to injury. Yoga isn’t football. Invite your body be the guide, allowing the ego to take a back seat. Witness your inner dialogue as if you were watching a movie, allow it to be present without judging it, buying into it or committing to it. You are not your thoughts nor are you your emotions. You are the thinker who thinks the thought and the being-ness that experiences the emotion.
Find your edge, that space between too little and too much, bearing in mind that it’s different every day. Once you find that edge, surf it like a wave, hovering on the brink. How skillful can you become at discerning your needs?
As you return again and again to the practice, yoga may begin to infect your life. As you mindfully deepen the conversation with your body, you become more experienced with balanced physical and psychological states and more capable at discerning what will bring you in to balance. You naturally begin creating healthier boundaries around those people and habits that don’t encourage this state of clarity. You feel more tangibly the effects of the people around you, the air you breath, the food you put in your body, the effects of your job and lifestyle, becoming more clear on what serves you and what doesn’t. This is one of the greatest gifts of committing to a yoga practice. The yoga doesn’t “do” it to you. This change could never come from the outside in- it’s an inside job. Your inner light, perpetually present yet clouded over by the accumulated dust of everyday life as a human being with a complex ego-mind, begins to shine through more brightly as you clear off the screen.
Your body may begin to feel more vital, healthier with less pain. You may experience more moments of rest from the incessant fluctuations (chatter, anxiety, grasping, worrying, happiness and stories) of the mind. As the body and the mind begin to calm you may experience more often and more directly that part of yourself that lives beyond (and simultaneously within) both the mind and the body. This is the space of the spirit. However, this eventual transformation isn’t something to chase after- the fruit is in this moment now, not in some imaginary, mystical and mythical future. In the very moment that you bring awareness to the breath or the sensations of the body- the mind and the body come together. This is your direct experience with your spirit. It’s as simple as that.
4) Move with Intention (Sankulpa)
Yoga is a complex and sophisticated system that is both personal and ineffable. Why are you practicing? Asana is a playground upon which you explore your personal meaning. It’s a canvas upon which you both discover and paint your purpose. Infuse your movements with your deepest intention, sealing it into the body-mind by returning to it again and again.
5) Just Breathe: (Pran(a)yama)
Why does tuning into the breath matter? There is a two way relationship between stress and the breath. A harried, shallow breath (an inevitable result of computer posture) activates the sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones into the blood stream, raising blood pressure and generally decreasing the effectiveness of all of the body’s systems. On the other hand, a slow, deep breath releases relaxation hormones. The slower you inhale, the more your lungs can expand, allowing for greater oxygen exchange, cell renewal and circulation (lowering blood pressure, increasing immunity, muscle tone, brain function, digestion, etc.). In the moment that you draw your attention to your breath, your mind and your body come together.
There are two schools of thought on the Sanskrit translation of pranayama. Prana or Pran- translates as life force, yama translates as restraint and –ayama translates as lack of restraint. Classical (Patanjali’s) Yoga (complied 400 BC) understands this word to mean control of the life force. While the precursor of asana lies in classical era, the asana practice actually arises from the tantric lineage (starting circa 800 AD). The tantrics understand the contraction of these two words as pran-/ ayama. Placing an “a” before a word in sanskrit is the negation of that word, therefore the translation becomes the opposite of controlling the breath. Therefore, a body-based practice regards the breath as a process of expansion of the life force in the practitioner’s body, not control or manipulation of the life force. This split illustrates the essential philosophical difference between classical yoga and tantra yoga.
Control of the life force or expansion of the life force. Which do you prefer?
6) Asana is a Journey Without a Destination
Asana is a process and exploration with no end goal. There is nothing to accomplish- the juice lies in diving deeper into the moment.
Ideally, you will always be a beginner. Sure, as you practice more and more the movements start to become second nature and begin to feel more like meditation, your body grows more flexible, supple, intelligent and deeply strong. However, an advanced practitioner is only advanced because she comes back to her practice again and again with a beginner’s mind. In the words of Bo Forbes “mastery is the antithesis of mindfulness.”