Contrary to what might be expected, as a teacher it is often far easier to work with complete beginners than with regular practitioners of yoga asanas. Why might this be? When we have been practising for a while, it is likely that our ego will have become invested in the process. Instead of feeling into our body as it is at the time of practice, and really listening to our body with present moment awareness, we come to a class with expectations as to how our body should behave, based on how previous sessions have been. We think we ‘should’ be able to reach so far down our leg because we reached down that far the other week. It becomes easier to stop respecting our body and its limitations on that particular day and to start to treat it like a machine, because our ego has become involved.
Generally, beginners do not have (as many) pre-conceived ideas or expectations and therefore are often more receptive to being directed than more experienced practitioners. Once we think we know what we are doing, we are often less receptive to change. There can be comfort in the familiarity of a set routine or sequence. For example you may have now learnt to do Plank, Chaturanga Dandasana and Up-Dog (Urdhva Muka Svanasana) in the Sun Salutation sequence (Surya Namaskar) and have thus ‘progressed’ from Plank - Knees, Chest, Chin - baby Cobra (Bhujangasana). Why would you ‘regress’ and practice Knees, Chest, Chin – baby Cobra? There are many reasons why it may be beneficial to practise Knees, Chest, Chin – baby Cobra, rather than diving straight into Up-Dog, especially for our first few rounds of the Sun Salutations, including that:
1) we start to warm the body up gradually, thus easing the muscles into openness, rather than forcing them / demanding that they open too quickly;
2) we can attain better alignment, in particular less rounding of the shoulders, as many of us tend towards hunching rather than openness;
3) we may avoid exacerbating lower back arching / lordosis, as for many people it is easier to arch upwards than to actually work the muscles of the upper back; and
4) we work different muscles in these two variations to the Sun Salutation sequence so you get a more complete body work-out if you practice both options .
Also, if we are used to following a set sequence each time, it can be tempting for our mind to always be jumping ahead to the next posture or to be acting automatically, ‘going through the motions’ whilst our mind is elsewhere, rather than fully embodying each and every pose. The quality of our asana practice may be measured by the quality of our focussed attention and embodied awareness. This highlights for me the importance of doing yoga with an open, enquiring mind; starting afresh in each class. Asana practice is an enquiry into the body and an open mind facilitates the path to an open body. It is important to feel each and every movement and this includes the transitions between postures. Are we mindful in transition? Does this fidgeting & impatience to move into the next pose mirror our haste in everyday life? We all spend X many hours per week rushing from A to B, without being conscious or present in the process of getting from A to B; only ever paying attention when at A and having arrived at B – and often not even fully present at either A or B if we are honest. Are we missing out on whole portions of life in unconscious, unaware living? Are we so focused on the end point / destination, that we forget the journey? And this is particularly apt because yoga is exactly that, a journey, with no destination. There is no end goal. So there is no point in rushing – like a beginner, take it slowly, slowly.
However, when we have been doing yoga for a while it can be easy to forget this. As we see ourselves making ‘progress’ this can lead to striving, craving, pressure and an aggressive attitude towards our practice. We think to ourselves, I have been practising for so many months, and I can do X, now I ‘should’ be able to do Y pose, or I really want to be able to do Y pose. Thus we start competing with ourselves and we become goal orientated. Asana practice is not gymnastics. Many beginners are more mindful and concentrated than those who have been practising for a while because everything is new they have to give it their full and absolute attention. Once we lose the mindfulness we are no longer doing yoga, but just an interesting stretch or aerobics. Being able to do a certain pose, may give you a fleeting moment of satisfaction, a feeling of achievement and accomplishment but it won’t improve your life in any meaningful way, I am afraid to say. In day to day nitty-gritty living, being able to touch your toes will not improve your quality of life. I mean, really, so what if you can touch your toes? Who cares? It is the process, what we learn whilst practising (which one day may mean we can touch our toes), which enables us to derive benefits off the yoga mat in our daily life - benefits such as increased patience, and inner calm and strength when faced with difficult situations. If you are not seeing benefits off the mat then you are missing out on a huge part of the point of doing asana practice. By keeping an open, enquiring mind, and a humble attitude - what I call the beginner’s mind-set - we are less likely to fall into unhelpful habits on the mat and to actually ‘progress’ faster.