April 15, 2011

Beginning Again Can Be Even Better Than Actually Beginning.

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” – Nelson Mandela

I have a student who took an unplanned break from her yoga practice. She had no idea when she rolled up her mat that last time that it would be four months until she next unrolled it. She didn’t decide to step away from the practice that was touching her body, mind and spirit. The patterns and rhythms of her life simply shifted, creating a crack wide enough for her practice to slip through. While she felt the absence of her practice, it wasn’t until she returned to her mat that she fully realized the impact of months of not moving and breathing on her mat. “It’s pretty amazing how much I lost,” she said to me after her first class back.

Coming back to your mat after a hiatus can be, in many ways, more challenging than your first yoga class. While in your first class you expect to feel a little clumsy, to not know what is going on, to mix up your rights and lefts, to be (to quote another student) “so tired you think you’re going to die,” your expectations when returning to yoga are somewhat higher. Over and over, you confront things you used to be able to do. Again and again, you face the bare facts that you’re weaker and stiffer now than you once were. When returning to the practice, it is easy to be critical of yourself. It is tempting to compare each posture you take to the way you used to take it. The gauntlet of self-judgment can be intense.

When you are a beginner your work is simple. Show up. Try. Fail. Learn. Try Again. When you are returning to your mat, you face the same work. You have to learn (again) that showing up is sometimes the hardest part of class. You re-learn to try. You re-learn to fail. And to try again. But you have an additional, subtler task when returning to yoga. While a true beginner is typically working just with her body, you (an experienced, albeit rusty, practitioner) must now also work to control your thoughts, and as you do, your practice will deepen in astonishing ways. As you practice consciously stepping away from judging thoughts, as you practice deliberately accepting yourself as you are, as you practice gratitude for what you can do rather than wistfulness for what you can’t, you begin to practice yoga fully. Perhaps for the very first time.

I wonder if slipping off course is actually part of the process of developing a sustaining practice of any kind. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t slipped up despite the very best of intentions? Despite the fact that what you’ve decided to do is really good for you? Think about fitness plans and weight-loss attempts that have fallen by the wayside. Recall attempts to break destructive habits such as smoking or drinking too much soda. Remember times you tried to make life-style changes like getting up earlier or curtailing time spent in front of the television. Consider spiritual disciplines you started and stopped – daily inspirational reading, sitting in meditation, going to worship once a week.

When I flip through my own list of practices that have “stuck,” I find that they are often ones where I’ve slipped up and received “reverse affirmation” of the gifts the practices were providing. Like my student who commented on all she had lost by falling out of practice, noticing benefits I’ve lost can actually help me stay on track when I return. In other words, coming face to face with how much we change by not doing yoga (or eating right, or exercising, or going to church, or whatever!) can be a powerful, crystal-clear affirmation of the gifts we receive when we do practice.

Combine this affirming knowledge with the added depth and subtle nature that can come from returning to your mat and beginning to work with your thoughts, and you have the “glue” that could help the practice “stick” even more firmly this time around.

Which is all to say that beginning again can be even more rewarding than beginning. 

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Amy Nobles Dolan  |  Contribution: 9,100