September 6, 2020

Oh Sh*t, I’m a Beginner: Lessons from my Ashtanga Yoga Mat.

*Warning: naughty language ahead!


Recently, I was talking with a friend who, with respect to his newest crazy outdoor mountain activity (we’ve got lots in Utah), declared that he was just “a beginner.”

He meant this in contrast to me and my Ashtanga yoga practice (standing up with one leg behind my head and so on). He meant it a little self-bashing-ly.

The thing is, I am a beginner

The truth is that with Ashtanga yoga, you are always a beginner.

The more you practice, the more you know—the more of a beginner you become.

I’m years into the Ashtanga rabbit hole (I kinda moved in) and into what’s called third, or “advanced” series—legs behind my head, bending over backward to grab my own knees (okay, I’m just showing off now)—but yes, a beginner.

I finally made it through the mountain of strength-demanding arm balances of the “advanced” series (and not gracefully or Laruga/Kino-ly, but pandemic passably. Or so I thought.) 

Then came eka pada bakasana.

If you have no idea what that pose is, don’t worry. Just imagine some weird feat of strength, balancing in the air like you’re weightless—like you’re an Olympic gymnast who dabbles in magic…and so on.

You get the gist.

By the gist, I mean, “Oh shit.” I’m gonna be here for a while. Oh shit, I look like a bumbling toddler trying to walk for the first time. Oh shit, I feel this task to lift my body up like this is impossible, as there is no pulley-lever system in my body to make this happen. Oh shit, I am missing magic, missing parts—please send me back for a refund.

I am sending myself back for a refund.

I don’t have a clue how to get into this pose. It makes me feel silly and weak and lacking; it makes me, frankly, not want to try. So frankly? I haven’t been trying. I’m just hiding under the pandemic blankie like, hey, we’re not doing this for real, right? Because if it is for real, I might be stuck trying for eons, a March to May quarantine feeling of 8,000 years. I’m out of my depth, so just kick me off Instayoga now.

Goddamn it. I’m a beginner.

The irony is that in the “advanced” series, I’m a newbie.

I am not alone. Everyone in Ashtanga is a beginner—somewhere.

I have been a beginner again and again, from headstand to handstand to TikTok, from garbha pindasana with hands through my folded lotus—to way beyond asana. I’ve been a beginner coming back to my mat after setbacks, after loss, and after injury. I’ve been a beginner to postures I’ve known forever (I’m talking about you, revolved triangle) that only seem to ask more of me now.

In Ashtanga, we learn poses as we’re ready for them, and we all get a little stuck somewhere along the line. We practice to meet the pose that has our number—that renders us, once again, a beginner.

It’s as David Garrigues says: “There is no graduation.”

The only thing I feel less of a newbie at is practice itself. I’ve learned how to practice, to commit and stay in that tunnel, to carve it out in my life and hold onto it in the face of it all. I’ve learned to keep at it, not knowing what will come.

In a way, we’re all beginners.

We’re in the midst of a pandemic and the ever-changing “new normal.” We’re new to this party we frankly did not want to attend, and new to masked faces, to uncertainty and tests shoved in our noses, to home offices with interrupting children, to job losses, to yoga studio closures, and to Zoom.

We’re all beginners.

So back to my friend, who reminded me how I’m a beginner. A reluctant beginner, an “I’m going to look dumb” beginner, and certainly not look-like-Kino beginner. But in the moment of that conversation, a wiser me said:

I like being a beginner. I do a little CrossFit and weight lifting now, and I like that I have no idea what I’m doing, so unlike with yoga, I have no expectation to be good or need to prove anything. I just give it a shot and enjoy it.

Time to take my own advice. Time to accept that I’m a beginner, to revel in it, to roll like a pig in it, like an I-just-got-outside-and-ripped-off-my-mask-inhale-it kind of beginner; to let go of being “advanced,” and own my nincompooperyish way through this pose and—enjoy it.

You’ve probably heard the Zen Buddhist saying:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki 

It’s time to see the possibilities—not just in a new pose, but in this new normal life. 



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