Cultivating a beginner’s mind in yoga can be challenging, especially for those who have been practicing for a long time. We may fall into the habit of thinking we know it all or have seen it all before. Wiping the slate clean and starting over—whether it’s a new year or a new chapter in your life—can bring up feelings of disappointment or failure. But hitting the reset button is also a way to practice shoshin, the Zen Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind: fresh, open and free from habit.
The concept of beginner’s mind
The concept of beginner’s mind asks us to approach each pose, each moment, and each experience on our mat with an open and curious mind, free from preconceived notions or expectations. The idea is that when we let go of attachment to what we think we know; we create space for growth and learning. This beginner’s mind attitude is about cultivating an attitude of openness, vulnerability, and humility in our practice, and in our approach to life off the mat. To achieve this mindset, we must be willing to let go of old ideas and judgments, and see things with fresh eyes. By embracing the concept of beginner’s mind, we can find joy in the process of learning and discovery, and approach our practice with a sense of wonder and appreciation.
Why beginner’s mind is essential to yoga practice
In the practice of yoga, having a beginner’s mind is essential to making progress and experiencing growth. Without a beginner’s mind, the practice of yoga may become monotonous and obstacles may arise. By maintaining a beginner’s mind, we keep ourselves receptive to new experiences, techniques, and perspectives, which can help us break through mental and physical barriers and deepen our yoga practice. It allows us to embrace the practice with humility and a willingness to learn and improve. When we practice yoga with a beginner’s mind, we approach each movement with curiosity, openness, and non-judgment. This allows us to explore the practice more fully, with a sense of wonder and awe.
Nine ways to cultivate a beginner’s mind
There are many different ways to cultivate a beginner’s mind, both on and off your yoga mat. Cultivating a mindset of openness to learning and growth can be a challenge, but it is possible with some practice, patience and experimentation. Here are 9 ways you can cultivate a beginner’s mind in your yoga practice:
- Go back to the breath
Mindful breathing is what elevates yoga above mere exercise. Breath is the link between mind and body, conscious and unconscious, personal and universal. Deep yogic breathing triggers the relaxation response, helping to prevent injuries, reduce stress and allow healing. And while the mind itself is a slippery thing, the breath gives us a tool for self-observation. Continually refining breath awareness will help you move past obstacles and experience more epiphanies (aha! moments).
- Listen to your body
Listening to your body involves paying attention to the physical sensations that arise during your practice and using them as a guide for how to move, adjust and engage in the asanas. By tuning into your body and simply noticing what it needs, you can begin to build a deeper level of awareness and connection with yourself. This not only helps you to practice yoga in a way that is safe and sustainable, but can also bring more insight and creativity into your asana practice.
- Moving from the center
The safest way to practice most asanas is by initiating, assessing, and adjusting from the spine (the body’s axis) to the extremities. When the spine is misaligned, an asana might feel awkward or lifeless—or even lead to injury. It’s essential to stretch and strengthen the muscles around the spine, and to modify poses (by bending the knees in Uttanasana, for example) as needed to keep the spine both long and strong. Doing this not only protects your back, but also frees physical movement and energetic flow.
- Don’t skip the easy poses
It’s important not to go into autopilot when practicing the easy or beginner level poses. When you maintain your focus and concentration in the easiest of poses, you will deepen your awareness, inner strength, and mindfulness. Exploring the small details in the basic positions cultivates greater awareness and understanding of your body, mind, and heart.
- Remember the details
Our myriad parts and systems are connected on gross (seen) and subtle (unseen) levels: muscle and bone, fascia and fluids, nerve signals and hormones. After you’ve established the breath and aligned your spine, lightly extend your awareness throughout the body. In a standing asana, the feet influence the entire pose. The sitting bones and pelvis are the foundation of seated poses. The shoulders are key to relieving neck tension, freeing the breath and energizing the heart center. The toes, the jaw, the tongue, the scalp and the skin around the eyes are just a few of the places where hardness or stress can hide. Expanding your awareness will reveal pockets of “amnesia” and reinvigorate each asana, like shining a flashlight into the darkest corners of your being.
- Let go of judgement, expectations and ego
These three mental states can create obstacles that prevent us from experiencing the true essence of yoga. By letting go of judgement, we avoid comparing ourselves to others, and we allow ourselves to accept and appreciate our current abilities. Letting go of expectations means releasing any preconceived notions of how a class should go or how we should feel after practicing. Instead, we approach each practice with an open mind and embrace the journey with curiosity. Finally, by letting go of ego, we remove the need to prove ourselves or please others. When we fully immerse ourselves in the practice without self-centered motives, we experience a new sense of freedom and fulfillment.
- Release attachment to outcomes
Often, we come to our practice with preconceptions or specific goals in mind—to achieve a certain pose or level of flexibility, for example. However, this attachment to outcomes can detract from the true purpose of our practice, which is to cultivate awareness and presence in the moment. By releasing attachment to specific outcomes, we allow ourselves to focus solely on the process of our practice and the sensations we experience in our body. This shift in perspective can bring a sense of freedom and joy to our practice, as we no longer feel burdened by the pressure to achieve certain goals. Instead, we can approach each practice session with curiosity and openness, allowing ourselves to be fully present in the moment.
- Stay curious and open to new possibilities
The practice of yoga is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. In order to cultivate a beginner’s mind in yoga, it is essential that you stay curious and open to new possibilities. It is easy to become complacent in your practice, doing the same routines day in and day out. However, by approaching your practice with an open mind, you allow yourself to explore new poses, techniques, and variations that can enhance your overall practice. This may mean trying a new yoga class, experimenting with a different style of yoga, or even simply approaching familiar poses with a fresh perspective.
- Be vulnerable and trust the process
It can take great strength and courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and trust the process. Take note of where you’re struggling and seek guidance from a qualified yoga teacher or experienced practitioner. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or adjust your approach to a pose. Remember, it’s not about achieving perfection but taking steps towards progress and growth. Reflect on the lessons you’ve learned from your mistakes and use them as motivation to continue to develop your practice.
These nine actions are so basic we might be reluctant—or even forget!—to review them again and again. But sometimes, in our enthusiasm for progressing to newer or more complicated practices, we get so far out in front of ourselves that we miss the full spectrum of possibilities. Perhaps your New Year’s momentum is faltering or your practice is starting to feel stale. Maybe you’re recovering from an injury or rolling out your mat after a long break. No matter what brings you back to the beginning, you can choose to step forward with a beginner’s mind, fully present and open to possibility.