Beginner's (Mind) Yoga

Written by Joslyn Hamilton.

I started practicing hatha yoga in 1997 and began teaching about three years later. All told, I taught yoga for almost ten years. For the greater part of a decade I made yoga my lifestyle. My friends were yogis. We'd have dinner parties and talk about nothing but yoga. I had the entire world mentally divided into two camps: YOGA and NOT-YOGA. The Western yoga culture consumed my life.

silent yoga

Alack and alas, my immersion in the yoga scene eventually reached a breaking point. The first crack came when I split with the so-called guru I worked for. I had traveled with him around the country and beyond for over two years, putting on yoga circuses known as Bootcamps and training thousands of teacher proteges. When I decided to leave Mister Guru's company and stop traveling, our break was amicable. But once I started to get some distance from what I'll hesitantly refer to as a cult, for lack of a better word, there was more and more tension. The further I removed myself from his clutches, the harder things became. We don't speak anymore.

I kept practicing for years after that, but with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Eventually I tired of participating in the nouveau Western yoga culture that I now saw through jade-colored glasses. As a result, my yoga practice has been in hibernation for a while now. Periodically, I take a public class to test the waters and see how I'm feeling about it all. Of course, I miss certain elements of my consistent yoga practice-the P&Q it used to give me... the feeling of having a tribe... being skinny and fit. (I'm not gonna lie; that was definitely a perk.) However, every time I dip my feet back in the yoga waters, I instantly am reminded of things I don't like about the yoga scene.

Recently, however, I went to a weeklong silent retreat at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California. Under the tutelage of Noah Levine, Vinny Ferraro, and Wes Nisker (the Buddhist dream team, as far as I'm concerned), I sat for hours every day in a quiet mindfulness practice and learned the basic tenets of vipassana to a depth I've never before reached.

During this retreat, we were given the option of taking afternoon yoga classes from a local teacher I had never heard of. In any other circumstance I probably would have skipped the yoga classes. I knew that they had a found a local teacher last-minute and I didn't have high expectations for that teacher's experience level or even that she would teach a style of yoga that I liked (there's that attachment showing it's ugly head). But, I decided to go to the classes anyway, for a few reasons:

  1. It was something to break up the monotony of long days spent in relentless meditation.
  2. My body was starting to really hurt from sitting.
  3. I knew there would be zero personal attention, since in a silent retreat people don't touch you, look at you, or address you in any way.
  4. No one there knew me or that I had ever been a yogi or a teacher, so I could feel free to be really, really bad and really, really lazy.

The classes met my low expectation. They weren't very good. If I had stumbled upon this class in the outside world I would have been annoyed and may even have left early, breaking my golden rule about respecting a teacher's space. However, held captive in the retreat environment, I stayed. I stayed and practiced with a beginner's mind. And, more importantly, a beginner's body.

After a decade of being limber, strong, and good at yoga asana, I am not any of these things anymore. I'm tight, weak, lazy, uncoordinated, and weigh more than I ever have in my life. The practice feels more challenging than it ever has. In this ultra-easy class, where the most tricky pose we ever took was cat-cow, I found that I couldn't even clasp my hands behind my back the way I have always been able to with ease.

I remember the first few classes I ever took, at the YMCA in Washington, DC, with a man named Avatar who had been teaching Sivananda yoga since the 70s. I remember how goofy I felt, and how humbling the poses were, and also how innately right it felt in my body to be moving that way. I also remember the spark of spiritual imagination that yoga inspired in me.

Suddenly, I was a beginner again.

I thought of the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki, which I had read in the early days of my yoga explorations. I thought, how blessed am I to be experiencing this beginner yogi thing all over again!

Long gone are the days when I would aspire to ever bigger and better poses. No more yoga modeling for me. Now, my goal (or lack thereof) is to always be a beginner yogi with a fresh appreciation for the humble experience of being bad at something.


After ten years in the yoga industry as a teacher, studio manager, and minion for alleged gurus, Joslyn Hamilton launched a freelance writing business. Outside Eye Consulting's mission is to help each client clarify their message and get their word out to the world.

Joslyn emotes weekly on her own blog: An Outside Eye (On Practicing Ferocious Self Care) and is a regular contributor to Elephant Journal. Joslyn is based in Marin County, California and she welcomes personal emails at joslyn@outsideeyeconsulting.com.

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