The Practice of Practicing
I began my yoga practice in New York City during the winter of 2008. One of the first people I met after moving into the city, was an intriguing man who had just come out of a zen monastery and had an avid passion for zen, aikido, yoga… and practically all disciplines that had a root within Buddhist spirituality. At the time, I was working for a grassroots organization and my young back had started hurting from spending hours in the freezing New England snow fundraising for the Human Rights Campaign. After listening to my complaints, my friend offered to teach me yoga. My initial reaction was: Thanks…. but no thanks.
Being part Japanese myself, I had always been intrigued by Buddhism, yet had never really invested myself in any practice. My godfather was a Chinese Buddhist, and growing I would sometimes help him with his home shrine and we’d chant sutras together in the evenings. Nothing that could remotely be considered regular practice. Occasionally I would lament this, while having conversations with friends who raved about the physical and psychological benefits of awareness practice, or peeking through the window of some posh yoga class in Brooklyn. After a few repeat offers of free yoga, I conceded.
Towards the end of the winter, I started practicing yoga a few mornings a week and… it was awful. My arms refused to hold the Virabhadrasana making me feel part human doughnut and part chicken, but definitely nothing like a warrior. I found my mind frustrated and angry throughout my practice, “Wasn’t yoga supposed to be relaxing and fun?”, my brain would think while I held particularly painful asanas. I sweated and cursed silently, internally wondering why anyone would subject themselves to this torture. By this point, it should be pointed out, the friend had become a boyfriend and so I stuck with the practice, but not without secretly worrying about how little I enjoyed it. After a year of doing yoga a few times a week, I stopped. I put up a whole lot of excuses for ceasing my practice: I had moved to another state, I was working full time and also going to school full time. Where would I find the time?
My second semester at school I decided to enroll in a yoga class. The instructor was a wonderful gentleman from India who held a PhD in philosophy of yoga and had studied various yogic traditions his entire life. Despite entering with mild reservation and skepticism into the studio, after my first three hour Saturday morning class: fireworks, at last.
The type of yoga the professor taught was Hatha, with a deep emphasis on breath and movement connection. Professor Subhas was a kind instructor with a fiercely intelligent mind and an immense capacity for compassion. The first time we shook hands, he looked me dead in the eyes and proclaimed that I was “Pitta”, an ayurvedic word for “Fire”. He made sure to incorporate cooling breaths, also known as “Sheetali” into my practice and emphasized the need to listen to your body. “Yoga shouldn’t hurt.”, was one of the first things he ever said to us in class. By this he didn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge ourselves, in fact his class was extremely rigorous physically and academically. However, unlike the previous times I practiced, it was easy to smile and my thoughts were calm even during the most strenuous asanas! Walking out of the class after the first month I noticed the difference: my back felt light and flexible, my lungs felt larger and my ability to hold the asanas had tripled. I was finally in love.
Years have passed since I took that class, and I practice yoga often and lovingly just about everywhere. I couldn’t imagine my life without it. Sometimes, I wonder about what would have happened if I had just given up during that first week because I didn’t feel those fireworks. The thought saddens me deeply and it’s a motivating thought any time I try something new.
Whether it’s yoga, pottery or learning a new language, “practicing” the activity is about 90%, the other 10% is practicing compassion. Not just to the body, but to the mind as you work through the beginner’s kinks. That is why the practice of practicing is the most important to cultivate. This was best described by the Japanese Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki as cultivating a “Beginner’s Mind”. This is especially important in situations when you feel challenged because…. who knows? You might even fall in love with something wonderful.
Author Bio – Nori T Bracken is an avid yoga practitioner, food lover, world traveler, preschool teacher and chemistry geek.