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beginners mindMy husband studied a Japanese martial art called aikido for years. While it might seem strange that a practice like yoga, which has non-violence at its very core, would have anything in common with a martial art, my husband and I were surprised to find many intersections. One of these is Shoshin.

Shoshin actually originated in Zen Buddhism and means “beginner’s mind.” It is a state of mind taught to students of both aikido and yoga. Beginner’s mind describes an attitude of openness, an eagerness and a lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. While Shoshin always creates an exciting and transformative energy, it is especially powerful when studying at an advanced level. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also hardest to achieve when you are very experienced and adept at something.

Take a moment to think of something you’ve gotten pretty good at. It doesn’t have to be anything exotic. It could be something as simple as driving a car. Think about how you drive. Are you really paying attention to each of your actions – turning on the turn signals, braking or accelerating? Or does your mind wander while you drive? There’s a reason so many of us are able to maintain a conversation while we drive or to sing every lyric to every song on the radio. Even though we may be driving safely, we’re not fully focused on the act of driving. It is so familiar to us that we can slip into “autopilot” and allow our minds to amuse themselves in other ways.

But being on “autopilot” is not actually a great way to do anything. I, for one, have been known to end up at the kids’ school rather than CVS or the library when I’m on autopilot. I’ve also run over my back step as I zipped out of the driveway for the 700th time in a day. When I’m on autopilot, or simply assuming that I’ve got it all figured out, I make more mistakes. Worse yet, I miss opportunities to change things up, to try something different and to fully experience (and enjoy) what I’m doing.

Practicing yoga is another area of my life where it is easy to slip into autopilot. After all these years, there are relatively few postures I haven’t tried before. Because I practice Ashtanga yoga, for the most part, I am moving through a prescribed series, which means I’m doing the same set of postures every day. Interestingly, it is the repetitiveness of Ashtanga yoga that creates the perfect environment to practice beginner’s mind or Shoshin. Were I to allow myself to settle into autopilot each day during my practice, I would be bored to tears. My mind would wander endlessly, precisely the opposite of yoga’s intention. In order for my practice to be fulfilling, I must be as engaged mentally as I am physically. The way to do this, I have learned, is to deliberately choose beginner’s mind.

When I make this choice, my eyes are suddenly clear so that I can see the possibilities in any situation – whether I’m in a posture I know well or one I’m still figuring out. By choosing Shosin, I re-create the willingness to explore and to understand that was very natural to me in the early years of my practice. Opting to be in beginner’s mind frees me from the shackles of assumptions and preconceptions so that I feel again the enthusiasm and excitement that I felt when I was brand new to yoga and falling madly in love with the practice.

Beginner’s mind is a choice. It’s important to note that it’s not always the easiest choice to make. There are definitely days when I drift through my entire practice on autopilot. But these are also the days when, as I roll up my mat, I’m simply glad to be done. These are not days when I’ve learned or stretched past my comfort zone or developed a better understanding of anything or grown in any way. Those are all gifts reserved for days when I manage to maintain beginner’s mind for at least part of my practice.

Beginner’s mind is not reserved for yoga any more than Shoshin is reserved for aikido. Your yoga mat is a great place to practice, but remember practice is designed to support you off your mat. The work you do on your yoga mat is meant to help you live more like the person you hope to be. With that in mind, as we head out into this brand new year, I can’t think of a better resolution than to spend as much time as possible in the powerfully open state of mind of Shoshin that has, with practice, become a little easier for me to maintain while I move and breathe on my yoga mat.

There is no need to get fancy. Start small. Just call up an old friend. Choosing beginner’s mind will help you see this dear person with clear eyes. You might even feel again the thrill you felt when you first met – that sense that this was someone you wanted to know really, really well. By setting aside your assumptions and presumptions, you just might hear what they’re saying from an entirely new and surprising perspective. Given the love you already feel for this person, this could just be the best conversation you have all day. It turns out that starting small doesn’t mean the gifts are small.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start today!
Happy New Year!