Shoshin is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. The term is often used in the study of Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts but has been adopted by yogis as well.
The phrase is also discussed in the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen teacher. Suzuki outlines the framework behind shoshin, noting “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
On Monday, I found myself chewing on this idea of beginner’s mind as I walked towards my first yoga class in Gijon. It was a gorgeous 70 degree day allowing me to wear sandals for the first time in a year. I carried my recently purchased outdoor yoga mat with a carrying strap on one shoulder and a bag stuffed with my blanket, slightly-chewed-by-the-dog cork block and yoga strap on the other.
As I approached the pier, I noticed a woman my age with a yoga mat sticking out of a bright orange mat bag slung over her shoulder. Her hair almost matched her bag which made her look very hip. I thought maybe I could catch up with her and introduce myself before I got to class. It would feel less intimidating to walk into the class with another student. When I got close to her though, I realized she was on the phone so I kept going.
The class is held in a somewhat sheltered area of the pier away from the biggest crashing waves and most dog walkers. I walked through a cement archway and immediately felt awkward. There were two young couples on the other side of the wall making out within feet of each other on a stone bench. My presence did not seem to bother them though, as they continued to explore each other with abandon.
Attempting to ignore the show, I moved to another stone bench, this one in front of a wall of colorful graffiti, a perfect backdrop for an urban yoga class. I sat there to wait for the class and was grateful when the woman on the phone rounded the corner. She walked right in front of the groping teens and rolled out her yoga mat as though either she didn’t notice them or more likely, she was used to them being there. I laughed thinking that we often equate yoga with love and the kids were in fact, showing each other plenty of that, just expressing it much differently than we do on the yoga mat.
As I stood to get my things out, a very athletic looking guy with yoga attire arrived on a bike. He leaned his bike against the stone bench where I was sitting and rolled out his mat next to the orange mat bag woman. I decided to park myself next to him because he looked like he knew what he was doing. I thought back to my early days of yoga when I would try to figure out who to watch in class because my first yoga teacher, Renee Taylor, did not demonstrate poses. She was in her nineties and although she still practiced yoga on her own, she had been taught not to demonstrate but rather to just call out the cues. In those days, I inevitably found myself following the wrong person and would realize too late that everyone else was doing something else. I pushed that thought aside though and settled on to my mat next to athletic guy.
A few minutes later, Eva the yoga teacher, arrived on her bicycle, pulling up right next to the athletic guy’s bike. She arrived like the sunshine does when it peeks out from around a cloud, all lightness and energy. We were outside but it felt as though our corner of the pier was suddenly brighter. Both orange mat bag lady and athletic guy smiled and shouted their welcome to her. Other students started to arrive as well, greeting each other and quickly finding their places and the class grew from 3 to 9 participants. I smiled when I saw Eva straighten a mat that seemed out of line with the rest. Those of you who have practiced with me know that I love a straight line and really resonated with her need for order. I can hear you laughing now!
After she spent some time visiting with her students, Eva noticed me and her face lit up with recognition. She remembered I had stopped her last week as she was leaving her class to ask her if I could join sometime. She welcomed me to class warmly and asked me if I had ever done yoga. I told her I had but did not elaborate. I was looking forward to practicing anonymously without being seen as a yoga teacher. As much as possible, I hoped to practice as a beginner, watching, listening and following Eva rather than relying on my experience as a yogi. I wanted to make room for more possibilities. I wanted to stay in beginner’s mind.
Eva started the class with a seated meditation focusing on the breath. She lit incense even though we were outside and instead of the intoxicating scent blowing away with the wind, it seemed to know it was supposed to encircle us. I tried to focus on what she was saying about the breath but my mind wandered, noticing the sound of the water lapping against the pier, the feel of the breeze on my arms, and the sounds of young kids playing somewhere near by. The smorgasbord of sounds like the water, distant dogs barking and conversations floating by reminded me of our many beach yoga classes at Browns Point Lighthouse Beach Park in Tacoma, WA. Each time I noticed I had lost Eva’s melodic words and my focus, I nudged myself back to the breath.
From meditation we moved into seated twists and side bends and then onto our knees for cat cow. Her practice felt fresh but familiar; both exciting and comforting at the same time. I couldn’t understand everything she said but I could follow what her body was showing me. When I couldn’t see her, I glanced at athletic guy if I wasn’t sure what the cues meant. Luckily, I picked the right person to follow this time because he was always in sync with Eva. Like every other class I have ever attended, half of the participants did not know their right from their left so it didn’t matter if I got that wrong.
When we came to standing to do Surya Namaskar, the salute to the sun, I marveled again at the fact that I was practicing yoga on the pier at Puerto Deportivo wearing a T-shirt and capris yoga pants on a beautiful day in March. As we started to flow in the salute, I realized Eva had started using Sanskrit! She was speaking Sanskrit with a Spanish accent but she was now even easier to understand! For some reason, I had not expected to find a yoga teacher who used the universal yoga language of Sanskrit here in Gijon.
When we turned to face the Bench of Love in order to practice Warrior II on the second side, I noticed that one of the smooching couples had left but one couple remined in a tight embrace, seemingly oblivious to us. An older slightly stooped man and a gray haired woman with a cane had taken the seat that the young couple had occupied earlier. They seemed comfortable sitting close to the youngsters. Maybe they came to watch the yoga class or maybe they were just enjoying the feel of the sun on their faces. I felt like I was witness to a time line of sorts. Perhaps the old couple had once enjoyed making out in the same spot and now visited the stone bench to remember those more amorous days.
Eva’s class was a mixed level practice but she gave lots of modifications to support her diverse group of students. I always tried to meet my student’s needs with modifications and adapt my classes to suit those who showed up on any given day. Eva definitely took the same approach. She was filled with joy and her frequent bursts of laughter put us all at ease. I could feel her love for her students and her delight in teaching yoga.
We finished with Nadi Shodana, left nostril breath, and savasana accompanied not only by the rhythmic sound of the waves but some well-chosen yoga music that Eva played on a small outdoor speaker. Tears gathered in the sides of my eyes and ran down my cheeks during our final relaxation. I had the same feeling of total contentment and coming home that I did when I took my first beginner yoga class with Renee, 33 years ago. Home is where my mat is and right now that is Gijon.