Yoga Teaching: Beginner’s Mind

This entry was posted on Sep 18, 2020 by Charlotte Bell.

Yoga Teaching

One of the most frequent questions students ask in my classes is, “What should I be feeling in this position?” I always give a non-answer to this question. My non-answer to students is actually a question: “What are you feeling?” One of the great lessons of yoga teaching is that there is no way to actually answer that question for our students.

Here’s why. First, I’m not inside my students’ bodies. I can’t know what a student is feeling. Second, there are many, many variations on what a student could be feeling, depending on each individual’s unique structure. We are all put together differently, and we’ve all cultivated different habits in our bodies over the decades. No one’s asana practice will ever be exactly like another’s. For that matter, our own asana practice will not be the same from day to day. We’re not all cookie cutters. We need to learn how to observe each individual student anew, every time we look at them.

The More You Know, the Less You Know

The longer I’ve taught yoga—34 years now—the less definitive my answers to questions have become. When I first began yoga teaching, I had a rather impressive list of answers for many common questions. I knew and espoused the “rules” of alignment. What’s more, I believed these rules applied to everyone.

The problem is, human beings don’t conform to cookie-cutter genetics. In addition, we’ve all taken very different physical/mental/emotional paths to our current asana practice. No single set of alignment principles applies to everyone. It just doesn’t.

It took decades of observing people for me to come to this conclusion. Even my own body does not respond to asana practice the same as it did 10 years ago. This tells me that there will be more changes in store as the years flow by.

Maintaining Beginner’s Mind

One of my favorite quotes comes from Suzuki Roshi: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Teachers of any discipline—yoga asana, meditation, academics, music, athletics, etc.—would do well to remember this. Maintaining an open, inquisitive mind keeps your practice fresh. It allows you to keep learning. After 38 years of asana, meditation and pranayama practice, I feel much more humbled by how much there is to learn than I did back in the early days of teaching yoga. I count this as a positive.

If you’re new to yoga teaching, you don’t have to throw what you’ve learned about alignment out the window. But I strongly suggest questioning it—in your own practice and in observing and listening to your students’ feedback. There are a number of alignment rules I learned and taught back in the day that I’ve stopped teaching over the years. Not only do some of them not work for everyone, but a few of them don’t really work for anyone.

The path to maturity in yoga teaching is not so much through accumulating knowledge from many teachers, although learning new perspectives from other teachers can open doors for you. But an inquisitive, open mind is essential, whether you’re learning from another teacher or practicing on your own. We’re all beginners, and that’s a good thing.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

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