This week, the featured post is authored by Jim Herbert. Jim is a MenLiving facilitator, father, husband, yogi, mystic, storyteller, teacher and coach. You can learn more about Jim and The MindSmith Academy at JamesHenryHebert.com
Thirty years ago in the early days of my martial arts training, one of my sensei recommended the book Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Japanese monk Shunryu Suzuki. Three decades later I’m still decoding the lessons. The book is a collection of excerpts from talks that Suzuki gave on the basic techniques of Zen meditation and breathwork, but I find the true gold of the book’s teaching to be in the subtle philosophical nuggets which are woven into the pages.
It is clear to me now that one of those nuggets, and the main reason my teacher suggested that book, was because I needed to find a way to balance my fierce determination with my inherent need for perfection before I burned myself out. Like many young martial artists, my drive to be the best, at times blinded me from receiving the most important aspects of the teachings such as patience, humility, acceptance and being in the moment.
Through the years, I have generally found that when I start something new, I am frequently more interested in becoming proficient at said thing than I am at being willing to fall down, pick myself back up again and learn from my temporary failures. To complicate things further, my tendency to have a need for affirmation has often put me in a place of trying to demonstrate my proficiency at an early stage in the learning, which then in turn robs me of the gift of being able to approach things with a beginner’s mindset. It can be a vicious cycle.
A couple of years after I began my martial arts training, I found my way into my first ever yoga class. I was curious about yoga, but came into the class with a great sense of bravado in that I was a newly minted black belt in shotokan karate. I could kick as high as my head so in my mind I was already flexible enough.
After a half a dozen or so yoga classes at the local health club, the woman who taught the class invited me to come to a class with her teacher at an actual yoga studio. I figured if she was inviting me to a class with her guru after only a handful of classes that I must have some special yoga gift. I was certain that I would impress her guru and swiftly be on my way to enlightenment.
A few days later I walked into The Yoga Circle in downtown Chicago and met a man named Gabriel Halpern. Gabriel would go on to become one of my master teachers in this lifetime. On that first day we met, I walked into the lobby and announced that I was there at the recommendation of my friend Lynne who suggested I try Gabriel’s class. Gabriel looked up at me while shuffling some papers on the desk and announced, “You are aware that this is a multi-level class for intermediate and advanced students?”
I sheepishly replied and told Gabriel that I had taken some classes at the health club and that it was Lynne’s suggestion that I try this class in particular. Gabriel then looked straight at me and sharply asked, “Can you stand on your head for five minutes?” I lowered my head and told him that I could not. I didn’t even know why anyone would want to stand on their head at that point and the silence that followed my reply seemed like it lasted for an eternity: In reality it was probably only a few seconds. Gabriel glanced at me with a completely straight face and a twinkle of a smile in his eyes and said, “The changing rooms are down the hall to the left.” From that moment, my life would never be the same.
For the last three decades I have followed the path of yoga as a physical practice by doing asana (poses) and pranayama (breathwork). I have also continued to incorporate many of the esoteric aspects of yoga into my daily life. For example, concepts like ahimsa (non-violence), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal) and santosha (contentment) are just some of the many parts of my ongoing intentional practices. One of my many blessings on the path of yoga is that my body has been a willing participant: In other words my physical balance, strength and flexibility have given me the gift of being fairly proficient at doing poses.
All of that changed on January 30th, 2022 when I incurred a traumatic brain injury as a result of a skating accident at the Warren Woods outdoor ice rink near my home in Chicago. I have often read about near death experiences, but little did I know that my life story would include one before I ever finished writing the story. On that day on the ice, I was shown a potential exit door in the immediate moments after the accident as I lay unconscious and bleeding out of the back of my head waiting for an ambulance. My glimpse across to the other side of the veil is a larger story for a different piece of writing, but suffice it to say that I came back because I heard the message that I had unfinished business to attend to. Exactly what that unfinished business is has yet to be fully determined, but I am exceedingly grateful that I had the opportunity to come back and find out.
For the week after my accident, I could barely move. Any amount of sensory input was more than my tender, severely concussed brain could process, so I mostly sat in a dark room in silence. A week or two later I was able to get up and walk around, but not without a fair amount of vertigo related symptoms emerging relatively quickly. It wasn’t until a month and a half after my accident that I tried to throw a yoga mat down on the floor to do some poses. When I did finally try to do poses, I couldn’t even stand in a triangle pose for ten seconds without falling down on my mat. Each day I tried a little bit more at home until eventually I could do a handful of simple poses over a 10 minute period before I would be dizzy and exhausted.
At the time, I had not been in contact with my guru Gabriel for many years, but I felt a calling to reach out to him. We set up a lunch date at a French cafe in Oak Park near where he lived. On the morning of that lunch date, I thought that it might be a good idea to go to an actual in person yoga class. I hadn’t been to an in person yoga class since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic. It had been over two years so why not today before I meet up with my guru?
On the morning of March 24th, 2022, I walked into Bloom Yoga studio and took a beginner’s yoga class. The only thing I told my teacher was that I was recovering from a significant head trauma and that I might have to modify a good portion of the class to what felt right to me. I made no mention of any previous yoga experience or the fact that I had been teaching yoga for over 25 years.
Over the next six months I quietly attended beginner’s yoga classes at Bloom Yoga studio two or three times a week, gradually rebuilding my practice from the ground up. Little by little my stamina and my balance came back on line. After another month of practice, I could do standing poses without falling over. After a couple of months, I started to dabble with lying down on the floor for supine poses without feeling like I was going to throw up from getting dizzy. Eventually I was flirting with backbends and inversions again. The first day that I attempted sirsasana (head balance) was one of the scariest and most invigorating moments of my life all at the same time.
One day around Christmas later that year, I ran into one of my new yoga teachers at the health club that I work out at in Lincoln Square. She asked me how long I had been a member of the club, and without even thinking about it, I replied by saying that I had actually worked at the club for over twenty years. Surprised, she then asked, “Oh really, what do you teach?” I looked at her with a subtle smile and told her that I taught yoga. She asked me why I never told anyone at the studio and I told her that it was because I wanted to enjoy the opportunity to have the experience of being a beginning student with no strings and no expectations.
It can be hard to recognize the gifts that we receive from the challenges we go through as humans, but they are always there. One of the many gifts that I received that was wrapped in the package of my traumatic brain injury, was the gift of being able to revisit my yoga practice with a beginner’s mindset. That was something I never had a chance to experience the first time down the path as a novice yogi, when I was too busy trying to demonstrate how much I had already learned. My body may never be able to do the same things that it did when I was in my 20s, but I am definitely more mentally flexible than I was back then!
As I enter into my role as a facilitator in training in the MenLiving community, I’m challenging myself to try to come in with that same beginner’s mindset. I may have some experiences from other arenas of life that will help me along the way, but I’m also ripe for new lessons, new mentors and new teachers. I’m excited to be a regular contributor to this blog and this community. Most importantly though, I’m excited to be a student at the hands of the many teachers who I will meet along the way. I am looking forward to seeing you at a full house or an in person gathering in the near future. Until then, I will do my best to remain curious about the possibilities of life with a beginner’s mindset.