As we see and feel the changes that take place in our body/mind from coming to yoga class each week, there's often a gradual stirring to begin to practice on our own. Our yoga evolves beyond a class we look forward to once or twice a week, and into a regular home practice in which the benefits of our yoga only multiply. It's actually in a home practice that we discover the nuances of the Principles of Alignment, and begin to feel what we need more or less of. Both I and my fellow teachers are very often asked: how might I go about developing a well-rounded practice that fits into my already busy life? Here are a few suggestions, both for yogis who aspire to a home practice, and for yogis who would like to develop the home practice they already have.
Start out by realistically looking at your schedule and inclinations to decide how and when to make time for your home practice. Would it be easier to get up a half an hour earlier before work to practice? Or perhaps to postpone dinner for an hour after coming home? Take your own nature into consideration. Some of us are morning folks and would thrive with a sunrise practice; some of us don't quite get our energy moving till the second cup of coffee and would do better to practice in the early evening. Think about your natural inclinations first; then ask yourself how much time you can realistically devote to your practice.
Begin with a shorter, more focused practice, rather than trying to do too much, too soon. Twenty minutes five or six days a week is better than two hours every two weeks! Consistency counts: by establishing a regular practice with a realistic time limit, you'll make yoga a part of your everyday life. Humans are ruled by habits-allow your habits to work for you.
Make it a point to come to your mat at the same time every day, so that you create a healthy habit where being disciplined about your yoga is not something you have to do, but something you want to do. I love the saying, "Discipline is remembering what we want." Discipline comes from the Greek word disciple; in this case, it's to be a disciple of one's own heart or inner guide. Discipline fosters commitment and commitment fosters discipline.
Minimize distractions. Let family and friends know you are unavailable while you practice. Put a sign on the door. Take the phone off the hook.
Cultivate a non-judgmental attitude, allowing your expectations about the practice to drop away. I often find that if I resist practice because I wake up grumpy or stiff, or feel I have too much to do, if I simply go and sit on my mat and consciously tune in to just being a loving presence for myself, the resistance often melts. From there, the power of the practice begins to take over, and my attitude or mood shifts. On those few particularly resistant days, after sitting for a few moments, I allow my body to just start a very simple movement or stretch, and let it flow into another and another and another. Before I know it, I'm practicing and feeling so much better! And one thing that I always find, without fail, is that no matter what happens on the mat, I feel better after I practice.
Once you've made time and energetic space for practicing, you might ask "Where do I start, and how do I know what postures to do each day?" Students often tell me that they don't remember what they've done in class that week, or that they don't know what to practice at home. In the beginning, it can be helpful to use a good yoga book, a CD or DVD, or a practice sheet. As you get more familiar with the poses, you can develop your practice in other ways:
Begin by simply checking in with your body/mind before starting, and ask what kind of practice you're really wanting. To get lethargic energy moving, start with a few sun salutations or a short series of standing poses. When winding down from a busy and stressful day at work, begin with a basic restorative pose, such as laying over a blanket to open your chest or resting your legs up the wall. One slight word of caution here: when we check in to see how we feel, our minds sometimes sabotage our bodies by talking us out of what deep down, our bodies and hearts truly yearn for, so it's important to discern who's really doing the talking here!
Take the time to create a special or sacred space. Consider setting aside a room or a corner free of clutter, lighting a candle or creating a personal altar with objects that evoke a sense of calm or reverence and remind you of your higher purpose. Beginning with a prayer or an intention for your practice, or chanting the sound of Om or the Invocation, or creating your own opening ritual all help to support an attitude of loving kindness toward your body. Practicing with your favorite music is lovely, too-I love to practice with Krishna Das and find his music helps my energy really get flowing.
As you're just beginning a home practice, it's nice to include a variety of poses, without getting overwhelmed. Choose one or two poses each for strength, for flexibility, and for balance, as well as an inversion and a restorative pose or savasana. By varying these poses weekly, you will develop a well-rounded practice. Be sure to include one pose each day that you normally resist. Remember, what we resist persists!
Try using your practice to delve deeper into a particular category of poses. You might focus on seated postures one day, with the emphasis on opening the hips, or stretching the backs of the legs by doing a variety of forward bends. Another day, try working on simple backbending movements, slowly progressing to a backbend appropriate and challenging for your level. Perhaps try restorative postures at the end of each week, or focus on strengthening poses for the upper body one day a week.
Seek out new teachings to stay energized and excited about your yoga, and to get new ideas for your home practice. Yoga Journal and Yoga+ are two great magazines with informative articles and practice suggestions. In addition, I highly suggest doing one workshop a session so that you can bring more understanding to your yoga. We have some of the best teachers in the country right under our nose, as well as incredible guest teachers: John Friend, Rod Stryker, Betsey Downing, Amy Ippoliti, Sianna Sherman, and Martin Kirk, just to name a few! Studying with these master teachers is a gift to our bodies and our hearts, and will do wonders for your home practice.
Finally, please remember that because Life Happens, we essentially are offered the opportunity to practice Yoga all the time. In this way, a home practice may not always look like Tree Pose or Downward Facing Dog, but instead is about observing the consciousness, psychology and attitude of Yoga, or Union. If a parent ignores their children's cries to do their asana practice, they are not doing Yoga. In that moment, their Yoga is their children's needs. Yoga comes in all forms and the yoga of relationship is often the hardest of all.
Both the "informal" practice of yoga in our lives as well as a more formal, structured home practice are important. I find that having a formal asana and meditation practice allows me the space and calm I need to relate more skillfully with the people and situations in my life. As our physical bodies enjoy more opportunities to open cultivate health and vitality, our mental and emotional bodies can't help but come along and enjoy the ride. In this way, we create closer connections with ourselves, our world, and Spirit. And that union of mind, body and spirit is, after all, Yoga.
In joyful practice, Suzie