Over the past couple of weeks I’ve started inviting some of my private students to begin (if they’ve been hesitant thus far) to create a small practice of their own. Does just that sentence overwhelm? It did me for a long time. So like many things that seem overwhelming, I’m inviting them to start small.
An easy way in is to think about the one posture or aspect of a class or private session that you look forward to. If you’re attending yoga classes once or twice a week and you’ve been thinking “I really should practice at least one other day during the week”, what would a session on your own look like? Can you imagine it in your mind’s eye? Maybe it’s the thought of an hour on your own that brings up resistance. But your practice doesn’t have to conform to what you do in class or in a private session with your instructor. If you want to deepen your practice and understanding of yoga, start with what you like best. One thing, practice it often and consistently, then start adding to that.
That one thing can be as simple as practicing savasana (corpse pose). Seriously. Your own practice is just that, yours. And it shouldn’t be a list of “shoulds.” If what you love most comes after the work, when you get to lie down and let body and mind simply soak in the benefits of the more challenging parts of your practice, that’s a perfect place to start. Most of us are practicing yoga to learn how to accommodate stress more effectively and with compassion for ourselves. Giving yourself a small gift of time to slow down, practice your personal form of mindfulness or breath awareness, or whatever practicing savasana is for you is a natural outcome of your work. You want the benefits of your practice whenever you need them, not just when you go to class or when your instructor comes to work with you.
Maybe your favorite thing is more playful. Think of how many “a-ha!” moments you’ve had in your practice. You reach a milestone. You stand firm and stable and with ease in a standing balance, holding without falling for the first time. Or you balance on your hands, or come up into a full backbend. The feeling of playfulness, exhilaration or sheer accomplishment is a feeling of pleasure, right? So give yourself that gift. Remember though, that while some poses are rather simple to practice without a lot of preparation (tree pose: any time, any place), more advanced or challenging postures (arm balances and back bends, deeper hip openers) do require some advance preparation. So allow a bit more time. If you have 20 minutes, you have time to warm up and open requisite areas of the body, practice your chosen pose and then rest for five minutes in savasana. There. You just practiced your yoga.
A yoga class or a private session often emphasizes the “body” a great deal in what is a mind-body discipline. In my private work, I’m customizing an asana practice for my students that meets their interests and therapeutic needs, establishing their unique range of movement and subtly working to extend that range for their bodies’ strength and flexibility requirements. When you practice for an hour or longer in a class or private setting, you’re working through an arc of postures: starting slowly to open and build heat, moving up into more intensity and “edge pushing,” and then coming down the arc into deeper supported stretches and poses that help to release any tension built up along the way. This is a simple guideline you can use to help build your own more fully elaborated sessions, even if you’re only working within say, a 30-minute timeframe.
What if your curiosity leads you to exploring the deeper, more mind-related aspects of your practice? Have you ever wondered for example, how or whether your practice relates to your own personal spirituality or formal religious orientation? Your practice doesn’t always have to be about asana, about the body. Again, as a mind-body discipline, the foundations of yoga are philosophical, and are about understanding the mind. It is in essence, to me anyway, a psychological enterprise; a way of understanding myself through this living connection I have to my body, and to that which binds my mind and body, my breath. So if you’re into further self-study (or svadhiyaya, one of the eight limbs of the ashtanga yoga system, of which asana in but one), there is a wealth of knowledge out there for you to dig into. Ask me for a reading list (and see below for a few suggestions).
Practical Matters. Time is one, space is another. Do you have space in your home or your office where you can take a break and set up for a short practice? If you don’t have space for a mat, do you have a comfortable but supportive chair where you can just sit, close your eyes, and breathe for ten minutes? Again, your practice doesn’t have to be complicated, or even involve much asana. Think of the care we take to achieve a comfortable seated asana, easy pose or hero’s pose. Bringing single-minded attention to your body, to your posture while you observe your breath is yoga. If you’re thinking about long days sitting at a desk, remember the modifications of poses that are easily done sitting in your desk chair, like pigeon pose, neck and shoulder rolls and releases and seated twists. If you contain these movements in a conscious intention to slow down, to restore balance and ease with love and compassion for yourself, if you do these things mindfully in other words, you’re practicing your yoga.
Here are some resources you might explore to help you get started:
- Home in your body: 28 days of yoga to bring you home to your body and to a life that is yours. – Jay Fields’ daily guide to creating a meaningful daily practice has helped me immensely. It was – after many years of practice – the first thing that really worked because it allowed me to expand the boundaries of my practice beyond the mat, beyond posture while staying committed to connecting to my body every day. I was delighted to discover I was already doing some of the practices Jay presents here. You may find some of these yourself (spoiler: walking).
- Yoga at work. Several articles on the Yoga Journal website are crafted specifically to do in your desk chair or in your office. These short practices can be targeted to neck and shoulders, or can get you up and moving, restoring circulation to the legs and hips after hours of sitting. Bookmark one or two and keep them visible on your computer.
- Digging deeper. The history and philosophy of yoga span thousands of years. If you’d like to begin exploring the deeper aspects of your practice, I would recommend scanning the works of Georg Feuerstein, one of the foremost Western scholars of yoga. Yoga 101 is a good web resource that will help orient you to the various styles and branches of yoga. And Richard Rosen, another luminary in the world of yoga history, practice and tradition, has written a short piece here that introduces us to the idea of “the witnessing mind” as described by the sage Patanjali.
- Finally, how to carve out a little space at home or at work for yoga. It doesn’t take much and again, is all about intention and allowing for a “container” of dedicated attention and self-care.
What do you love and look forward to in your practice? Give yourself some time to think about a specific posture or state of mind and then with the same love and interest, allow yourself to explore. Get back on your mat, or curl up with a book about yoga, or get outside and rediscover the connection between yourself and the natural world. Then extend some gratitude to yourself for finding a little more space in your life for your practice.