This article was published in IYUK magazine, Spring of 2015. I have shortened and adapted it to suit students at the Hills Yoga School.
Self practice is an indispensable component of our Sadhana. Receiving instructions from teachers and attending classes regularly builds the foundation, but self practice is where one can truly develop and incorporate yoga into one’s life. The progress of students is accelerated when they begin to practice on their own. However, for most students starting self practice presents a major difficulty; even though they recognise the importance of self practice, and attend classes regularly, only a minority succeeds in making it part of their daily routine. Some of the obstacles on the road to self practice were noted thousands of years ago by Patanjali in one of his famous yoga sutras (I.30), while other obstacles are more pertinent to our modern era.
Starting Self Practice at Home
Some of us tend to make dramatic resolutions about improving our lives. Often times, newcomers to yoga are eager to practice and decide they will devote an hour a day or even more for practice. The problem with these decisions, however, is that they are often not feasible in the context of their current lifestyle and obligations. The pressures of life make persistence in practice difficult to maintain. In such circumstances, people find it impossible to live up to their resolution, which in turn leads to frustration, and eventually may lead to dropping yoga from their life altogether. This is probably what Patanjali refers to as Anavasthitatva, the inability to persist in gradual progress.
Set realistic goals and build your practice gradually
Progress in yoga is not created by revolutions, but rather by a slow and gradual evolution. Practice even 15 minutes a day, the duration is not important, but the regularity! Set a time frame that you can repeat daily, without making dramatic changes in your life, and stick to it. If you missed the practice slot planned for the morning, make sure you make up for it in the evening. If you are not used to self practice, scheduling a full hour of it each day may be just too demanding for you. A shorter interval is much easier to allocate by simply reducing the time of watching TV, surfing the Internet and/or chatting on the phone.
Fix a place in your home for Yoga practice and keep your mat always open on the floor in that place, ready for practice
This will lower the barrier to starting your practice and will remind you to do it in case you fail to remember. Ideally, the place should have a window for natural light and air. It’s nice to have some area of exposed wall and sufficient room for storing your props, such as blankets, blocks, bolster, etc.
Hang a practice sequence on the wall
A common question for beginners to a self practice: “I want to practice at home but I don’t know what asanas to do. Can you give me a good sequence for self practice?” The best advice: Get a recommended list of asanas from your teacher and stick it on the wall in front of your mat!
Overcoming laziness is the hardest part to begin practising
Iyengar is known to say that the most difficult asana is unfolding the mat, and it’s true! Once you start though, practice usually flows smoothly and it is often difficult to stop that flow. Patanjali mentions two related obstacles: Styana, which Iyengar translates as lack of perseverance, lack of interest, sluggishness, mental laziness; and Alasya – idleness, physical laziness. Laziness may not be a very strong hindrance, but here are two strategies to tackle it: One is to imagine the joy at the end of the practice. Good yoga practice will always make you feel fresh, relaxed and content. Simply imagining the peaceful state of mind to be experienced in one hour or less is an excellent motivation to start it! The other method: “Okay, let’s give it 10 minutes and see how I feel!” Regardless of the mood in which you start the practice – you will often find yourself practising well past those initial 10 minutes, or at least wishing to have planned more time for it.
Prioritise Yoga according to its true value for your life
You may have many tasks or projects to complete today, but the time you invest in your practice has the potential of improving the quality of your entire day. After the practice your mind will be clearer, your intelligence sharper and your emotions more balanced. So the time you invest in the practice will more than pay off as you’ll be more effective in performing your tasks. You will become more relaxed and quiet and will waste less time and energy. You’ll make better decisions and prioritise your tasks better. In addition, the joy, peace and harmony that you’ll experience will shine outwards; you’ll be happier and this will improve your interactions with people and possibly transmit some of your joy and serenity on to them as well.
There is a well know Zen saying: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour…” And indeed, if you are so busy that you can’t devote 20 minutes a day for practice, maybe you should rethink the way you manage your life. Why are you so busy? Do you spare some time for yourself or devote all your time and energy to other people and projects? Maybe a yoga practice will give you more time to contemplate on these questions and to change your priorities. Often, even before getting out of bed in the morning, the mind is already busy making the daily ‘to do’ list. In very busy times you may hear an inner voice saying: “hey, maybe you should just skip practice for the day?” Learn to recognise this voice and label it – “Oh, this is my ‘do disease’ speaking”. Hear the voice but answer: “My dear ‘do disease’, although you are speaking to me, I can’t listen to you right now because I need to practice yoga – I’ll attend to all the tasks you mention when I finish; now I am busy doing something more important, please excuse yourself from my brain”.
Make Yoga a habit and practice it with discipline
Stick to your Yogic Sadhana. As long as you are committed to this path, be determined enough to stick with it. Don’t let daily impulses throw you out of balance. Allocating a fixed time and place for the practice is the first step towards making it a habit. However, a true discipline must be rooted in consciousness. Here is what Ralph Waldo Emerson said about habit and destiny: “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” Our thoughts, when controlled, can be very powerful.
Practice according to proven sequences
The task of remembering the asanas and deciding in which order to practice them is difficult for beginners. Predefined sequences, arranged by qualified teachers, structure the practice and guide us into gradual and safe progress. Hills Yoga school regularly distributes practice sheets. If you miss out on these just ask for some! You may want to follow the sequences given in Light on Yoga. These sequences are inspiring– but they may be too challenging for the average practitioner. They consist of asanas from all the basic groups, including standing, sitting, forward and backward extensions, inversions and lateral twists. One characteristic of these sequences is that all of them contain standing asanas and inverted asanas. In Yoga in Action Intermediate Course I, Geeta says: “The standing asanas are the base or foundation; therefore one has to start there, in order to strengthen the spine.”
In Woman’s Yoga Practice, Geeta Iyengar and Lois Steinberg write: “The benefits of Sirsasana and Sarvangasana cannot be over emphasised. Practitioners of inverted postures experience the effects daily. If circumstances shorten practice time, they know to do Salamba Sirsasana I and Salamba Sarvangasana I as their benefits would be missed.” Standing poses and inversions are so very important that they should be a part of your daily routine (except of course, when otherwise indicated, like during menstruation). Advanced practitioners who have gained practice maturity don’t need external sequences. But do practice asanas from all the major groups over the course of the week. This requires intimate knowledge of the asanas and their effects, so in the beginning (and this can last several years) it’s best to follow sequences given by teachers with great knowledge and experience.
Make sure your practice is interesting and enjoyable!
In Yoga in Action – Preliminary Course, Geeta Iyengar gives the following advice: “Do not burden your mind with the idea of doing too many asanas. Do not feel the pressure on the mind that it is a time consuming practice. Start the practice with the freedom of the mind” (Chapter X). Your practice should be interesting and enjoyable. Yes, in order to make progress you need to be focused and determined. But if you feel that your practice is a burden, stop and ask yourself honestly what the cause of that feeling may be.
In The Tree of Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “You are a beginner in yoga. I too am a beginner from where I left my practice yesterday. I don’t bring yesterday’s poses to today’s practice. I know yesterday’s poses, but when I practice today I become a beginner. I don’t want yesterday’s experience. I want to see what new understanding may come in addition to what I had felt up to now”. If your practice is shallow and mechanical, it will become boring; you will not feel engaged with it. Each session should bring with it a fresh sensation; some new learning, access to a new internal territory in which you have never visited. This way, the practice will never be boring and you won’t ever consider it a burden.
A good teacher encourages us to explore deeper layers in ourselves through careful instruction and insightful questioning; but how can we do it when we practice on our own at home? The key is to adopt an inquisitive, curious mind. For example, look for actions that repeat themselves in different poses, or explore how different poses affect your breathing, or try performing the same pose with different props. Props are a unique aspect of the Iyengar Method. Regardless of your physical limitations, props can be used to investigate and deepen your experience of the asanas. They enable you to explore the effect of the asanas, to spread your awareness to unexplored bodily regions. B.K.S. Iyengar says: “The student understands and learns asana faster on props as the brain remains passive. Through passive brain one learns to be alert in body and mind”. Props are guides to self-learning. Props are used to direct awareness to a bodily region, to help in moving tight muscles, to check the alignment of the body, to activate the legs and to hold for longer time with the use of a prop in a more challenging asana.
So, find a space, make some time and practice!