How to create a home practice

For me, the point of practicing yoga is to get to know and appreciate yourself better and to facilitate your ability to connect and celebrate life. Going to a public class is a great experience particularly for the connecting and celebration but but spending time on your own, exploring your own practice is where some of the juiciest experiences of yoga can happen. Yoga class is great for gathering information about the practices and poses, for connecting with like minded people and for consulting with a teacher about questions you might have so that you can build confidence in creating your own practice.

Ideally, yoga is a practice that meets you where you are, no matter what. When you practice on your own at home, you get a chance to tune into exactly what your body, mind and spirit need at that particular moment. It helps you to cultivate the aspect of the yoga practice where you get to know yourself better.

Yes, practicing on your own can be daunting, particularly at the beginning but the obstacles are the path. Facing and dealing with the obstacles are part of maturing into yourself. Figuring out how to deal with all of those obstacles is part of the yoga. Getting really honest with yourself about what you are and are not willing to do to make it happen for yourself will help you prioritise in the most appropriate manner for you.

I think there are two main things you need to consider to do a practice at home:

1. What do you really need from your practice on a given day?

Ideally, practice is an expression of what is alive in you on that day and what needs to be balanced or taken care of. Home practice isn’t necessarily about doing all the fancy poses or “staying in shape”. It’s about increasing your self-awareness – noticing your patterns of attraction and aversion, your reaction to challenges and easefulness, to constancy and change. As you learn more about yourself, you can learn to use your home practice to  enhance your overall wellbeing so that you can address all of the other things in your life the way they need to be addressed. Using your yoga practice to serve your life, not the other way around.

The practice has to be satisfying at a deeper level than ego or intellect or you won’t want to stay with it. The key to getting that satisfaction comes from cultivating a deep level of listening to yourself. The only way to do that is to spend regular time with yourself. Yoga is not the only way to develop this relationship but for some of us, the physical aspect helps us to access parts of ourselves that are otherwise difficult to access.

2. How to decide what to do, sequence wise.

There are many theories about how to go about this. While I will give you a light framework for deciding your sequence, I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore and experiment to find the alchemy that works for you.

Before you start:

Decide on a regular place to practice. You may be able to dedicate a whole room for your practice space but it isn’t necessary. In fact, when I first started practicing in my “own yoga room”, I felt almost like I was being punished. Being in this austere room meant to be kept only for yoga and meditation felt really awful to me. More often than not, I would pull my mat out into my favorite sun spot in the lounge or outside on the patio.

If you don’t have a fully dedicated space, it’s a good idea to have a very short set up ritual, which helps you to transition into your practice mode. It could be as simple as being very quiet and mindful as you clear the space for your practice, gather your props, journal, tea and roll out your mat.

Quite often, we can look at the set up as a hassle, an obstacle to practice but you can actually make it part of the practice itself, by choosing your attitude. You might like to bring meaningful objects into your practice space, like sacred symbols or beautiful flowers. Lighting  a candle can be nice as well, kind of like the OM at the beginning of a class.

Decide how much time you have to practice. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5 minutes or 5 hours. Deciding a minimum will help you honor your commitment to yourself. You might even like to set a timer that will go off a few minutes before the time is up so you have time for savasana or meditation.

To start your practice:

It’s super important to make a couple of minutes to check in. You might like to sit up, lie down or even stand up to check in. Do a body scan, noticing what feels good, what doesn’t. Observe what’s on your mind. Notice your breath. You may like to write down your observances in a journal. Those observances are going to help you to know what to do in your practice.

Once you’ve checked in, you may like to deepen your breath in your “check in” posture or you might like to go to child’s pose or down dog. Ujjayi is a great breath for focusing your mind and for smoothing, heating the breath. From there, you can begin to build your sequence, either by simply starting with some general warm-ups to see where your body takes you or by planning which kinds of postures you want to work towards. If you have a specific set of peak poses in mind, it pays to plan accordingly.

Suggested sequence of poses:

Warm – ups

Most of the time, a general warm up will be suitable for any kind of practice you’re about to do. It can also be helpful for determining what kind of practice is appropriate. There are a couple of ways to tackle home practice – either targeting a specific thing or kind of practice no matter what or a deep listening practice where how you’re feeling determines where you’ll take your practice. Both types have great value to them – sometimes at the beginning of a home practice, it can be useful to have a target, a goal. But I’d just caution that sometimes being too rigid with a plan can take the juice and the joy out of the practice and thereby defeat the purpose.

Examples of warm ups: cat/cow; wrist vinyasa; foot massage; lunges/pulsations; shoulder openers; gentle twists; supine ab work – good idea to move with the breath to begin with, rather than to hold anything static at this early point in the practice.

Namaskars (salutations)

These are heat building sequences designed to increase the energy in the body and loosen everything up. They are great for building strength and flexibility. Common salutations include Sun and Moon salutations.

Core Cultivation

Simple core strengtheners early on in the practice serve to prepare the body for the deeper work to come. Boat poses, planks, side planks and reclined core work are great optins.

Heating Inversions

It’s a good idea to do the preparation for and practice of heating inversions early in the practice while you’re still fresh and your energy is high. These poses require lots of strength and stamina so if you’re feeling a little off, it’s best to leave them till another day particularly if you’re not overly familiar with them.

Heating inversions include things like handstand, headstand and forearm balance. If you’re not overly comfortable with these types of poses, dolphins and box-poses at the wall will serve to build your toolkit for eventually practicing these poses.

Standing poses

Standing poses are hugely useful for just about any type of practice. They help to build strength, stamina and opening in a very safe manner. Depending on which class of peak poses you may be working towards, you can pick and choose the postures that will create the best opening. Even if you’re not sure what poses open up what, a general practice of standing poses tends to cover a lot of basis. And if you’re not sure what each pose is useful for, I highly recommend getting into the poses and trying to feel what muscles are working, which ones are stretching and generally what’s going on in your body. As I’ve said, yoga is about listening. Getting on the mat to listen to what’s happening in your body is a great way to learn to sequence like a pro.

Twists

There are variations of twists from light, gentle ones (good for the beginning and the end of practice) to intense, deep ones within various classes of poses. Twists are a great way to prepare the spine for backbending but the deeper ones could be your peak postures all on their own.

Arm balances

You may choose this class of poses as your peak. Lots of hip and shoulder opening are key for getting ready for these poses and a good smattering of core work will help too.

Examples: crow, side crow, elephant trunk

Backbends

Backbends are great for waking you up and making you feel great. Ideally, they should be practiced earlier in the day so that they don’t interfere with your sleep. Anyone who’s ever done huge backbends at 8pm at night will probably have a tale to tell about a challenging night’s sleep afterwards.

Lots of heating and preparation is required for the deeper backbends like upward facing bow, bow pose and camel. Thigh stretches, shoulder opening, leg strengthening, twisting. Ideally these big poses belong toward the end of a longer practice. There are no shortcuts to a safe backbend. The preparation has got to be done.

Forward bends

Heating the body & warming the hips & legs is important to being able to find good arch in low back to do the deeper work of seated forward bends. It might be best to work with standing poses for many months until you develop sufficient strength in the legs to keep them active while seated (supports low back curve). Grounding femurs. Very good for night time, calming, cooling. Examples: seated forward bend, easy cross legs, head to knee pose.

Inversions (cooling)

By this I mean shoulderstand and it’s variations. Ensure your upper back & neck are sufficiently warmed up and use blankets to elevate your shoulders if need be.

Restorative postures

This class of poses can make up your entire practice on some days when you just can’t face a full sequence of asanas. They can also be a nice way to wind down towards relaxation and meditation. For these poses, you set them up so that the minimal amount of effort is required to maintain good alignment. You may opt to hold these poses for 2-15 minutes but stay aware of what’s going on in your body. You’re not looking for stretch sensation or any fatigue at all. If you begin to feel uncomfortable, make whatever changes necessary to feel completely supported. Examples include reclined bound angle, legs up the wall, supported twist, supported backbends.

Pranayama and/or Meditation

Breathwork is a great way to prepare for meditation and savasana. Choose calming breaths rather than hugely stimulating breaths like kapalabhati at this late stage in the practice. Alternate nostril breathing and ratio breathing are good options.

At this stage in the practice, you might find you effortlessly slip into a meditative state. It can be nice to just sit for a few minutes, basking inside yourself.

Savasana

No matter what kind of practice you’ve done, always plan to have at least 5 minutes (and ideally 15 minutes) in relaxation pose. This is where everything you’ve done settles into your body mind and becomes part of you. Ensuring you take proper relaxation will be incredibly nourishing for you at all levels and facilitate your progress on the path. I’ve seen people struggle to gain any ground with their postures and sense of wellbeing when they skip this most important part of the yoga practice. It’s the difference between walking the path and running it.

As I’ve mentioned all of these are my suggestions for approaching your own home practice. There are numerous other valid ways to go about it. The most important factor is whether it’s sustainable and beneficial to you.

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Simple Reminder

Yogis on Mats
Yogis on Mats (novel concept)

Just a gentle reminder that the tools and practices of yoga – of any style of yoga – are so much bigger than any one person or persona. There has been so much noise in the media; first about the poorly performed asana and related injuries, then about a supposedly sexually provacative yoga video, then about highly visible yoga leader’s behaviour that I think the whole point of yoga is largely being missed by the mainstream. Focusing on the drama means we miss out on the real value of a sincere yoga practice. As yogis, we must come back to the reason why we practice rather than allowing the chorus of external voices dissuade us from our own path or to create doubt and disharmony.

From my persepective, a yoga practice is ultimately meant to help us to a greater sense of self-trust and self-reliance so that we can weather any challenge we meet. The practice of yoga does not demand that we pledge allegiance or abdicate our own authority to any person or system. As we deepen into the practice, we can see the fruits of the practice in a great many ways – not the least of which is that we consult others less about what is good for us and trust ourselves more.

That path of yoga points us back inward to the source of our own strength. Yoga is not about any one person or method or lineage. We are moving from an era where we abdicate our personal autonomy to some external “leader” or organisation to an era of heart-centered collaboration. Heart-centered collaboration isn’t reliant on a brand or a single person. It is about getting so close to ourselves that we can get close to other people and be of service without fear. To trust that if we get hurt, we can handle it, we can re-group and go on.

I think that yoga teachers are all just guides. They are not moral compasses. For me, I do my best to point each student inward, into more direct contact with their own experience. At the end of the day, it’s really not about me. Ultimately, it’s about the student and their deepening relationship with themselves. I’m merely a guidepost on their path.

I’m on my own path too. I seek out individuals and situations that help me raise my vibration, rather than lower it. In the current climate of media maelstrom, getting on the mat, rather than on the internet to read more controversy, is a way we can move forward as individuals and as a community in the highest way.

“We are all just walking each other home”  ~Ram Dass

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Go for it

Go for it. – The time is now. Strengthened and supported by your practices and your relationships, do what you dream to do or at least move in that direction. The world needs you to do that.

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Focus on what you *do* want

Focus on what you *do* want. – By now, you’ll notice I’m not suggesting that you “stop” doing anything. I find that rarely works. Most of these tidbits are about cultivating what you *do* want.

Why then do we, as a culture, focus on the negatives, the things we don’t want? One of the most pervasive patterns I’ve noticed in myself and in other people is a tendency to obsess over fears, worries and worst-case-scenarios. As a business owner and highly skilled worrywart, I can tell you when you focus on the negatives they multiply and expand. The energy that could be used for creating what you do want gets sucked into a vortex and it’s very hard to pull out of it. It’s such a waste of life and serves absolutely no one at all, least of all yourself.

Hold strong to the vision of what you do want. When the negative thinking patterns kick in, if you can muster the presence of mind and intention, see if you can flip the fear on its head. Focus on the exact opposite eventuality from the one that’s plaguing you in your mind. Kia Kaha.

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Nurture your relationships

Nurture your relationships. – Good relationships are amazing for your health and wellbeing. Depending on your personality, you may have lots of relationships ranging from acquaintance level all the way to deep and meaningful or you may only have a handful of relationships in your life. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you lean towards, having at least a couple of significant relationships will lend perspective and joy to your life.

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Get curious

Get curious. – You don’t know what you don’t know. First principle of Anusara yoga suggests you open to possibility and I reckon that’s a great maxim for life. Accept that you might not know everything. If you’re just receptive and curious enough, you can always learn, discover or experience something new. Lifelong learning enriches your time on the planet and can actually prolong your lifespan.

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Cultivate Optimism

Cultivate optimism. – Time and time again, study after study proves that optimism works. Optimism enhances your daily experience, your relationships and your potential for success. Look for the good and you will find it. (As a reforming pessimist, the opposite is true too, lemme tell ya.) Plus, you’ll be a whole lot easier to be around. Which makes good things happen.

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…Listen

Listen. – Listen. To yourself, to your heart, to your body. Make the time to settle down enough to hear the messages you have for yourself. When you’re practicing yoga, listen to the resistances you encounter. Investigate them curiously. Same thing off the mat. Listening to yourself on many levels fosters a greater sense of self-trust and prevents injury as well as a myriad of other miseries.

When you make time regularly to listen to yourself, you learn to listen to other people with much greater skill as well. The more accurately you can hear what someone is telling you, rather than filtering what they’re saying through what you want to hear, the better able you are to respond appropriately. This makes for more successful collaborations and relationships.

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Practice Acceptance

Practice Acceptance. – In yoga, as in life, you won’t always be able to do things exactly the way that you want to do them. Perfectionism, trying to do more than is really possible (or even desirable) can lead to pain, injury and loss of productivity and life energy. When you’re sincerely invested in something, whether it’s a yoga practice, a task at work or a relationship, if you do your absolute best and proceed mindfully, it is enough. It could even be called perfect. Accepting what arises will create more internal harmony which inevitably results in greater ease of being with the people around you.

As an aside, albeit a slightly cheeky and provocative one, if you’re not truly invested, what are you doing there? That’s a whole other can of worms, aye?

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Take Responsibility

Take Responsibility. – Part of being honest, authentic and standing in your own light, also requires acknowledging your darkness and blind spots. You will make mistakes, everybody does. Ultimately, most yogis believe the mistakes are all part of the learning and the evolution. But you have to take ownership of the situation to learn from it. You have to be able to see your part in errors so that you can truly move on from them. When something goes wrong, sit with the mistake, the results of it, the way it feels in your body and look for your part in its occurrence and the lesson. When you can understand the lesson, the shame that comes with mistakes will lessen and you can rest assured that even if someone finds out about your error, it’s ok because you have taken responsibility for it and moved forward.

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