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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.