Developing a Home Yoga Practice

Developing a home yoga practice can feel daunting but it does not need to be so. The Mysore style of Ashtanga self-practice can however, be a real challenge to some.

Developing this style of home yoga practice demands a personal level of commitment quite unique in the modern yoga world. Normally, most classes gain their energy being led from the front whilst all students practice along together in-sync.

Doing yoga on your own, under your own steam, raises the question of discipline. As well as a degree of confidence and conviction in what you are doing. Getting accustomed to this can be quite a shock for someone starting out.

However, the only way to make true advancement with one’s own practice, is to take responsibility for it. Here, we can learn at our own speed, and in a way that suits our own needs modifying. We can experiment in our own time.

Moreover, the focus can be put on the primacy of the breath. This is instrumental for development in yoga. In a class situation we are distracted following along from the front.

The True Yoga Lifestyle Can Come Only From Self Practice

Sa tu dirga kala nairantarya satkara asevtih dridh bhumih

(that practice is firmly grounded, that is done over a long period, consistently, and with the right attitude).

1.12 Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

However, the wrong approach to the concept of practice itself one can easily miss the qualities necessary to be effective. This also means enjoyable to the point that it becomes part of, or even the highlight of our daily routine.

It is only when yoga becomes a lifestyle that we can really maintain commitment to self-practice. As well as throughout the course of the day, living within the focus of yoga. This is where the real change and transformation occurs.

In all other scenarios the yoga class is something we simply engage in as part of our daily activities. Yoga never usually makes its way into becoming the bedrock of our very life. With an established self-practice we can always make time for yoga even if we can’t get to a studio. More than this, because it’s something done by us, it permeates much deeper. Yoga is about our connection to ourselves. Not to a teacher at the front of the room, nor to their practice.

The yoga lifestyle, ownership and responsibility for your own yoga are essentially the same thing.

The ideas below provide some guidance as to how to nurture an effective self-practice. They are in line with the above conditions that Patanjali sets for it. That it is stable, grounded, consistently done, as well as with the right attitude. Meaning, our outlook towards practice is the most appropriate to the end goal of yoga. Which is peace of mind.

The Hardest Part is Always Beginning

Getting going in the first place is the hardest thing. After that, gradually, whatever the task at hand, it generally benefits from its own momentum, similar to pushing a boulder. Once we gain momentum, the process of guiding the rock may be challenging as we progress to advanced asanas. But the greatest struggle is truly in the beginning.

It’s common to like the idea of yoga, but, need a teacher and class of people to actually do it. Actually stepping on to the yoga mat on your own is a large one. Doing this for long enough for it to become a habit and you see the benefits it transitions to maintaining a practice which is a whole lot easier.

Establishing the habit is the key. In doing this we overcome our doubts about whether we are doing it ‘right’. We face ourselves on the mat as we lose resistance to moving away from worldly distractions.

There are a number of principles then to consider that may lend us the strength until we find it in ourselves, indeed, through the practice itself.

Find a Space and Set The Scene

There is nothing more important for our ability to keep up any discipline than working it into a certain familiar pattern, or routine within our daily schedule. This is principally done in the beginning by location. Stabilising the outside is the quickest way to doing the same with the inside. That is, building our strength of intention.  

Find a quiet spot where we are unlikely to be disturbed for at least an hour or so. Uncluttered, free from distraction. We can return each day to forge a connection with ourselves. This resides in the memory of the space that confirms and strengthens our ability to make the appropriate effort.

Just as if we had decided to set up a daily meeting with our being every day, it’s helpful to create the right kind of space for that meeting. One that directs and inspires our focus, as we would any other. To this end, it is also useful to have a specific focus, some symbols to promote or crystalise our concentration. A kind of physical representation of our aim.

Energy and Memory

It is firstly the very space that appears to contain the understanding, we could say energy, of our previous efforts. Therefore, even though it may still not be easy to get started, we recognise in our past experience of being in this same place that every time we have overcome our resistance to practice it has delivered much more than the difficulty that we encountered in starting.

Memories are primarily associated with visual locations until they deepen further. So, it is as if the very bricks and mortar that surround us carry an energy built up over time. A sense of our persistent, cumulative intention, lending us much more strength than a momentary fancy in the instance. It not easy to get the kind of effort together needed when all we have is that invested in the particular moment.

This is the very crux of practice being a lifestyle.  It lays down an exponentially greater energy and commitment in our making of that small investment day by day.  For, there will be times when practise is wonderful, as well as tougher times, in life, as in practice. So, we need a sense of collective memory as our investment to draw upon.

Keep it the Same

Once we have built this very literal firm-foundation for practise, it finally becomes ingrained. We do not inherently need the specific location (though it may still be nice). Yet, in the early days, this is almost essential.

From these most visible associations, we then build, gradually creating more subtle, internal ones; deeper reference points than our most external and material ones. It’s a process, and there is nothing wrong with starting from the start and using every tool we can that might be available. In the early stages it does help to be a little more rigid with the use of our props towards helping our relationship with yoga deepen.

Ideally, this translates to doing the same thing, in the same place, at the same time each day at the start. Of course, we also have the set-sequence so there really isn’t much of a degree of doubt or indecision that might creep into obstructing our resolve to practice. Uncertainty as to what we are doing, or its benefit, is the real enemy of building up the habit of practicing on our own.

We need to know what we are doing is OK.  Which means we also need clear instruction to follow. It is infinitely preferable that this come from a real person, not a book or video.

Finding Inspiration

Practice is essentially its own dynamo.  But, until we have fully wound the turbine of our own commitment in the doing it, as well as being clear at what we are doing, we also need to be inspired. As with the physical location for practice providing a little strength in a material sense, people on the other hand, may provide a little support conceptually as well as emotionally.  

Finding particular people that act as a source of inspiration is highly incentivising. On the days we don’t fancy practicing they may provide an image that motivates us, or even emotional support and encouragement. Indeed, this was the role of the sangha (community) in traditional yoga and it was considered of fundamental importance.

When we sense others are accompanying us on the journey, indeed, struggling with the same challenges we are, we feel we are not in it alone. even though we will inevitably spend a lot of time practicing alone, this is why, when we are able, attending the Mysore self-practice class is a helpful tool for at least some of the time in providing that extra boost of support and motivation.

The Role of the Teacher

As we have already mentioned, the greatest enemy of practice is self-doubt. Thus, receiving some clear and specific instruction before attempting to start practice on ones’ own is essential. Furthermore, if at all possible, this guidance should be ongoing. As we practice, questions arise, along with uncertainty and confusion may ruin our resolve.

Therefore, we need someone to be able to turn to, check-in with, to feel reassured we are heading in the right direction and not towards injuring ourselves. There is rightly the fear in putting our bodies into positions that may not feel comfortable. It is from here that the common question arises as to whether we might not be causing ourselves injury. How do we know what pain to endure and what pain to retreat from?

These kind of questions can be answered, or ought to be, by a teacher. In which case, it is imperative we have one, and this works best when we choose one and stick with them over some duration. This person does not have to stay the same forever.

Indeed, as we change and progress over time we will have a number of teachers along the way. All equal in serving a particular and necessary role and function at that time, we tend to find the connection with them as long as it feels we are learning. However, a degree of singularity is extremely effective in the student-teacher relationship. 

Although the subject (yoga), remains the same, there is a huge amount of variation in its presentation. It is quite normal these days, for our practice resolve to be diluted by the confusion through conflicting instruction in the trend to have many teachers at the same time.  It also lessens the potency of what can be a uniquely powerful connection between two people.   

Energetic Relationship

Indeed, the teacher is more than just a logistical necessity. It is more than evident there is also this rather inexplicable energy between certain people, and it has often proved to bring out more than the sum of its parts. Much more than we may have been able to do working alone. For this reason, it is worth exploring for someone who can inspire this degree of connection, for it does certainly exist. It is another quite necessary part of our journey to building our own personal commitment to practice.

Again, practice is our endeavour alone. The establishment of a conviction that is so deeply felt that yoga becomes our very way of life, and not just what we do on the mat. But, this takes time, so external supports act as stabilisers and ought to be taken full advantage of.  

Our own expectations

Everything we do is judged good or bad, adequate or lacking, depending on the standards which we ourselves set. This makes the relationship with our own expectations incredibly important then, for maintaining a personal practise.

What we expect in our practice, can serve as a source of inspiration, keep us motivated, or, just as easily, a deeply discouraging narrative that ends in our discouragement and disillusioned giving-up.

It is taken for granted, that at this early stage of our journey we are hardly likely to be an enlightened yogi,  content with the oneness of all reality.  Instead, we need to perceive a somewhat clear direction in what we are doing, as well as equally visible signs of our progression towards this goal.

Without this, practise would be meaningless, indeed hardly encouraging. On the other hand, if these expectations are too great, they will only serve to put us off. In seeming insurmountable, or, produce a degree of frustration at ourselves that is likely to lead only to the pre-emptory conclusion that this practice is not for us, or, us, it.

Being Realistic

Being thoughtful and, in this careful, about ascertaining the right amount of challenge is crucial. This means keeping a practical and realistic view as to what we are doing. This is not to say, as we progress with practice it doesn’t, indeed, yield results we couldn’t imagine possible at first, but our expectations should only stay a couple of steps ahead of us at a time.

If we aim for the moon too quickly, we are bound to fail. Along similar lines, and, as much as this is easier said than done;  a small dash of patience and acceptance of where we  currently are with practice, goes a long way. It is as well to constantly attempt to keep in the forefront of our mind that it’s only our practice that matters, and that in this, it is peace we are aiming at.

We can also take the finger for the moon in confusing our feeling of ultimate wellbeing in having made yoga a lifestyle, with sticking our leg behind our heads.

Pragmatism over Idealism

A skilful and lucid relationship with our expectations is not only important in our practice, but, also with our teacher. We need standards by which to judge and assess our own development as well as the validity of what we are being taught.

These are best constructed piecemeal as we get the benefit. As we find the relevance of certain advice and suggestions, we may then trust and do a little more in line with the results received. We do not immediately appreciate this nuanced approach. Its more pleasant to believe that practice is indeed ‘the holy grail’ when we find it.

Yet, we ought to be wary of this tendency towards idealism in our thinking.  Many become ‘ashtanga-zealots’ in their early days, giving up all too quickly when it is realised that the practice doesn’t fit the imagined ideal. We hear such statements as the practise doesn’t suit me anymore, is not spiritual enough, was designed for young Indian boys etc. These are only as true as they reflect our own attitudes and inordinately high expectations.

If we wish to do the same as a 12-year old Indian boy, we may be disappointed as a 40-year-old man brought up in the West with tight hips and no history of exercise. Suiting our perceptions to reality, looking for a little progress each day, and being honest about our starting point, will make practice quickly into a habit that we will want to  keep returning to, day in day out.

Nothing is prefect in this world, not our practice, nor our teacher. More or less the only question we should be asking, for a while at least, is do I feel better having practiced, or not? It is pretty much a foregone conclusion that the answer will be yes.

The Danger of Comparison

We are conditioned to understand our reality by comparing ourselves to others. However, this is quite lethal in regards building up a self-practice, for this can only feel good if its methodically constructed in the way that is relevant to our demands.

Having taught for 20 years I can wholeheartedly vouch for the fact that we may all be of the same species, but we are so incredibly different that, to compare two bodies against each other as to what they can and can’t do, is as ridiculous as comparing an apple to a pear.

We will inevitably get better at yoga, but how this actually translates is a matter for us alone and the standards must then be our own. Practicing yoga as an image is not the same as the real yoga-lifestyle.  It has no depth of felt experience, so it ultimately feels hollow. If we don’t suit the practice to our current ability and the degree to which we are able to spend the time and effort on it, we will only be disappointed. Moreover, quite possibly we may injure ourselves.

In other words, a methodical and cautious start is best, always doing a little less than we think we can. Also resisting doing something outside the practice that has been shown to us, or obviously above our level, just because someone else is doing it.

Get a Wider Perspective

Practise is something exclusively about us, for our own wellbeing.  It is not just one more attempt to prove our value in the eyes of the world. Nevertheless, this is the very problem we suffer with in life, that yoga attempts to address.

The ability not to apply these material standards to our yoga practice as we do everything else, as they say begs the question. This is why it’s almost essential to read, or at least explore a little more outside isolating simply the asana part of yoga as our only focus.

Without expanding viewpoints to the wider relevance of yoga and it’s deeper meaning for our lives, it can degenerate very quickly into a very narcissistic preoccupation with ourselves and our bodies. This runs in direct opposition to the way it has been conceptualised, for it was meant as a system for opening us to life, where it may only serve to close us down in our exclusively inward-turned focus.

We need discipline and concentration, but this  must also be tempered with a more thoughtful general inquiry into the nature of life most generally. Again, this is to talk of practice as our orientation for life, as opposed to just something we fit in as little more than another activity for our own pleasure.

Practice is For Life, Not Life For Practice

Perhaps, we may have read of the yogis of old living in exclusion in caves in the Himlalayas. However, this is not usually a realistic, hence effective, thought-process to apply to our own yoga practice.  Most likely we are – and still want – to live within the world; therefore, practice should be practically used to serve this end, not the other way around.  

In contrast, it’s an apparent pitfall that happens to many over a short period of practice that it feels too burdensome to keep up because it has been approached too intensely in the beginning.  We may end up falling into the trap of making our lives over to practice, as opposed to making practice enhance and serve our more fulfilled living.

If getting up so early really isn’t your thing, for example, try practicing later in the day for a while. Otherwise our practise only sours quite quickly. Indeed, there are ideals, more and less effective ways to build practice up, but the important thing is that it simply is.

In this regard, yes, first thing in the morning might be best; when the stomach is empty and the mind clear; but, nothing is sacred here. Find what works for you.

In Conclusion

Our project for making yoga part of our daily lifestyle should not become onerous, a matter of drudgery or an obsession. We don’t have to do this; it is for us alone, and not a template we must squeeze ourselves into, or punish ourselves by upholding.  

Neither should it make us feel isolated, or excluded from life, which self-practice can often quickly make us feel.  To avoid this is best to start of slowly, relate our intention with others, most importantly with a teacher,  and not be too absolutist – both as to the method, as well as our conception of the goal.

If this is our attitude, our practice will almost build itself, unfolding and deepening in its own way, and yoga will become the fertile territory and source of energy and clarity for living that is the profound gift that taking responsibility for our own yoga in self-practice yields.

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