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Many yoga students often ask me whether or not they should practise. Well, it would certainly help. Be it a little or a lot, yoga practice will make a significant difference to your body and your life. To get the most out of your commitment to yoga classes, home practice is required. It will make you feel good about yourself.
There are many reasons to practise yoga beyond attending the yoga class. Yoga practice pays instant and long term dividends. You will feel better within moments of starting. Your mind will become quiet, even if you didn’t know it was disturbed in the first place. The quietness of mind that you achieve during a class can also be achieved at home.
Home practice lets you progress in your yoga. Attending a class once a week gives you the basics and will garner improvement. It will allow you to say, touch your toes with straight knees or raise the arms in line with the ears or sit cross legged, spine erect. Attending one class per week maintains your body as it is and generally wards off stiffness and tightness. It allows you to be quiet and still once a week. When you do yoga twice per week or more (either at a class or home practice), things really start to change. Your progress quickens, you become more inquisitive and discover things about your body. You may overcome some of your physical and mental afflictions. Your personality may change. You may develop a confident and happy disposition. Truly.
Home practice will help you take responsibility for your own yoga. The teacher cannot always be available to instruct and make corrections to your body. At some point, you need to do this for yourself. It can be liberating.
Home practice is an opportunity to digest and reinforce what was taught in the class. One class may not be enough for a certain point point to sink in. For example the instruction, turn the upper thighs in, may need to be practised several times before your body can absorb this point and do it automatically.
Home practice allows you to explore or address problem areas in your body which cannot always be addressed or accommodated in a larger class. It can give you a chance to use props in a way that you may not ordinarily do in class for example taking the back to the wall for standing poses.
When you are practising, you are doing yoga for yourself not for the teacher. You can delve more deeply into the asana, be more absorbed mentally without the disturbance of external instructions. You can stay for a long time. You can stay for a short time. You can do it at any time! Not at a designated class time.
At some point, home practice becomes mandatory. Home practice is respectful to the teacher, other students in the class and yourself. Neither the class nor students can move forward in yoga unless they practise. An interesting and dynamic class is one which evolves, develops and grows in its yoga. It is interesting to teach a changing class and it is interesting for students to participate in a changing class. If students never practise, then the class can become staid and stale.
At some point you may notice students in the class around you improving. Could it be that they are practising? I attended classes for three years before I finally had the inclination for home practice. I was reasonably supple and could perform many of the asana (albeit it sloppily). One day, during sirsasana (headstand) I realised that everyone was doing sirsasana in the middle of the room and I was the last one still leaning on the wall. I felt as though I had been left behind. The class was moving on without me. That was it, I had to practise to keep up or change to another (easier) class.
What to Practise
As you know, inspiration can be lacking when it comes to your own practice. Open a yoga book. Many of the Iyengar based books have appendices with practice sequences in them. Choose a sequence and do it. That way you eliminate the need to make decisions about which asana to do next during the practice. Decision making can often lead to procrastination during practice and – we know where that leads.
Start writing down class sequences. It seems a bit arcane but that way you quickly amass a library of sequences. Also capture the points or the theme of the class. Have a special note book for that purpose and carry it with you to class. You need to write up your class notes as soon as possible after the class in order not to forget it. This is also a good way to review the class and check your understanding. Have a new notebook each year and label them. This is a good activity to do with other class members. You will be surprised at what they remember and you missed and vice versa.
If you haven’t written down the sequence, see if you can practise the last class you attended from memory. Try and remember three key points from the class and focus on those for the duration of the practice.
In the beginning, practise your favourite asanas. Omit the ones you don’t like. After some weeks add your least favourite poses.
You could also practise sequences or asanas for your specific condition. For example:
- If your back is sore do standing poses either against the wall or using a brick under the front foot.
- If you are menstruating, do the menstruation sequence,
- If you are tired do a restorative sequence or inversions;
- If your spirit needs lifting, try backbends etc
Develop a weekly schedule. Try to practise at least all the groups of asanas once per week. For beginners or Level 1 students the asana groups are standing poses, forward bends, hips and twists, backbends and inversions. As you become more advanced add hand balancing poses. Start doing pranayama daily or at least a few times per week. It will improve your balance and endurance for the asanas.
Consider your approach to the practice. Sometimes (especially if you are busy) practice can be focussed on just getting it done. What I call a maintenance practice. Where nothing knew is learnt or explored but you keep your body toned and fit.
As you progress in yoga, (and if allowed more time) the practice evolves. The focus changes from getting it done to the doing. You begin to observe more keenly what your body and mind are doing. You can learn from your observations, make corrections and improve. This is practising to learn. If we are more advanced, we can also practise to teach, where the teacher explores and experiments points on their own body first before teaching the same points to a class.
Make practice fun. Practise with others. Arrange a regular time each week at someone’s house – move the furniture and start. Take turns leading the practice.
How long and when to practise?
It can be daunting if you set yourself the goal of practising for one and a half or two hours. It is easy to fail.
When I first started practising at home, I would set the alarm clock for 5.30 am, hit the snooze button repeatedly and lie awake for an hour and a half thinking about practice when I could have been up and doing the practice. After failing many times to get up and practise, I set myself a new rule. I was only to practise for ten minutes. If after ten minutes I was not enjoying it, I gave myself permission to go back to bed. On the other hand if I had begun to enjoy the practice, I was allowed to continue. This worked. After ten minutes, I almost always enjoyed being on my mat. Setting yourself a short time for practice allows you to lighten up and remove the onerous burden or the weight of the task. Of course make sure you have more time if you need.
If you have young children, practising with them around is impossible. One night a week I start my practice at 9pm, long after children are in bed. If you eat early (and lightly) with the kids, you will have digested your main meal by 8.30pm and be ready to start.
The best time for practice is probably early in the morning. However, with work, children and other life demands, it really is about when practice can fit into your day rather than the ideal time. Choose a time when you are least likely to be interrupted. Do not answer the phone.
When you practise, you must be earnest – honestly. Honesty is integral to yoga. You cannot find freedom without honesty and truthfulness (satya). It is linked to non violence (ahimsa). You need to look at your body and ask: Are my knees straight? Is my spine even? Are my shoulders back? Is my neck long and straight? Is my head (and hence my brain) level? When you continue to practice incorrectly, with bent knees, crooked spine, rounded shoulders, neck cricked, head unbalanced, it becomes violent towards yourself because it could be injurious. At the very least it is disrespectful to yourself. You have to observe honestly, truthfully and work earnestly, with dedication. Improvement cannot occur without honesty, truthfulness and earnest application.
Practice need not be hard. At some point, it becomes automatic. The day is not complete without it. Like eating and sleeping. As Geeta Iyengar implores us, please practise, practise, practise.