Sunday, March 13, 2011

Just Do It: Five Ways To Start a Home Practice

We were all born yogis, sometimes we just forget.   If you are struggling to get a home practice into your life here are a few tips to help get you started.  

Nike is not paying me for this blog.  Just to make that clear from the very beginning.  But they do have a point; “Just Do It” is a pretty good way to think about a lot of things in life, including yoga. 
It goes without saying that there is a lot of theory about yoga and while sometimes it is good to languish like a cow chewing the grass as you think and read about yoga, nothing really captures the yoga like doing it.  This is true whether we talk about the more physical or active aspects of yoga like asanas, pranayama, and meditation, or whether we talk about the more philosophical aspects, including the yamas and niyamas (ethical teachings).
But how do you get on your mat every day with such a busy schedule?  It can be hard, even for yoga teachers.  Here are my top five tips to help you start. 
1.       View your whole life as a yoga practice.  When your whole life is viewed this way it means you can practice yoga virtually anywhere.  This works for asanas as well as other aspects of yoga as well.  I have listed some ideas here.  You will notice the bathroom seems to be a favourite place to do yoga!
·         going to the toilet becomes an opportunity to practice uktatsana (chair/fierce pose);
·         interacting with difficult people becomes an opportunity to practice mindful breathing so as not to over-involve your emotions and become distressed;
·         brush your teeth in vrksasana (tree pose);
·         put on your shoes/socks balancing on one leg and bringing the foot to the chest instead of bending down;
·         sit on your chair in padmasana (lotus) or sukhasana (cross-legged) or even virasana (kneeling/hero);
·         practice ahimsa the next time you start to feel yourself starting to get angry at someone or something;
·         standing back bend while you rinse your hair in the shower (don’t fall!);
·         do uttanasana (forward bend) to pick up the pen you have dropped (mind your back).
This list could go on and on and is limited only by your imagination and your capacity to be mindful—remembering to remember that there is always a way to practice yoga.     
2.       Create a time and space to get on your mat.  While you can turn your whole life into a yoga practice, you do need to get on your mat.  Now, I know I am a yoga teacher and I am supposed to love doing yoga every day, but the truth is that sometimes I struggle.  I work full time—at a desk no less—and teach classes most evenings so finding the energy to do my own practice can be hard. 

Over the years I have learned, however, that no matter how tired I am I will always feel better after being on my mat.  I cannot recall a single time where I got off my mat and thought, “gee, I feel really crap”, which is a good thing really as I am not sure why I would keep doing something (teaching it no less) that makes me feel crap.   This is something to bear in mind on those days when you feel it would just be easier to lie on the couch. 

The first thing I have done is created a time and space to lie on my mat.  Obviously, this time and space will transform over time with changes in work and lifestyles.  For me it currently means practicing in my lunch hour at work.  I try to (mindfully) eat lunch at my desk and then use my actual lunch break for my practice.  This works well for me as it works out the desk-jockey kinks but also helps with the stress of my actual work.  You might be able to find a space at home to do your yoga (I also have such space but do my weekday practice at work).  If you are really lucky you could just leave your yoga mat unrolled on the floor so that it is always inviting you to practice!

You might not have an hour but who says you need it?  You might have ten minutes in the morning or ten minutes in the afternoon, you might find you even have ten in the morning and ten in the afternoon. It does not really matter how much time you have but give yourself some time.  It is probably more important to do something every day rather than gorge yourself in one go once a week or once a fortnight.  You really need to cultivate discipline to do this, especially if you are the type of person who easily talks themselves out of things. 

3.       Make a general plan. When you are first starting a home practice it can be hard to think of what to do.  You might barely be able to remember any poses at all.  Most of us can probably remember some version of suriya namaskar and maybe you just plan to do five or ten of those.  After you do that you might find that has triggered your memory of other poses and you could do those as well.  Sometimes you can just start by lying down and breathing, quieting your mind, and you will find that a practice emerges. 

If that doesn’t happen, you could also bring some pictures of some poses and put them beside your mat to trigger your memory.  Sometimes it can be a bit distracting to keep looking at pictures but after a while you won’t need them anymore. 

The next time you go to a yoga class that you really enjoy, you could also try to jot down a few poses that you liked straight afterwards—being mindful that it is always good to do a mixture of poses that you really like and poses that you would rather avoid!

Another thing you could do is pick a theme—maybe you could choose one forward bend, one hip-opener, one twist, one backbend, one inversion and practice one of each of those, choosing a different one each day or practicing the same ones for a week and doing new ones the next week.  Maybe you could say Mondays is for hips, Tuesdays for forward bends, Wednesdays for backbends, etc. 

Whatever plan you might make, please also consider point 4, below.

4.       Relax.  I mean this in three ways. First, in the sense that you can just lie on your mat and do savasana for however long you have.  I do this for an hour sometimes.  Not very often but on those days where my body just tells me it simply cannot be expected to do any more than I have been asking of it.  This is usually if I have worked intensely in the previous week or am feeling a bit sick.  Some days I might not do savasana but I might just feel like I don’t want to do a single standing pose so I think of everything I can do that involves lying on my back.  You’d be surprised how you can spend an hour just doing lying poses and I think I will have to create a blog post dedicated to this!  Anyway, the important thing is that I take some time to listen to my body so I can hear what it is telling me and develop an appropriate course of action. 

When I say relax, I also mean relax your ideas of what you should be doing and not getting too worried or stressed out about your practice.  You don’t come to yoga to get stressed and worried.   If you get on your mat and start thinking you absolutely have to do something you are cultivating rigidity and not flexibility.  I am not a big fan of the word should and all of the right/wrongness that it implies, but I will use it with caution here to say that the only thing you really should do (although you can choose not to) is get on your mat!

In practice this means learning to let go, modify, and adapt.  It means that even though you had grand plans for your practice that day but you feel really sluggish when mat-time comes around then maybe you need to do modified backbends rather than the whole shebang.  It means that if people start doing construction work next door while I am practicing at lunch that I might have to move elsewhere or, instead of doing the nice quiet practice I had planned, maybe I’ll have to get up and ‘go with the flow’ and do a more active practice instead. 

The third thing I mean when I say relax is, bearing in mind point 2 (get on your mat), you do need to give yourself permission to take a day off now and then.  Your body needs time to recover and sometimes it becomes really hard to practice (such as when travelling, although as you get more experienced at yoga you realize you can even do yoga in airports, on planes etc, and, moreover, that you probably need it even more in these situations.  The next time I go home I will definitely be writing a blog about airport/airplane yoga—look for it around June).   

5.       Put on some music.  There are lots of people who practice in silence.  Personally, I sometimes practice in silence (well, as silent as Colombo gets) and sometimes practice with music (see point 4 about not getting too rigid!).  I tend to have my favourite yoga music but every now and then I mix it up so I’ll be yoga-ing to Tracy Chapman, Norah Jones, Santana, David Gray, and Marc Antony.  It is amazing how different music can inspire your body to move in different ways.  I find that I might get on my mat feeling like a sloth bear but as soon as I hear a particular piece of music I am all dropbacks and handstands.  The other thing about music for people who are having difficulty getting on the mat in the first place is that it can be a cue.  You can prepare yourself a 10, 20, or 30 minute musical sequence, for instance, so you aren’t looking at your watch all of the time wondering when to finish. 
There you go, a few tips to get you on your mat and remind you that we were all born yogis even if we can’t touch our toes anymore.  A regular home practice will really teach you a lot about yoga as no matter how good a yoga class is or how good your yoga teacher is, I am generally of the opinion that some of the best insights will come from within. 
So, even though my blog is really interesting, time to exit the browser and get on your mat!  Happy practicing.

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