So, you’ve been attending yoga classes regularly for a while now and are keen to start a home practice. Where do you begin?
Whereas in the past, most aspiring yogis had to make do with trying to copy pictures of poses from books or magazines, these days there are a host of YouTube channels and videos on offer. The key is not to be too ambitious, and to stick to asanas (poses) that you’ve already learnt in class. That way you’ll know what you’re supposed to be doing, and there’s less chance of getting injured.
To start a basic home practice, the first thing you’ll need is a mat. Although it’s possible to practise without one, standing poses are far easier (and safer) if performed on a non-slip surface. You may also wish to purchase a couple of yoga blocks, a blanket and a belt – although it’s easy to improvise if you don’t want the extra expense. (Incidentally, if your brand new mat is more slippy than grippy, try washing it at 30 degrees in the washing machine with a small amount of powder or liquid.)
Wear comfortable clothes and have your feet bare, just as you would in class. Then set up your mat (and any props you might have) in a quiet area where you aren’t likely to be disturbed. Choose somewhere that’s not too cold, draughty, stuffy or hot, and where you have enough space to extend in each direction. Set the scene by lighting a candle or some incense, if you wish, and make sure your surroundings feel as calm and comfortable as possible.Then turn off your phone, or switch it to silent. Treat your practice time as sacred and allow it to take priority over incoming emails, text messages, and calls.
When it comes to putting together a practice, look for beginner or intermediate sequences online, or think back to the sorts of asanas you’re used to doing in class. Then check in with how you’re feeling. Do you want to feel more energised or more relaxed? Are you lethargic or buzzy? Do you have a headache or your period? Have you any injuries, aches or pains? What time of day is it? And how much time do you have to spare?
The sort of practice you might do first thing in the morning, when you want to wake up and prepare for the day ahead, will be very different to the poses you might practise in the evening, when you’re tired and keen to wind down for a good night’s sleep. Similarly, if you’re pre-menstrual with a headache, you might choose forward bends and more restorative poses; while another day you might want to focus on back arches or inversions.
Once you’ve evaluated where you are, then take a moment to set the intention for your practice. Tune into your breath and consciously decide on your focus for the session. Maybe you want to improve a particular pose or type of pose, or perhaps you want to help heal an injury or mentally prepare for a meeting or some other upcoming event. You can state your intention out loud or mentally (perhaps you want to work on your balances or calm your busy mind), but get a clear idea of what you want to gain before you begin.
Think of providing a balance in your practice; so include standing as well as seated poses, forward bends as well as back arches, supine (lying on back) along with prone (lying on front), and twists to counter forward and back bending. Start with asanas to warm you up, such as standing poses and balances, then progress to back arches and inversions (if you want to), before winding down with twists, forward bends and reclining poses. Again, look for sequences on reputable online sites, or think back to poses you have done in class. Allow your intuition to guide you too. What does your body feel like doing next? What pose follows naturally on from the last?
Remember there is no set way to practise – only you can gauge what is best for you at any given time. Just as in class your teacher will guide you to connect to your body and breath and to decide for yourself how a pose feels, and how deeply it is appropriate for you to go into it, during a home practice, it’s crucial to evaluate each asana, breath by breath. Listen to your body, and never use force in your yoga practice. Let each pose evolve at its own pace. And, if something feels wrong, back off and reassess. Learn the difference between the sensation of a muscle working and the sharp pain that tells you to stop.
Yoga is so much more than making shapes with the physical body. It’s about developing an inner awareness of the self; a spreading of intelligence through the body, as you become more and more attuned and sensitised to your experience in each asana.
While it may sound esoteric, that evolution happens completely naturally over time. Practising a little and often, gradually refines your awareness of the subtleties in each pose – even if all you’re doing is standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) while you wait for the kettle to boil. Every time you work in a particular pose, you’ll notice something new. Every Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Face Dog) is different, because each time you come to the mat, you are different. Your energy levels, how you’re feeling, how your body is, what’s going on for you physically, mentally and emotionally – all these factors fluctuate from day to day, so your yoga practice will never be the same twice running. Accept that and relish it.
Rather than bemoaning the fact that last week you could reach further in Pascimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), bring a sense of curiosity to your practice. See each change as worthy of interest and examination. What happens if you extend more fully into the big toe side of the foot? How does it feel to look up rather than down? What difference does it make if the shoulder blades draw further down the back? How about if you use a belt or sit on a block? Be playful and adventurous. Enjoy your practice.
Building yoga into your everyday life should be a pleasure, not a chore. Cultivate joy and a sense of exploration in your practice. Observe how each time is different, and how you are gradually changing and growing. Fit yoga around you, instead of the other way around. And before you know it, your home practice will have become a valued and integral part of your life, and you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.