more thoughts on home yoga practice

This topic is important to me for several reasons.

First, as a student, I have found that my home practice has become the place where I do my most important work. This is where I can try something over and over until it makes sense, I can “warm up” the way I feel is best, I can sit in meditation as long as I want, I can laugh or cry as loudly as I want, I can make the session last anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours, I can honor my biological cycles, work around my personal and professional schedules, and in doing all of this I  can sometimes even find deeper questions that I take back to my teacher for help.

I will never stop needing (wanting?) my teachers to help me see things that I don’t notice on my own, as well as to point out the things that I purposely avoid seeing on my own. But after ten years of practice, I finally trust myself enough to practice purposefully at home.

lansing miAnother reason I am approaching this topic today is the fact that, as a teacher, I get asked about home practice fairly regularly. Usually people just want to know where they can get a free yoga podcast. And while I think these are useful in their own way, they can’t replace a “real” teacher, nor do they give the practitioner the same benefits as practicing alone in silence, trusting the inner self.

Somehow in the West we’ve arrived at this “the customer is always right” approach to yoga, which I find to be terribly detrimental not only to yoga teachers but for our students as well. Choosing a yoga teacher or class should not be like choosing a hotel or a pair of shoes. But I can’t blame students for not knowing this. It’s the teachers who have changed, and in many ways lowered, the standard for what it means to be a yoga professional.

So maybe that’s one reason why people think they can get the same quality from a free podcast as they can from a teacher. We’ve set the bar low. But as teachers, I think it is our job to try to equip students with the tools they need to create their own practice in a safe way.

I miss my students when they aren’t in class or if they move away, but at the end of the day what I really wish is for them to not need me forever. I don’t want to make anyone reliant on me for their yoga. I want my students to feel empowered to not only go out into the world and find more teachers who will nurture their soul but to be able to practice at home, trusting their own wisdom.

I wish my students so much strength and wisdom that they feel comfortable only taking what they need from me and leaving the rest. Their journey is their own and I think the teacher’s job is to help them find the path and light the way occasionally as they continue on. If my students don’t know how to do even a small home practice after a couple years with me, I’m either maybe not the right teacher for them, or I didn’t do my job well.

I didn’t write this post to teach anyone how to do a home practice but rather to advise people who are curious about how to start a home practice. We all need different things when it comes to asana and I wouldn’t presume to give you a one-size-fits-all vinyasa flow right now. But here are 20 tips for initiating a home yoga practice:

  1. Get up early (AND go to bed early). If you’re a busy person, remember that your practice starts the day before, when you’re making decisions about when to get work done and when to go to bed. If you want to get up at 4:30 or 5 am, you need to plan the day before accordingly. Why so early? Well, I understand that this won’t work for everyone. But the benefits of the early practice include a more quiet mind, a more gentle attitude in general, an empty belly (because you haven’t had breakfast yet and) and chances are, your apartment or house isn’t very chaotic yet. Listen, when I did my 200 hour teacher training in 2009, I had about 15 roommates because I was a college kid living in cooperative housing. I know how crazy a house can get, and how that can easily become an excuse for not practicing. For me at that time, I would always go to a studio because I was not ready to trust myself enough to practice alone. But I’m pretty sure nobody would have bothered me too much at 4:30 am.
  2. Practice mindful eating. There are certain foods that make practice difficult and it varies for every person. But if you want to make sure your practice happens, you have to give your body fuel and make sure you plan your meals according to your practice schedule. Just for example, it’s not fun to wake up for an early practice if you ate a burrito and passed out on the couch around 11pm. Again, your morning practice begins the day before.
  3. Schedule your practices at the beginning of the week. For some people, the super early practice is not going to work and that’s fine. But take some time at the beginning of every week to schedule your practices. Put them in your Google calendar or planner or whatever you use to organize your life. If you are a householder or have a lot of roommates, it’s not a bad idea to put your practice schedule on the fridge. Not only will this help you with accountability, it will make people aware of the times when you’d appreciate a little quiet. Even if you can only schedule 20 minute practices on your busiest days, do it at the beginning of the week. Set an alarm on your phone if you have to. And while you’re at it, maybe set an alarm for snacks and meals if you tend to forget. (You can also schedule your studio classes. Those are still important.)
  4. Put your phone on airplane mode. Or better yet, put it in the other room. I happen to like to keep my phone in the practice space sometimes so that I can set a timer. That way I can stop worrying about practicing too long and missing my next appointment. If you set a timer then there’s no need to keep looking at a clock. But in any case, DO NOT look at your phone during your practice!
  5. Use Props. Gather up all the props you need to sit comfortably for meditation practice, deep stretches and restorative poses. If you’re not sure what you need, ask your teacher. I don’t see any reason to let your lack of materials be the thing that makes you reliant on a studio space. Most of them are not very expensive and some of them can even be improvised with household items.
  6. Try silence. I don’t think it’s wrong to practice with music. And if you have a noisy home, music might be helpful to drown out the chaos. But try not to become reliant on it. It really comes down to trusting your own strength and wisdom. Don’t be afraid of the quiet.
  7. Create a beautiful space. And if possible, make sure you have some wall space for restorative poses. Even if you don’t have a space that you can permanently dedicate to yoga, you can still designate a clean corner to the practice and keep all your supplies in a basket so setting up is efficient and easy. Some things to consider are candles, incense, blankets, straps, blocks, yoga books, prayer beads, etc. I like to use a flower or potted plant for meditation sometimes. Maybe even invest in a screen that you can put up for a little extra privacy.
  8. Set an intention. Before you practice, always take time to know why you are practicing.
  9. Choose an affirmation. I have been finding it helpful to write an affirmation at the beginning of every week. It should be something in the present tense, not a wishful thought. For example it could be something like, “I trust my inner wisdom and I have the right to be who I am”. Not, “I want to be wise someday, ” or “I will be happy.” Empower yourself with positive affirmations. Write them on a note card and carry them in your pocket, or stick them to your mirror. Keep up with this practice for a couple months and it will get easier.
  10. Make sure people know this time is important to you. If someone asks you to go get a drink or dinner during the time you’ve scheduled your practice, it’s important that you don’t feel obligated to give up the time you’ve devoted to yourself, especially if there is no other time to reschedule your practice that day. Don’t feel guilty for making time for yourself and gently encourage others to do the same for themselves. Some people in your life will understand your intention and some won’t. But ultimately, if your practice is important to you, you will not let anyone take it away from you. That is not selfish. Practicing makes you happy, healthy and whole, and the world appreciates happy, healthy and whole people.
  11. Don’t beat yourself up. Even if you follow all of this advice, there will still be days when you fall short of your goals. And that’s ok. There is no perfection to be found, just an ongoing process of doing your best. Practice mindful self-compassion, always, and be gentle with yourself if you’re not feeling well.
  12. Don’t have expectation. Your practice shouldn’t look like anyone else, so don’t waste time comparing. Make room for the practice and let it become whatever it needs to be for you.
  13. Remember that asana is important. If you want a peaceful mind, you absolutely must spend time taking care of your body.
  14. Remember that asana isn’t everything. Whether it’s your favorite or least favorite part of yoga, it’s not the whole practice. Make time regularly to practice mindful breathing and some sort of preparation for meditation, like gazing at a candle flame for a solid 5-10 minutes.
  15. Journal. Take time to reflect. Journal entries don’t have to be long and they don’t have to be written during your practice time. But taking time to write will help you check in with your intentions and affirmations. Journaling helps me make sure my priorities in general are in sync with my values.
  16. Tell your teacher how it’s going and ask them for advice. Good yoga teachers practice what they preach. They’ve probably gone through a similar learning curve and there’s a reason why you chose them (and they chose you) to be your teacher, so why not ask them for some help?
  17. Be wary of teachers who treat home practices as though they are less important or less beneficial than studio classes. Your yoga teacher should not need you more than you need them. Of course, if they haven’t seen you in awhile, they may worry and ask you where you’ve been. I think the student-teacher relationship is very important and I’m not suggesting that you quit going to classes altogether. But you shouldn’t feel as though your yoga is only accessible through your teacher and I don’t believe they should see it that way, either.
  18. Tapas. This stuff takes enthusiasm and discipline. You have to show up even and especially when you don’t feel like it or there will be no progress. But “discipline” should not be read as “aggression.”
  19. Let it be different every time. Even if you’re doing the Ashtanga Yoga method, where you do the same sequence over and over, step onto your mat every day with fresh eyes, new perspective, resilient spirit and receptive mind. Don’t compare it to yesterday’s practice.
  20. Let any amount of time be enough. Making room for yoga takes some time to figure out. But if you can devote at least 20 minutes every day (most people can wake up 20 minutes early so don’t kid yourself) let that be enough for now and just continue to schedule your practices at the beginning of the week, adding 10 or 15 minutes here and there when you can.

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