Building a Yoga Self Practice - by Jess Horn
"These days when I step onto my mat it’s like coming home, I feel a sense of calm and clarity. But it hasn’t always been this way. A fair few years ago, I remember sitting on my mat, staring at my toes not really knowing where to begin, I would be writing my do to lists in my head and using my practice time to do – well almost anything but practice. I loved yoga so much and went to so many classes and I knew that studying to be a teacher having a self-practice was the next step, but I kept hitting a brick wall.
I met with so many obstacles (and excuses!) like “Why should I practice at home?" I love going to class and practicing with everyone and it’s so easy, I can just switch off and let someone else lead me. “Where and when?” I don’t have the right space or the time and most of all “What” would I practice? But I persevered and worked through my forever increasing and creative excuses and started to change my mindset with regards to self practice. No more excuses! I’m so glad I persevered because it has totally transformed my relationship with yoga and with myself. It’s taught me to listen to my body, enabling me to let go of unhealthy habits, accept my limitations and safely push them, and as a result I’m calmer and more joyful. Here are some tips that I found helped me overcome inertia and will hopefully help you to spend less time examining your toes!
Why? Where? When? What?
Why build a self practice?
Learning yoga with a professional teacher is a must to begin with, but once you have a good foundation there are certain things a home practice can give you, that a studio can’t. In your own practice, you choose the menu by tuning in and listening to exactly what your body needs at that time. You can focus on your strengths and weaknesses – perhaps you’ve identified you have a weak core or tight shoulders, tailor your practice, to your body. A home practice helps you to develop an inner awareness that’s hard to achieve with someone else telling you what to do.
It will travel with you anywhere, giving you freedom; you won’t have to be rely on getting to class or having an internet hook up. My practice kept me sane as I travelled South America on my own, it kept me connected and grounded. In time, your practice will help you negotiate life’s ups and downs with more ease.
Where should I practice?
It’s helpful to establish your own space, it doesn’t have to be huge, it only needs to be as big as a yoga mat! Turn off all distractions including radios and phones. You could light candles, burn oils, put a picture of your guru or anyone who uplifts your spirits, any objects to designate the space as yours.
Make sure you’re wearing comfortable clothes, (pyjamas are even acceptable at home!) turn off your phone, set a timer, listen to music if that’s your thing. Create a space that invites you in and in time your mat will become your sanctuary. In the Summer and if you are lucky enough to have a garden, practicing in nature can really help you connect with the present moment.
When and for how long should I practice?
Be realistic in setting goals, if you’re not a morning person you don’t need to be up at five am, schedule a time that works for you and stick to it. It needn’t be a 90 min practice, start small, perhaps 15 minutes a day and build from there. You’ll be amazed at the difference just 15 minutes of yoga a day can make to your life.
What should I practice?
If you are a student of Astanga yoga, or another yoga discipline that has a set series then sequencing is less of an issue, but you can still benefit from focusing on specific poses or aspects of asana in your home practice.
There are many different ways to sequence and as you get more experienced you can play around with what works for you, but in the beginning keep it simple. It’s helpful to group the asanas and then choose a few from each group in the order that follows.
As you practice each asana think about what the pose is doing for you, ask yourself – where am I opening? What am I strengthening? How does this affect my energy? how does this affect my breathing? Try holding the poses for longer times than you would in class when sometimes they can feel rushed. By getting to know the asanas in this way, in time you will be able to sequence more effectively. Always remind yourself to come back to the breath, let it be your guide, if you lose your connection, you have gone too far in a pose. A more breath led practice will be more mindful and intuitive. Your practice should always have a beginning, a middle and an end;
"Think of it like an enjoyable meal out, with a starter, a main and a desert!"
THE STARTER – GET THE CREATIVE JUICES FLOWING AND WAKE UP THE PALATE!
Always begin with the breath. Spend a few minutes at the start of every practice consciously breathing.
Observe your natural energy and use this feedback to plan your practice.
Some simple cat and cows, begin moving with the breath, Downward dog – pedalling out the legs. Some light core work can be good at this point to awaken the area.
A great start to any sequence.
If you are short on time practicing sun salutations can be an excellent stand alone practice – they have all the major groups of poses and are a great way to start the day.
THE MAIN COURSE – THE FILLING SUSTAINING AND STRENGTHENING PART!
Standing poses and balances
Standing poses are great for strengthening, building heat in the body, and safely opening us up for deeper work.
Arm balances and Inversions
It is important to learn inversions with a qualified teacher who can tell you when you are ready and guide you. If you haven’t got an inversion practice yet, hold downward dog for a while. This will help build up strength in the shoulders and arms preparing you for inversions.
Backbends are great at strengthening the back and stretching out the front of the body which is essential for a healthy spine and core.
DESERT – THE SWEET UNWINDING PART
Twists are great for restoring the spines mobility and strength and for our digestion and cleansing.
Seated forward bends and hip openers
Strengthens and lengthens the back of the body, releases and relaxes. Think not about how deeply you can go but about how deeply you can release.
Savasana or other restorative postures
Do not skimp on the desert!
Savasana is everyone’s favourite in class but at home we can be tempted to skip it, don’t.
Restorative poses are the key to absorbing the benefits of your practice.
A note on sequencing and counter poses to keep you from indigestion!
- Go slowly and listen to your body, pay attention to your alignment. If you’re not sure about a pose look it up, there is a wealth of information out there; tutorial videos and books.
- After deep backbends or forward bends take a neutral asana like Down dog to bring the spine back into balance, never go from a deep forward bend to a deep back bend and vice versa.
- After this a gentle twist can be a great way to further neutralise the spine.
- As you become more comfortable with sequencing you will be able to build practices that focus on particular areas and peak poses but to begin with keep it simple – breathe and listen to your body.
- Do the yoga you like, it will be more sustainable if it is something that feels good and that you enjoy, rather than being an obligation.
How to Prevent Inertia from creeping back in:
I won’t lie, there are days when I still catch myself staring at my toes, I have to work at it.
Try these tips to keep your practice fresh.
- Visit an Inspiring Teacher. A home practice isn’t meant to replace the student teacher relationship, they complement each other. Visiting your teacher is important, they can help keep you inspired, teach you new postures and check that you haven’t developed any bad habits.
- Online Videos and websites, DVDs, books and magazines are all good sources of new way to practice old poses.
- If you are a yoga teacher, schedule in time with your teacher
- Buy yourself a wall chart or a book with inspiring pictures.
- Keep a journal so when you go to class you can make a note of what inspired you, sequences, poses, pranayamas, meditations, quotes and incorporate them into your practice.
- Keep it fun, experiment and try new things. Ask the body where it wants to move next. See what shapes your limbs can make!
One of the most beautiful things about practicing on your own is that you can tinker and experiment – where do you think all these original asanas came from? If you keep your practice fun, it will be something you will keep coming back to time and time again. Now, I'm off to my mat to notice my breathing, not to stare at my toes!
written by Inspiration Space Yoga teacher Jess Horn. For more info about her practice and teachings please click here: Jess Horn Profile