Home Practice

The fruits of yoga are many. Practise regularly and you’ll develop greater physical strength and flexibility, ease in the body and mind, emotional wellbeing, mental clarity, freedom of breath, self-awareness and maybe even spiritual depth. These aren’t just platitudes, they are promises. But the key to reaping their benefits is regularity. Which means practise, practise, practise. As in every day, as in by yourself…as in at home.

Every yoga teacher would agree that a home practice is essential. It doesn’t have to be huge, it doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to look the same from day to day. All it takes is commitment and consistency.

Mark Whitwell, an internationally known teacher from the Heart of Yoga Association and a strong proponent of developing an authentic personal practice, describes it best: “When you practise at home you get to explore the exquisite relationship between the body, the breath and life itself. The whole reason for doing yoga is to enjoy this relationship, this natural intimacy with life.”

Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t want to have a daily yoga buzz in the comfort of their living room? Who wouldn’t want to embrace the opportunity to come home to the body and nurture yourself on a daily basis? Who wouldn’t want to feel better, happier, stronger and smarter?

If you’re nodding your head in agreement, but don’t have a practice of your own, you might be lacking one other key ingredient: confidence. Often, when I encourage people to practise at home, they look at me as though I’ve just handed them a 20-kilo bag of cement and told them to lug it up a steep hill. What’s worse, they look as though they feel guilty because they haven’t started hauling yet.

Here’s the secret: there isn’t any cement and the hill isn’t so steep. All you need is a willingness to start out on the journey, and maybe a few good clues about what, when and how to get to your final destination.

Home Practice

It’s much easier to get where you want to go if you have a map. Now, we could certainly insert a cliché here about enjoying the journey more than the destination. There’s some truth there, but it’s equally true that getting lost is generally not as much fun, especially when you’re just setting out.

It’s a practice that will leave you feeling nourished, grounded, content and right at home in your body and in your living room.

In yoga, you’ll have a map in hand when you learn the basics of sequencing—the logical ordering of postures that will take you through a well-rounded practice. The basic structure of the sequence is like a bell-curve. It starts slowly with opening poses; increases depth and intensity with standing poses; crescendos with backbends, abdominals and inversions; and moves towards greater stillness with twists, forward bends, relaxation poses and meditation. Ordering poses in this way will take your body through its full range of motion in a safe, effective progression. It’s a solid stand-by practice that will leave you feeling nourished, grounded, content and right at home in your body and in your living room.

Once you become familiar with this template—and develop some consistency in your practice—you will hone your ability to create your own sequences based on what your body or mind is craving. The scope of yoga is so vast and versatile that you’ll be able to find countless sequences for everything from headache relief to greater contentment to deeper backbends. When you get in touch with your self, you’ll know just what to do.

Make a Date with Your Mat

Learning to practise at home solves the problem of not being able to get to class every day. If you sleep through your 6 a.m. class, you can still practise. If you miss your 6 p.m., you can still practise. Whether you have a quick 15 minutes or a decadent two hours, you can use the time you’ve got.

While a long practice is great, it’s also OK to practise for smaller chunks of time.

Most yoga classes are 90 minutes long, so we immediately assume that we should practise at home for 90 minutes. While a long practice is great, it’s also OK to practise for smaller chunks of time.

Most teachers agree that a 20-minute practice every day is more valuable than an hour and a half twice a week. Doing a little bit every day is ideal for managing daily stress, bringing yourself into your body and settling your mind. A small amount of yoga done consistently gives you more accurate feedback about what’s happening in your body and mind, and it will improve your practice. In other

words, the body and mind learn from repetition, not occasional dabbling. “If your time is limited, practising for 15 to 20 minutes provides ample time to align your day and come home to your body,” says Sarah Powers, yoga teacher and author of Insight Yoga.

To ensure that you make it to your mat, Powers offers these tips: first, make an appointment. Write your practice into your calendar, in pen. Second, set a timer for the amount of time that you can commit to, and practise at least that long. “Although you may begin your practice reluctantly,” she says, “you’ll find that 15 minutes goes by quickly, and you might actually want to spend more time on your mat.”

Scheduling regular mat time builds a habit that soon becomes ingrained. “When you do yoga at home every day, it becomes no different from taking a shower,” says Whitwell. “You wouldn’t dream of not taking a shower, and you don’t congratulate yourself for doing it every day. So doing a daily practice doesn’t have to be a heroic activity you impose on yourself. It’s just a simple, natural pleasure.”

Your Home Practice

When life gets hectic and time is short, integrate your practice with everything else you’re doing. If you have 40 minutes while your clothes wash, fine. But if you only have the energy and time for a 10-minute restorative pose while dinner cooks, that’s OK too. Instead of falling off the wagon, use your practice to sustain you when times are tough. You’ll feel good and be more likely to come back to longer practice times when you’re able.

When I allowed myself to incorporate my practice into the rest of my life, I realised that I had lots of time to practise.

When I first started my home practice, I let myself listen to the radio until it was time for Savasana. I still occasionally integrate other things into my practice that give me joy, like—I confess—watching sports. When I allowed myself to incorporate my practice into the rest of my life, I realised that I had lots of time to practise. If you enjoy watching Australian Idol or reading the Sunday papers, why not do a forward bend sequence instead of lying on the couch? If you need a little music to get going, turn it on until it has served its purpose. Practising like this may not bring you the depth of awareness that a quieter, more meditative practice offers, but it will get you on your mat. You needn’t be self-indulgent all the time, but a practice that you look forward to is an excellent way to consistently connect to your body.

You can integrate people, too. Rodney Yee, who teaches his own form of yoga around the world, suggests practising with a friend. “Find someone who keeps you on the mat and keeps you responsible for your practice,” he says. “And let it be a source of fun. When you feel how much your yoga practice does for you, you’ll realise that it’s a good thing to do every day because you’ll have a happier life.”

Find Inspiration

When it comes time to create a plan, you can fall back on the basics—or look around for inspiration. There’s a Home Practice column in every issue of AustralianYoga Journal. If you need more ideas, there are many excellent books and DVDs to help you out. I’m willing to bet that even the best chefs still look at recipes once in a while when they’re fresh out of ideas and creative juice.

Pay attention to your favourite pose sequences during yoga classes and repeat them on your mat at home. Powers remembers going to her car after classes years ago and writing down interesting sequences she could explore in her own practice. Once you’ve got all or part of a sequence you like, try it at home the very next day.

Experiment with how long you hold a pose or how intensely you hold it: if you sense that you need a quiet, contemplative practice, do your sequence slowly and deeply. If you need to really move, hold poses for a shorter amount of time and repeat them. Add Sun Salutations at the beginning to get your blood pumping, or play with an inversion like Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) or Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance) in the middle of your practice. Remember, this is your time, so tinker in your own body as though you were a scientist in a lab.

Have a Standby

Once you’ve been practising at home for a while, you might notice that you naturally gravitate toward a core group of poses over and over again. Make this grouping your go-to routine for the days you’re too busy or uninspired to come up with an original sequence. Yee has a faithful routine for getting started when he’s on the road. “I’ll start my practice with a template of familiar and satisfying hip openers,” he says. “Then, as my body wakes up, I’ll listen to what is happening inside and decide where to go next. Some days it’s twists and backbends or pranayama and restoratives; other days I’ll go straight to inversions.”

You can always ask for help and guidance if you want to create a fall-back routine that’s just for you. If you want individual attention, Powers suggests scheduling a private session with your teacher. Think about what you want from your home practice. To balance your emotions? To work on a particular health condition? To improve a certain set of poses? A private class or teacher consultation can help you devise sequences that cater to your specific needs, and motivate you to practise them.

Choose A Focus

When you’re ready to build a sequence from scratch, you can take an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach and do a little of everything. Or you can tune in to which body parts are calling out to you and create a more specialised practice. Do you want to open your achy hips or stretch your shoulders? Would it be fun to focus on forward bends or backbends? Try the backbending sequence—pictured with this story—when you’ve got some time in the middle of the day and you want to experience its energising effects.

To create your own focused sequence, look at yoga’s key categories: standing poses, backbends, abdominals, inversions, twists and forward bends. Choose three categories and pick four poses for each. A sequence incorporating those will take about 30 minutes. So if your hips are achy and your shoulders are sore from sitting at the keyboard all day, do four hip-opening standing poses, four backbends and some seated twists.

Remember that Sun Salutations are a great stand-alone series of poses to do at any time, whether you do them vigorously, by jumping back to Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), or gently, by stepping back into lunges and choosing a low Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). They warm you up and work your entire body, so they don’t require specific preparation or cooling down.

Create a Beginning and an End

Whether you practise for 15 minutes or two hours, it’s important to have a beginning and an end to each session. Begin by getting quiet. Devote a few minutes—either while seated or while standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose)—to bring your focus to your breath, to meditate or to just feel your internal stillness. Pause from your busy day and come into the present moment.

Likewise, finish your practice quietly by doing a few easy supine poses—either Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) or a simple reclining twist (both neutralise the spine), or a more restorative pose like Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose). Then go into Savasana (Corpse Pose), lying on your back with your legs relaxed, your eyes closed and your palms face up. Stay for at least five minutes and come out of it slowly, letting yourself ease back into the rest of your day.

Just Do It

Many of us—even after we realise the benefits of a personal practice—seem to resist it. We tell ourselves that we don’t have enough space or time or that we don’t know what to do. Or we hold a romanticised vision of the perfect home practice and feel guilty when our reality doesn’t match the fantasy. We think we need a teacher to hold our hands.

The inner awareness you develop by practising on your own, though, is worth the leap in faith. Without your teacher’s voice guiding your every move, you can more easily go inside and witness what is happening in your body, emotions and mind. When you delve beneath the surface of the daily events in your life and turn your attention inward, you’ll get to know and experience yourself much more clearly.

You’ll feel what your body craves or rebels against, hear your mind’s chatter and become aware of your current mood. One day in Triangle Pose you’ll think, “Hmm, I’m tight and fidgety today. I’m sort of grumpy.” Or you’ll think, “Wow, Triangle Pose feels really good today. I feel energetic and vibrant, like there is no clutter inside of me right now.” When you clearly witness the multitude of mental, emotional and physical ups and downs that you go through in the span of just one pose, and you begin to notice how much your experience changes from day to day, you’ll learn a valuable lesson: that everything constantly changes. As a result you’ll react less to your inner dramas both on and off the mat, knowing that it is normal to fluctuate.

As you develop inner awareness, you’ll grow more capable of tailoring your practice to meet your needs. If you’re in the midst of a frustrating conflict, you might notice that a vigorous practice moves your energy to clear your mind. But if you’re fatigued and coming down with a cold, you’ll sense that a restorative practice is best. Over time you’ll become your own best teacher.

“Doing yoga at home is profoundly different from doing it under the direction of someone else in class,” concludes Mark Whitwell. “When you’re doing someone else’s yoga, you’re not doing your own yoga. It’s a huge evolutionary step to learn how to practise for yourself.”

Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)

In Trikonasana, focus on lengthening your torso as much as possible, which will set the stage for spacious and free backbends. Take a wide stance, turning your right foot toward the front of your mat and your left foot in 45 degrees. Root the four corners of each foot down into the ground and engage your leg muscles. Firm the bottom tips of your shoulder blades against your back and drive your arms away from each other into a T shape. On an exhalation, lengthen your torso to the right as you move your hips to the left. Place your right hand on a block or on the floor behind your shin. Use the stability of your legs to continue creating space in your side body and between each rib. Feel how the work of your shoulder blades and arms broadens your chest, and lay your head mildly back so that your upper body is in a slight backbend. Allow your chest to feel open and vulnerable, yet receptive and content, for 5 to 10 deep, smooth breaths.

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)

There are very few situations in which we reach our arms directly overhead and straighten them, so when we practise Urdhva Dhanurasana, it’s often difficult to extend through the elbows. Practising Virabhadrasana I before Urdhva Dhanurasana will help stretch and wake up your arms. Take the same wide stance and turn your right foot toward the front of your mat, your left foot in 45 degrees. Rotate your hips toward your front foot, and bend your knee deeply, toward 90 degrees. Take any excess sway out of your lower back by lengthening your tailbone toward the floor and lifting your bottom ribs and kidneys up. Next, bring your attention to your arms. Lift your arms vigorously toward the ceiling, shoulder-width apart, extending through your inner elbows. Use the strength of your arms reaching up to lift and further lengthen your lower back. Allow the natural full carriage of your chest to float and expand like a sail. Refine the pose for 5 to 10 breaths.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

To find the right distance between your hands and feet in the pose, lie on your belly and place your hands next to your rib cage. Press onto all fours. Spread your fingers wide, separate your feet hip-width apart, and lift your hips up and back. Draw your thighs up and back vigorously to create length and ease in your back. Accentuate the backbending component of this pose by reaching through your arm bones and allowing your forehead and chest to move toward the floor without collapsing in your shoulders. Settle in for 10 to 20 breaths.

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), variation

From all fours, bring your right knee forward until it touches your right wrist. Your right thigh will be parallel to the long side of your sticky mat, and your right foot will be approximately underneath your left hip. Wiggle your left leg back, lower your pelvis and walk your fingertips back to support the lift of your chest. Turn your attention to creating a subtle, even backbend. Draw your tailbone down and your side body up. Lift the back of your rib cage away from your sacrum. Draw your shoulder blades down and gently lift your chest, holding for 10 to 20 breaths.

Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)

Twisting poses are excellent preparations for Urdhva Dhanurasana, because they bring your attention to and create suppleness in your back body. From One-Legged King Pigeon Pose, lean onto your right hand, swing your back leg to the front and place your left foot on the floor to the outside of your right knee. To initiate the twist, wrap your right arm around the left knee and place your left fingertips to the floor behind you. Breathe smoothly into your back. Lift your back ribs up and roll your belly, chest and shoulders to the left. Turn your head to gaze over your left shoulder. For 10 to 20 breaths, relax your eyes and enjoy the release of any tension in your body.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
 (Bridge Pose)

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Separate your feet as wide as your hips and step your heels close to your outer buttocks. Gently root down through the bottom of your feet and the back of your upper arms. As you begin to lift your hips, be meticulous about these instructions: Lengthen your tailbone toward the back of your knees and peel your vertebrae away from the floor one by one into an arch. Roll your shoulders underneath you—which will open your chest further—and clasp your hands. Use this pose to explore the wavelike fluid movement of your spine. Continue to ground your upper-arm bones and allow your chest to rise and expand into a mild, freeing backbend for 5 to 10 breaths.

Supported Backbend

Place a block widthwise in the centre of your sticky mat. Lie back with the top of the block positioned underneath the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. This placement is key—you want the block to firm the bottom tips of the shoulder blades against the back ribs, which will open your upper back. Relax the back of your head and pelvis, as well as the bottoms of your feet, on the floor. Place a folded blanket under your head if your neck feels at all strained. Interlace your fingers except for your index fingers, which you’ll straighten. Reach your arms toward the ceiling. Keeping your elbows straight, lower your arms and extend them over your head. Observe the vast spaciousness this creates in your chest and armpits. Calmly and gently lengthen your breath for 10 to 30 cycles.

Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)

Lie back with your knees bent and your feet on the ground. Keeping your feet hip-width apart, place your hands next to your ears, palms down, with your fingers pointing toward the shoulders. Exhale, lift your hips and torso off the floor as you place the top of your head lightly on the floor. Narrow your elbows so that they are as wide as your shoulders and extend your arms on your next exhalation. Although the pose is invigorating and challenging, scan your entire body and make sure that you are not straining. Press your feet and hands firmly into the floor and allow your front body and chest to billow toward the ceiling. Settle your nerves by taking 5 to 10 smooth breaths. Release all the way to the floor on an exhalation. Repeat two more times, resting for a few breaths in between.

Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)

Practice Supta Padangusthasana after backbends to soothe your nerves, re-elongate your hamstrings, and provide a neutral pose for your spine. Draw your right knee into your chest and wrap a strap around the arch of your foot. Use both hands to hold each side of your strap. Anchor the pose by firming your bottom leg, and slowly extend your top leg toward the ceiling until your knee is straight. If you can’t maintain postural integrity and extend your leg vertically, lower your leg toward the floor until there is no strain in your neck, belly or face. If you have long, supple hamstrings, feel free to move your leg toward your torso. Enjoy 10 full cycles of smooth, rhythmic breath before you change sides.