How To Start A Yoga Self-Practice
My name is RAD.
And I'm an addict.
I am addicted to going to yoga classes!
Public classes were how I first fell in love with yoga, and even now some 2.5 years later, most of the time I will still choose a class over practicing by myself. I have so much respect for all you self-taught yogis as there is no way I would be where I am without the structured environment a class provides, or the physical presence of a teacher to explain and assist me. And now as a teacher, I still love all of that, and I appreciate the effort the teacher is putting in so much more.
But there is a reason we call our yoga practice a practice. You go to class to study. And you step on your own mat in your own space in your own time to try out what you have learned. A good teacher will share their experience of yoga with you in a class, whereas a self practice brings you to your own experiences.
Developing a personal practice has been one of the most unexpected and most satisfying parts of my yoga journey. And also one of the most challenging. I started off with just messing around with specific poses I needed more time for than was available within a class. Inversions, arm balances, long holds geared towards flexibility. But eventually I wanted to be able to move like I did in class - flowing from pose to pose, creating fire then cooling down, marrying breath with movement. I wanted to learned how to flow by myself.
So I started to try. And I tried, and gave up, and tried, and gave up so many times. It was so frustrating! So my first piece of advice is to be patient with yourself. And keep trying! Don't expect yourself to create a perfectly balanced 60 minutes out of nowhere.
These are my 4 pieces of advice or guidance to get you started...
1. WARM UP
Start at the beginning - do what you need to do to get your body moving and ready. Put on some music and spend 1-2 songs here. Switching from 1 minute down dogs to 1 minute active child's poses is a nice and simple option. Maybe add in some cat-cows, or some seated sideways bends. Whatever feels good.
The easiest way to start flowing yourself (in my opinion) is to start with the classic sun salutations (a & b). You add in any other poses you want to work on after the downward dog (in a) or after/instead of the Warrior I (in b). You can link a couple of standing or seated poses together as you get more confident and then finish the vinyasa, and then go again. It won't be perfect and you'll forget to some poses on both sides, but hey, that's why it's called practice!
The best tip I can give here is to use your 3-5 breaths in down dog to plan what you are going to do next. There are some great books, both 'e' and real, out there with flows and things you can copy, but if you're anything like me, remembering those in the moment is basically impossible. Learning to be ok with making it up as you go along will mean you can always get on your mat to practice, and that;s what you are really going for right? Eventually all this will mean more listening to your body and working out cool sequences and neat transitions, but one step at a time.
Try starting with 3-5 classic Surya A's followed by 3-5 of your own creative ones. Then 3-5 classic Surya B's followed by 3-5 of your own creative ones. Then you will be well on your way.
Still struggling to know how to get creative? Picking a theme (say balancing, or hip opening, or shoulders, or back bending) and riffing through all the different poses you know along that line can help. Or maybe you were really inspired by a flow you did in a class or saw on insta. Try and remember three key poses and try them together next time you are on your mat. It won't be identical, but that's ok!
Other times I just get on my mat and close my eyes and think about how I am feeling and what I need. Strong? Calm? Excited? Focused? Take that feeling and use it. This is the kind of flow that took me the longest to be able to do. But it's the kind I now practice the most. Once you start giving your body space to speak, and your mind the time to hear, you just find the poses coming to you. It's like magic.
I could replicate here what lots of excellent sequencing books will tell you about how to build a perfect practice. But if your self-practice is anything like mine was at the start, and lets be honest still often is, perfect is a long way off! So a good enough self practice would contain following 3 elements - a warm up , a flow, and a cool down or savasana. It's that simple.
If there is something specific you are working on (like pincha for me at the moment) you could consider this as a 4th section that you put in before your cool down or savasana. Here I am not worrying about linking poses. I am just trying, and often failing. But trying again! A little mini workshop if you will, where I will often have my phone next to me to read some tips I've jotted down, or watch a tutorial, or to study a post from instagram.
You can spend as much or as little time in each of these sections as you like, but give yourself time for all three (or four!). I've talked already about the first two elements. But the last so important. There are many things that distinguish a yoga practice from an exercise class, but I think savasana is one of the essential ones. Give yourself some time to absorb the work you have done, the energy expended, the connection you made to your breath. Just to be present. Just to be. That is why we practice after all. B.K.S. Iyengar calls savasana the most difficult asana. He asks in his book 'Light on Life' "Can I now in savasana, put down even the sexual identity that links me to past and future? Can I exist in a discrete awareness of time in which neither past nor future impinge or taint the present? Savasana is being without was, being without what will be. It is being without anyone who is." I cannot imagine anything harder than this. So I try and practice it as often as possible.
One more question I am often asked on this topic is how to balance a self practice alongside classes. I'm not structured at all in my home practice to be honest - I just do what I feel like doing. I have broad goals I am working towards but if I focus too much on them then my personality is such that I push too much and injure myself (literally - see this post if you missed it). I therefore tend to find my self-practice is what I haven't covered in classes that week and want to make up on, or what I learned in a class and loved, so want to take further, or just what I feel like I need on that particular day.
I'm sure I could "progress" quicker if I dedicated particular days to inversions, backbending, arm-balances etc etc, but breaking bones by doing that has taught me that progress isn't the be all and end all. My goal is to get in my mat at least 6 days a week. 5 minutes. 90 minutes. Everything in between. Maybe there will be a day when all this changes, but for now, this is where I am, so this is what I am sharing with you all.