Flowing into self-practice

There is something very special about attending a yoga class. The teacher creates and holds a regular space, an anchor in our week, in which we can explore and discover our relationship with our body, undoing tension, relaxing our muscles and cultivating an awareness that helps us to be more attentive to the needs of our body in our daily life. A clear structure is provided: the essential elements of a sequence of postures followed by a relaxation and often also incorporating a breathing practice and closing with a few minutes of sitting. Teacher, space and structure combine to help students enjoy and develop a practice of yoga.

If you have been attending classes and have begun to feel the benefits of yoga, you may feel inspired to begin to play with yoga away from a formal setting. Yet, students often find they don’t know where to start when it comes to developing a self-practice. However, with a few simple tips, and with the emphasis on keeping it simple, you can let your yoga flow out of the studio and onto your mat at home. Just dive in.

The point is to begin

One of my favourite quotes is from a ‘Yoga for you’ by Tara Fraser, whose classes I used to attend at her North London studio Yoga Junction. It goes something like this: ‘The point is to begin and see where the journey takes you.’ Whenever I go to my mat and I don’t know where to start, I always return to the simple sequences she offers in the back of her accessible guide for every body who wants to practice at home. The point is, that stepping into the unknown, is something that yoga teaches us to do more gracefully, and you don’t know where the yoga is going to take you. However, there are some tried and tested methods of practicing yoga, and it’s extremely helpful to have some of them at hand from people who have been there before. Then you can start to find your own path.

So, if you have 20 minutes to practice, and you want to know what to do in that time, then have a ‘go to’ book that you can open anytime of day and find a way in. As well as Fraser’s book, the following also sit next to my meditation cushion and yoga mat: Yoga Sequencing by Mark Stephens, Yoga Practice Book by Chloe Fremantle and Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom Through Yoga and Tantra by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli.

Ask your teacher

The best teachers will always guide you towards cultivating your own practice, encouraging independence and helping you find the courage to do yoga your way. If you particularly enjoyed a sequence, then ask your teacher to sketch and/or name the sequence of postures that you played with in class. Give them time to do this and ask if they would be happy to share them them at the next class. If you attend an ashtanga yoga class, your teacher should have a copy of the series you are practicing at hand, with options of shorter versions for when you have a smaller window of time in which to practice.

Go online

Personally, I find having a device on distracting (see next tip), but many people find an excellent way in which to practice regularly at home. This approach gives you access to a wealth of teachers from all over the world whenever you need them. Gaiam and Yogaglo are great places to start. You will also find sequences on You Tube, though it may take a bit of sifting to get to the good stuff.

Switch off

Ring mark time in your day to practice. This might be ten minutes, it might be 90 minutes. The quantity of time is not as important as the quality of time. Afterall, yoga is a practice in being present so give yourself the best chance you can of staying focused and present and enjoying a mini-break with your body. Go offline, switch off all devices, or put them into airplane mode, and set the kitchen timer. As soon as the timer starts, dive into your practice. One or two postures approached with strong intention and focused awareness will reap greater rewards than 10 with distraction and disconnection.

Dare to create

Once you've been practicing at home for a while with sequences from a book, your teacher or online, then experiment with creating your own sequences. These don't have to be perfectly honed and executed, give yourself permission to ask what your body needs right now and go with whatever postures spring to mind. Begin and end with a rest, and let the body guide you through a sequence that feels good in that moment. Working sensitively in this way, and with attention to the breath, will ensure that your practice is always precisely crafted and perfectly safe for you.

Plan your own classes

If a free-form approach still feels too scary, then spend a few minutes at the beginning of each session planning your own class using the format of a flowing vinyasa sequence, which is centred around a key pose, building up to and then warming down from that posture. As a general guide it goes something like this, though you may find your own way: standing (am) or lying (pm) or dancing between the two, inversions (e.g. downward dog), backbends (e.g. bridge), twists, sitting, lying, and always finishing in corpse pose to allow your body to integrate the work you have just done. Once you have a plan, don't be afraid to change course along the way. You may feel that a different posture works better than the one you had originally intended, or that there are some in-between movements that are needed to help the body feel freer as it works towards the more challenging parts of the class.

Yoga journal

Keep a journal of your yoga practice. This could be as comprehensive as noting down the sequences you explored and enjoyed, that you found challenging and/or that you'd like to revisit, alongside notes about how your body responded and how you felt in yourself before and after the practice, physically and emotionally. Or it could be as simple as noting down in your diary every yoga practice and the number of minutes you dedicated to yoga that day. This can be a nice way to build a positive picture of how you are building yoga into your life. Focus on what you have done, not on what you think you should have done. Open the door to what is, acknowledge what you have achieved; close the door on the dark stranger who likes to breed discontent, aka the guilty self-critic.

Keep on weeding

If it feels like your yoga practice is swimming against the tide of all the other demands in your life, keep the faith, keep weeding. Ten minutes here and there, whenever the moment arises, is always worthwhile and is always an occasion to be celebrated. Those precious moments of weeding the tension out of your muscles and creating space for yoga to blossom, are key to building a sustainable practice. As Vanda Scaravelli so cannily put it, 'In the beginning you have to make room for yoga in your daily life, and give it the place it deserves. But after some time yoga itself will pull you up by the hair and make you do it.' Yoga will flourish wherever it is given the conditions to grow. Gradually, you will begin to find your flow, that space where time dissolves and you are so focused that you become lost in the creative practice of yoga as only you can know it.

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