How to develop a self-practice
Long before Coronavirus forced yoga lovers to roll out their mats at home rather than visit their favourite studio, people struggled to get in the habit of self-practice at home. But if you’re serious about yoga, you’ll know that it’s what you do on your own mat, in your own space, that really informs and enhances your practice. So, how to find the discipline (never mind the space) to get on the mat at home? There’s the rare practitioner who just takes to stepping on the mat in their own space from day one, but they are few and far between. It took me years to develop a firmly entrenched habit of daily home practice.
In my defence, when I first took to yoga, my kids were toddlers, wide awake at the crack of dawn, bouncing around on my bed before I’d had a chance to wake up. In the strict Ashtanga world I moved in at the time, we were told that the best time to practise was at sunrise (if not before). There’s no doubt that it’s a great way to start the day, and very feasible to those with iron reserves of discipline (not me) or those who live in warmer climes with few responsibilities in daily life.
There are, of course, parents blessed with much better will power than I, who manage to find a way to home-practise early in the morning, toddlers and all. So really, no defence at all. But the goal of yoga is to show you who you really are. (If you keep on practising, you’ll see how that works.) After many failed attempts to get up before daylight and step on the mat, I finally came to accept that who I really am is someone who needs to be asleep in bed at 5 am in the morning, even now that my children are adults.
I’ve long since given up all attempts to drag myself out of bed before cockcrow. Most days, I’m on the mat by 8 am. If life gets in the way, it could be 11-ish. It’s always the morning for my Ashtanga practice, because that’s what works for me. It may be different for you. If I’m taking a day to do a Yin practice, I prefer the evening.
So, based on my long struggle to get there myself, here are my tips for self-practice at home:
- Make one space in your home your practice space, if you can. Even if it’s a mat-sized space in your bedroom, make it your own.
- Heat your space. It’s really hard to practise in the cold, so if you can, have your space well warmed up before you start. An oil-filled, plug-in radiator set right by your mat and switched on 15 minutes before you start works well.
- Leave your mobile in another room. If it’s with you, it will distract you, even with the sound off.
- Practise at whatever time you like (mornings are generally preferred), but try to practise at the same time every day, or as close to it as you can. It won’t always happen for you, but sticking to the same time helps make it a habit. On the other hand, don’t use missing your set time as an excuse not to practise – just get on the mat when you can.
- Switch off the Inner Critic! Don’t judge your practice by how far you get in the sequence or how easily things flow. Every day will be different. Give yourself a pat on the back for getting on the mat, even if it’s for 10 minutes.
- Keep a practice journal – just note every day you practise and write a couple of lines about how it felt each day.
- If you like to use incense, a scented candle or an oil diffuser, prepare your practice area by setting it up a few minutes before you start. Then, when you step on your mat, the scent will act as a mental cue. Your mind will think “Ah, my practice space!”. It’s all about creating a ritual, tricking your mind to relax and think “ah, practice time”.
- Unless you are a very disciplined person (in which case, you won’t need any of these tips), don’t start by telling yourself you have to practise every day. Aim for 2 or 3 days a week and promise yourself you’ll do this for a month. By the end of the month, if you’ve stuck to your 3 days, you might feel like adding more days. And if you don’t, 3 days is great. Look back over your practice journal and feel good about all the days you managed to get on the mat. More pats on the back!
- Don’t skip Shavasana! Make sure you take 10 minutes’ rest in Shavasana at the end of every practice. It’s what gives the body and mind a chance to settle and integrate the benefits of the practice for the day. I once heard skipping Shavasana described as like mixing all the ingredients for a beautiful cake, then forgetting to put it in the oven. It’s easy to skip at home, so don’t let yourself do that. Set a timer (“Still Mind” is a good app) and don’t get up off the mat til you hear the alert to tell you time’s up.
- Prioritise your practice. You have to make time for it, no matter what. Don’t make any appointments for the time you’ve blocked off for practice. Act like it’s sacred time (which it is).
The first thing to accept is that it’s not always going to feel great. If you only get on the mat on the days when you feel fantastic, you’ll never get a regular practice together. There are days that you feel light as a feather and flow through the sequence. You’re having a Sattvic day, in yoga philosophy terms. Some days you’ll have plenty of energy, but it might be the wrong kind. You might be inclined to be hard on yourself, pushing through the sequence (and risking injury). Now you’re having a Rajasic day. And some days, inertia takes over and you’re barely able to drag yourself onto the mat. Hello, Tamasic day! (what I call my “sack of potato” days). Things get a whole lot easier once you accept that every day is different. There’s no “good” and “bad”. It’s all your practice. The qualities of the three Gunas, the three forces of energy that yoga philosophy says govern the universe, are at play, and sometimes one force dominates. By the time you’ve finished your sun salutations (if not before), you’ll know what kind of practice you’re going to have. But I guarantee you that you’ll never regret stepping on the mat. That’s the magic of yoga.
If you’re dropping in, or these days, tuning in, to a teacher once or twice a week, supplementing this with stepping on the mat at home will really help integrate your practice into your life. It will become, as the great Ashtanga teacher David Swenson says, like brushing your teeth. You won’t even think about leaving the house without it.
Most of all, remember that “a little a lot is better than a lot a little“. Twenty minutes three times a week will bring you more benefit than 90 minutes once a week. Break it down, make it manageable, and most of all, enjoy!