Daily yoga practice can take different shape and form. When our practice is consistent, it is likely to evoke change and transformation, thus the practice changes with us. Whilst we all love the benefits of a good yoga class, it’s quite a different matter to develop a consistent and sustainable self-practice at home.
Recently, I set myself the challenge of restructuring and simplifying, yet deepening, my daily yoga self-practice. In this process, self-practice meant... no video, no audio; just me and the mat, and a block.
However, self-practice could just as well include a guided experience, with video support (there is plenty out there to dip into), especially when building a practice for the first time.
Here are four things that helped me:
1. Setting a realistic and manageable time boundary
With yoga, we often imagine a successful practice as a daily one-hour class, or perhaps even longer depending on the style of yoga. Light Watkins (meditation teacher) described a successful practice as sitting for just 10 – 15 minutes daily (keep in mind that meditation is also yoga). Our idea of success, will depend on our intention for the practice, and all the factors influencing or impinging on practice.
Since I was keen to develop a consistent, daily practice, I defined my successful practice as:
30 minutes of intentional self-directed practice, (preferably) shortly after waking and before going to work (weekday) or before any other activity (weekend).
For my context 30 minutes felt both manageable and realistic. From experience, I knew I could easily practice asana for an hour or longer. For this practice I wanted to consider the impact of restricting the practice to a manageable length so that I could consistently show up and develop what we call ‘shraddha’ or a liking for the practice.
Notice, I added in ‘preferably’, giving myself leeway for those occasional days where I had to bump my practice to later in the day. I discovered that I could show up consistently for 30 minutes, and most days gave myself an extra five minutes.
Bottom line: stay realistic regarding what fits in your daily life. Perhaps undershoot the time, and allow yourself to go over the target if it feels right for you.
2. Creating a structure for the practice
I was interested to explore the traditional approach (from Krishnamacharya's teaching) of practising asana, followed by pranayama and then meditation, so elected to break my daily 30 minutes into three very short sections:
Asana / Posture with Movement
Pranayama / Breathing practices
I made it a non-negotiable to structure the session in this way because asana (postures with movement) typically dominates my practice. I wanted to be sure to create opportunity to experience both breathing and meditation practices in order to establish a routine that could be built upon.
If you are new to yoga, you may choose to start with one of these key practices. Often asana / postures with movement are our gateway practices, and many people start yoga through the practice of asana.
3. Deciding on the content
Be the author of your yoga self-practice, and chose the practices that match your needs. (You may find tricky if you haven’t yet developed a range of practices or skills). Here are a few of the practices that I leaned into:
Asana / Postures with Movement (10 minutes approximately)
Joint freeing / mobilising sequence.
I love this practice for a warm up, and especially early in the morning after waking. It brings gentle movement into all the synovial joints as well as the connective tissue around the joints. I often recommend this practice as a starting point for students who want to develop a self-practice.
The joint freeing sequence can also be a helpful way to practice mindful movement, by connecting each movement with the breath. When we move slowly, we can turn our attention inwards and notice how each joint is feeling in turn. This allows us to notice if there are any signs of discomfort or impingement, or conversely if joints are moving feeling and are feeling just fine!
I teach two versions of this in my Yoga for Wellbeing classes, one seated and one lying down. And if you attend my classes, hopefully, this is a practice that is becoming familiar to you and that you can lean into for starting a self-practice.
Pranayama / Breathing Techniques (10 minutes approximately)
There are many breathing and pranayama techniques, which can make it hard to know where to start. Here are three basic practices that I leaned into:
The Basic Skill of Breath Awareness. For this practice, we simply pause to notice the breath (e.g. at the nostrils), without changing the breath. In this noticing we can gather information about how the breath is responding in the moment (is it smooth and flowing, is it laboured, is it shallow or deep?).
It’s actually more challenging than it sounds, since, as soon as we become aware of the breath, we start to influence and change it…
Exploration of Breathing Patterns. Different breathing patterns can help us to stimulate and tone our breathing apparatus, including the diaphragm, intercostal muscles and abdominal muscles.
Example: Lying down, abdominal breathing. For this practice allow the belly to gently expand as you inhale (try not to force it); then as you exhale feel the belly gently relaxing back in. You may like to gently extend the inhale and exhale to a four, five or six count (whatever feels comfortable for you without straining the breath). In this practice a key challenge is letting the abdomen be soft so it is not held artificially tight; remembering that it is a practice for the diaphragm, though our attention remains on the abdomen.
Nadi Shodana.This is a traditional pranayama practice, also known as alternate nostril breathing. We use the thumb of right hand to gently close off the right nostril, and the ring finger of the same hand to gently close off the left nostril, each in turn. To begin with allow your inhale and exhale to flow naturally, with ease and comfort:
· Close right nostril and breath in through left nostril
· Close left and right nostril, pause for a second or two
· Open right nostril and breathe out
· Pause for a second or two
· Breath in through right nostril
· Pause for a second or two
· Open left nostril and breathe out
· Pause for a second or two
Repeat the sequence for 2 minutes or for as long as feels comfortable.
Meditation (10 minutes)
My studies have included three main forms of meditation: mindfulness meditation, absorption meditation and contemplation. For my morning practice I chose to start with a mindfulness meditation practice by simply sitting and watching the breath. It sounds simple, though keeping attention on the breath can be challenging as thoughts interrupt and easily side track us. It requires effort to keep pulling our attention back to observing the breath.
I also found it helpful to notice the thoughts and their content (sometimes they were fear based, sometimes full of hope, sometimes ruminating, sometimes reflective, sometimes contemplative, sometimes projecting)... this practice really helps us to see what the mind was most engaged on / running away with.
Another practice I found helpful was mantra meditation. Example: a traditional mantra is ‘Om’. After repeating Om aloud, pause and notice its vibration in the body / heart centre and notice the silence that follows. A benefit of mantra meditation is that the mantra interrupts the thoughts, since it is impossible for two thoughts to coexist. Though of course, our random thoughts still seem to spring up, in between each repetition of the mantra.
4. Closing the Practice with a Journal Entry (1 to 5 minutes extra)
One way to close the practice is to write a short journal entry. This can be as simple as making a note in your diary (e.g. Day 50 - 36 min - thoughts projecting into future - hope); or you may want to write more detail about the quality of the practice. For example you could consider:
What arose in the practice? What feelings, thoughts, emotions, sensations?
What challenge did you face in managing the practices? What was difficult for you? What felt comfortable? What adjustments did you need to make?
Did you find it easy to manage the practices for yourself? What guidance would help you?
How did you feel at the end of the practice? Calm? Agitated? Centred? Energised?
Journaling potentially adds value to the overall practice as it allows opportunity to contemplate and draw upon insight that arises, which enables deepening of the practices.
No matter the length of the practice you chose (5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes…) or the content, the key to creating a sustainable practice that provokes change is turning up consistently. The success of a self-practice may also depend on our ability to pay attention to how we are feeling on a given day and adjust the skills / practices to meet our needs, so offer yourself some flexibility.
Moving into 2024, I plan to continue with my 30 minute practice for at least 58 more days. Then I will review and consider what changes to make. And if you decide to try too, let me know how it goes!