How to Establish a Home Yoga Practice

My seven steps for creating a home yoga practice:

  1. Commit
  2. Plan
  3. Claim Space
  4. Sequence
  5. Rejoice
  6. Accept & Adjust
  7. Trust

1. Commit. The first step to beginning a yoga practice at home is setting your intention. Start small. Don’t go for a sweaty 90 minute flow your first day, and at the same time, don’t worry about only getting four breaths in your first down dog. Just decide, today I’m going to practice yoga, and take what comes.

2. Plan. An essential part of getting yourself motivated to step onto your mat each day is planning. Plan for something, anything. Plan to stretch your hamstrings. Plan to open your heart. Plan to turn off your screens and quiet that buzzing in your ears. Plan to release the anxieties of a bad day. With time, this step fades in importance because a home practice eventually becomes a habit, so each time you start you’ll realize what it is you stand to gain from practicing. Stay with me.

3. Claim Space. This is the most important piece, and the part I struggle with the most. Unlike attending a class at a studio where cell phones are verboten, napping children are miles away, and the only dogs you encounter are of the downward variety, for a successful home practice you must cultivate a place and space. Add to this other confounding factors, like maybe you live in a little house like mine, and don’t have a yoga room. Or maybe you have a newborn who needs to nurse every twenty minutes. Or your living room is messy, and all your yoga leggings are dirty. Take stock of your challenges and recognize that they are surmountable. Yoga requires very little square footage, babies eventually sleep, clutter can be transcended, and naked yoga is a thing.

Roll with the challenges that threaten to prevent you from breathing big. The days when the path to your mat is less fraught with demands will be the glory days. Remember that practice is practice–practice is never perfect. But sometimes we achieve what we are practicing for, so look forward with glee to the days when your home savasana coincides with the morning light streaming through your windows and your pug dog napping at your side. Staking a sacred place to practice is so essential, but it need not be on consecrated ground. Some of the best home practice spaces I’ve found are wedged between a bed and a bureau, share a wall with a noisy neighbor, and have squeaky uneven floor boards. But the spaces become sacred because they’re mine and mine alone and in this crazy world, and that is the best space I can hope for.

4. Sequence. Even though I have been practicing yoga for over 12 years, starting with a routine helps me commit to a more dedicated time on my mat. I think there are infinite variations of how you can start your practice; I like to begin with 5 sun A’s & 5 sun B’s, with a 5 breath count for each posture. After this foundation is set, I let my body flow through whatever I need for the day being careful to maintain balance–that is, a forward fold to counteract an inversion, or a heart opener to level out a twist, and respect for the left and right side bodies. I realize going with the flow isn’t for everybody, and I am thankful that I have a strong practice to allow me this extemporaneous flexibility and movement. For true beginners, there are several decent online streaming class websites that offer guidance. I have mixed feelings about following these classes, since it definitely takes away a piece of the “self” part of a home practice. But helpful nonetheless for new yogis. Instead of classes, I suggest getting a manual or flash cards, and flipping through images of the postures to move through. With time, you will learn to rely on these less, and part of your planning piece before you arrive at your mat can be spent watching short youtube clips on any specific questions you have about how an asana is performed properly. Always, whether we are beginners or lifelong practitioners, it is so important to follow the limits and abilities of your body. When in doubt, modify.

5. Rejoice. I said above that eventually a home practice becomes a habit. There are some harried days in my life that have been too frantic to take the time to roll out my mat. Some days, forward folding on the floor for two minutes while the oven preheats is all it takes to remind me how much I revere the simple act of breathing and stretching. Those days that feel scary or sad are transformed by a practice, and I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that I rely on the comfort and safety of yoga to guide me gently through hardships and joys. The ecstatic moments when I hold handstand for ten breaths to a hip hop soundtrack are as empowering as the silent seated twists I have in the dawn lights. Realize that any instant we can capture for self-awareness and reflection makes us stronger and more joyful human beings.

6. Accept & Adjust. I’ve written before how the more yoga I do, the more yoga I crave. And it is so true that my home practice has morphed from something I used to do exclusively alone during nap time, bedtime, or in the wee hours of the morning, into an activity I invite my son to join me in. I have a much more playful practice when my toddler is afoot, but this does not lessen the gains. This step, I believe, is the one that has most sustained my regular practice. Because there will always be days when I would rather sleep in past 5:30am, I must grant myself the permission to practice alongside train track construction. Self-indulgent, maybe. But it is a variety of self-care that is hopefully teaching my son healthy coping mechanisms for living in this vast and unpredictable world. If nothing else, we can always return to our poses to take some breaths before we again face the busy world that demands so much.

7. Trust. The last step, I think, for establishing a home practice, is trusting yourself to do what you need, and to heed the yoga call. Sometimes in traditional classes, I silently ache through unnecessary explanations or poses that go on longer than I want. The process of changing into yoga clothes, traveling to a studio, paying $15 for a class, stressing about whether the babysitter will remember to offer carrots with snack, and wondering if I remembered deodorant that day or not is often more taxing than any relaxation gained from the class. But with a home practice, you get to choose what you want and leave what you don’t. It is a great metaphor for life, and one that serves me day after day. Trust that yoga is a legitimate priority, and take it easy on yourself if it takes some time to find a groove.


Too Much Yoga?

I have a question, and I would really love some feedback on this, my dear & sweet readers:

Is there such a thing as too much yoga?

Levitating, Meditating, Flute-playing Gnu

Levitating, Meditating, Flute-playing Gnu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last few weeks, I’ve been randomly asked how many hours I practice per day by numerous people. The answer, in case you’re curious, too, is: 3-4 (meditation and physical asanas). I want to meditate more, but right now it is between 20 and 40 minutes each day total (post-wake and pre-sleep sessions). I utilize the day care at the gym–my son enjoys his time there as much as I enjoy my 1.5-2 hours practicing. Then, I usually follow up at home for another hour to an hour and a half with certain poses I want to explore and track progress on while my child naps. In addition, I practice again when he is in bed for the night, often the shortest sessions of 30-45 minutes. Sprinkle in a few classes at local studios, and of course my ubiquitous beach yoga sessions, and I spend the majority of my free time doing yoga.

Is this too much? I still go about my other daily life activities. I don’t put off any essential responsibilities. The way I understand it is, I’m here in this new state with few friends, zero extended family, and a husband who often works long hours. If the option to hang out with people arises, I shorten or skip a session without a second thought. I don’t write as often, though. And I don’t run or play tennis. I haven’t been doing much css study, and I’ve permanently put my nano novel out of my mind.

So readers, I need some advice. Should I be reading more? Studying child rearing? Memorizing recipes? Cleaning the base boards more often? I don’t really know. I want to be a well-rounded person, and I’m either really excited or really afraid that I’m starting to identify as a yoga practitioner and structure my days around it.

I think I need to work on giving back to the world more. When I was working as a librarian, it was gratifying because I was working to further a societal institution. I’ve been volunteering in a library a couple of hours each week, but maybe that is not enough.

Would it be feeding my yoga addiction to seek a way to better the world around me through…well, yoga?

Related: I wonder if Betty Friedan would have done yoga if it was as accessible as it is today? I just finished reading this book, and it was fascinating!!


Sunday Goal

Sometimes I just want time to stop. Or at least slow down so I can savor the day’s moments before going on to the next one. The azaleas, camellias, spirea, Dutch iris, anemones, and redbud blooms that all peaked last week are already colorfully decorating the ground. I thought I had time to enjoy them before they gave way to their hearty green leaves.

Milestones don’t stop happening when you become an adult. There are times that we grown ups finally learn to let in understanding, forgiveness, happiness. Maybe it doesn’t happen all of the sudden (maybe it does). Lately, I think of growing up akin to the process of letting my muscles become loose enough to comfortably sit in hanumanasana. It is said that the human body is innately flexible, that under anesthesia a doctor can contort his patient into any shape; but, the conscious nervous system prevents us from touching our toes when we want to, or flopping into double pigeon before a proper warm up. Little by little as an adult, I am learning what it means to hold grudges, to allow toxic people to influence my life choices, to be genuinely happy for the (seemingly) stress free life my sister lives. As I come to these realizations, I wonder if my busyness (you know, the pull to the iPhones, the computer, the newspaper sitting unread on the kitchen table) has been interfering with my ability to grow as a human?

This is a lofty question, and I do not intend to solve it on a quiet Sunday evening. But I am making a resolve: Sundays will be the day I unplug. I’m going to leave my phone where I don’t look at it when I am unoccupied for 30 seconds. I will use my real cameras. I’m going to stop checking social media on Sundays, devote this day to my family, my self, and the calming of my mind for a week ahead.

Upward and onward, is how I try to think about life. But sometimes, you just want to stay in bed. To rewind time and relive the amazing day you had with your family. Go back to the age of 1.5 and take back all the times you refused to nap and line them all up for an epic lie in. I’m not a lazy person, but who doesn’t long to linger in savasana?  With this time I dust together on Sundays, I might make a dent in the to be read pile that is higher than the nightstand, finish a pot of tea, reuse the leaves and drink a second pot. On Sundays, I will stop hurrying the dog through his morning routine, and I might finally pot all the plants that are rooting in glass jars along my windowsills. I’ll read more books to my son, keep reading aloud even when his attention fades after five minutes. On Sundays in savasana, I will let myself cross that visible barrier between consciousness and sleep. I might fold laundry too, but only if I feel like doing it mindfully. No folding laundry begrudging the amount of socks my family wears. I can resume my despair of sock matching on Monday, but Sunday should be a day of peace. A day of action within every moment of inaction.

Don’t you agree?


Print vs Digital

If you follow me on Instagram, you might recall that I recently snapped a picture of a book– Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, (print).  I was following my personal collection development policy, which favors aesthetics and sentiments over informational value.  The bookshelves throughout our home contain a rather exclusive assortment of titles.  I used to amass books in the name of book love, but moving 2 times in the last 17 months, I’ve gotten rid of the detritus and diversions from the heart of my collection.  My reading tastes tend towards fiction, but just a sliver less than half is non-fiction: poetry, religious guides, history, handbooks and thesauri.  I’ve weeded all of my travel guides, except my dog eared and postcard laden copies of Paris: 2010, and St. Petersburg: 2006.  I only have two college text books (out of probably 50), zero grad school texts.  The oeuvre of an author is important to me as I grow older, and I feel like McEwan is a great friend I have gotten to know over the years.  Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Woolfe, too.

When I lived in foreign countries, I often bought books for the beauty of their cover art, but as time has passed I’ve retained only the ones whose words are most meaningful.  I guess that is what is so troublesome to me when people moan about the demise of print books, the loss of tactile experience, the cover art, the damn smell of dead trees and chemical laden paper, for goodness sakes.  As a book consumer, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has been seduced by a nice cover image, uneven pages, the pristine surfaces that lie below our fingertips, virgin words.  This copy of Sweet Tooth was decorated in red and green, curlicue fonts, like a gift that was so pretty it didn’t even need wrapping.  I laughed at myself later when I noticed this.  I imagined myself, eight years ago, standing in a London bookshop.  I might have snatched up a copy of a similarly designed book, maybe even two copies: one for me, one to send to my mother back home.  Agreeing to try a new author based on the physical product, but then falling in love because of his words.  I can accept the nostalgia some people have for print books, but outright refusal to read digitally because it is not the purest form of the book is faulty logic.  When reading a digital version, the text goes directly from the author’s formulation of the words to your own mind, and that is the purest form of love a reader can have for a book, I think.

My valuation of McEwan’s new novel notwithstanding, I am glad I have it in both forms, if only to make that area of the bookshelf  more complete and devoted.  I imperceptibly leapt with joy when I spotted the cover at Indigo Books.  I can’t remember the last print book I bought for myself before that.  Do you feel the same way about digital books? Are you a reluctant ereader?


Sadhana

In a fit of insomnia this week, I flailed around for something to take my mind off the sleeplessness, and found my phone.  I read twitter, which almost always leads me to some useful or interesting article.  I read this one: A Buddhist Poem by an Anonymous Samurai Warrior.

Then, during my yoga practice the next morning, I remembered that I had a startling realization during the night.  As usual, this epiphany (of sorts) hovered at the edge of my consciousness, and the more I tried to recall it, the faster it slipped away.  I remember bits of it though.  It was like a recipe to fall asleep.  As simple as concentrating on inhalations and exhalations, but it was a mantra.  Something that I had once known for years, but recently forgot as life pulled me in all its many confusing directions.

My yoga was stifled.  I hurt my neck last week working on my scorpion pose (vrischikasana, for all you yoga purists), so I was hesitant to jump back into the poses with my usual gusto.  I did a long yin style practice, focusing on stretching my mid and lower back instead of the forearm and shoulder strength I’ve been working on for the last few weeks.

Scorpion is a very stressful pose, and unless your body is ready for every bend and lift, injuries happen very easily.  So even though it once only took me a month to master the pose, I am taking it slow this time.  My body has been through a lot in the three years since I used to regularly throw myself into scorpion, and I need to respect that.  I do not typically watch the clock to time my solo yoga, but it almost always lasts about 75 minutes.  This includes a long warm up, cool down and hydration break.  This morning, even with all those elements in place, I was satisfied after 45 minutes.  As I was packing up my gear, I wondered to myself if I should go ride the elliptical to utilize the time I had left at the gym.  But walking out the door, a painful blister on my heel begged for rest, and I knew my body had done its best for the day.  I still had a full thermos of genmaicha, and thought how lovely it would be to get to work an hour early and sit and drink tea.  An hour of time just for me!

It is this act of my mind creating and producing words and thoughts that satisfies and fulfills me almost as much as the act of my body contorting into complicated yoga poses, running another mile, and lifting another set does.  It is a welcome change, and I intend to cultivate it.

When I was 16, if you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have said I wanted to be a writer.  Without hesitation.  When I turned 18, just as my consciousness was opening up to the wider world, there were a series of events that lasted until I was 22 (reverberated until I was 26) which made me bury this aspiration beneath the circumstances some call “baggage.”  I never really lost touch with my love for words.  I became a librarian during that time, after all.  But I haven’t given serious consideration to the Next Great American Novel that I once truly believed lurked within me.

But, I don’t know.  All I have so far is this weird blog no one really reads.  I guess I might need to start drinking coffee again.


Things To Do With Three Free Minutes

Action:

  • Check email and reply (briefly) to one
  • Text your mother/husband/sister/best friend to say you’re thinking of them
  • Stretch your perpetually tight hamstrings
  • Sort the recycling and change the trash
  • Empty the top rack of the dishwasher
  • Update your Facebook/Twitter/G+/Tumblr page
  • Measure and soak some beans to cook tomorrow
  • Update all your iPad and iPhone apps, charge your iPod
  • Dust off the leaves of the plants, water a few of them
  • Fill the dog’s water bowl and give him a hearty belly scratch
  • Flip through a catalog and fold down a few pages of things you’ll consider buying
  • Sort the laundry, switch the laundry, and start another load

Or, inaction:

  • Take these precious unscheduled free moments and sit.  Just sit and be.  Do not stretch, do not savor your tea, do not gaze out the window at the world.  Close your eyes if you have to so you can focus your breath and ideas inside.  What do you hear?  If its quiet enough, my ears are usually ringing with a white noise.  Do not judge this noise, but observe it, listen.  Do not try, just notice, breathe, and be.

I promise you’ll feel more renewed and energized after that inaction than any of the other ideas your mind leaps to when faced with a little free time.