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.

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The Emotional Workout

Something stirred inside me today. Some deep part of me that was buried– in my chronically tight shoulders or neck, I believe. Both are more open now, but it did not come easily.

Maybe it was the discouraging week I had, the rain and tropical storm warnings left few opportunities to be outside for very long, and I was starting to get quieted down and overly-rested with the weather. But then during this morning’s practice, something stirred, released, and left a multitude of emotions and feelings in its wake. It was about being assertive, knowing what is worth fighting for, and what to calmly walk away from. My quiet and grateful mood on the morning drive to the studio seemed to match the lunchtime traffic–aggressive and in a hurry. I wanted to be first in line at the farm stand, and I utilized my car’s turbo more often than I really needed to, arriving home with a shorter temper than when I left.

One of the things about yoga: it touches everything in your life, if you let it. My yoga practice is like wringing out a cloth, there is always more to be extracted and manifested. I return to it day after day (err, hour after hour…) because it brings me such a solid ground from which to move. So I am surprised and disquieted when I leave my mat feeling emotional and mentally weary, but I shouldn’t be.

Yoga has been better for me than my thirteen straight years of talk therapy. It usually gently prods free the things I’d rather not think about but need to release to make room for more love. It is very jarring to sit up from a savasana with less steadiness than when we start, but it is an important part of the process. Its like the newly released emotions are still powerful enough to wound again, live (invisible) wires shooting out of the chakras. The yoga mat is a space for the mind as much as it is for feet and hands to grip the earth during the asanas. As the body learns to let go of its long-ingrained holding patterns and rigid postures, folded within the tight muscles are little pieces of hurt, anger, frustration, embarrassment, fear, and anxiety. That is why we’re so loose as young children, we have no emotional attachments except for love, and that is all we need to be happy. On the yoga mat we learn how to take moments of meditation throughout the day, gaining an innate sense of what is right and wrong and what is possible at this point in time.

I know it might sound ridiculous, but think about it. Muscle tightness is one factor in the struggle to touch the toes to the head in scorpion, but the emotional bracing which forbids this movement is the key to unlocking the full expression of the pose. I think this is one reason people have a hard time sticking with yoga classes, or choose other more forms of active purely cardiovascular forms of exercise. Sure, yoga as exercise is part of the reason I do it, but I never would have stuck with it this long if it didn’t also stretch my mind, my heart, and my spirit.

Today I stewed over a few relationships and situations, berating myself for spending time even thinking about it. But then, sometime while I was at the beach with my family, all those urgent feelings of hurt and anger dissipated with a puff. They were uncovered during my practice, and then released into the hot salty sea air–the perfect place for such emotions to simmer away. I breathed love into places of my heart that had been overtaken by negativity. I’ll sleep without trouble tonight now that I have let go of some anger and confusion no longer bound within my hips.

 


On Creation & Old Trees

Creation is a funny thing: concentration improves with age, but imagination (an essential ingredient) wanes. It is a muscle not unlike the gluteus maximus or the biceps femoris. Imagination requires a wide array of highly individualized nourishment. Some, like myself, prefer nature (trees and water, specifically). Others find their muse in bourbon, animals, museums, watercolors, rivers, and clouds. image

It is hard to say why trees inspire me the way they do: maybe their versatility, resilience, properties of regeneration, and magnificence. Every growing thing starts off as a small seed, and trees are a quintessential example of this tremendous change. I hope the arc of my life will one day show such a grand spectrum of experience.

Sometimes, I want to go back in time, revisit my languid days of idle leisure to bottle up as much sleep and boredom as I can possibly handle. Life is so full now, sleeping late and ennui are rare occurrences. So as I am approaching the youth of my middle age (it is nearly 6 months from my 30th birthday after all) it is interesting to reflect on the creations of my life so far. There are fewer moments of quiet awe when I am infused with ideas. My moments of astonishment are usually accompanied by shrieks of joy from my son’s first steps and new tastes; my days are immediate, noisy with streaks of peanut butter, wonder and tears.

I can’t go back in time, and I don’t really want to (well, maybe some Saturday mornings I’d like to sleep until 9). What I’ve lost in rest, I’ve gained in patience. I wasn’t meant to have my grand moments young. My life’s work at age 30 is vastly different from what I thought it would look like, but if I ponder it deeply, I know it is still important, and that greatness is possible whether I am changing a diaper or changing my perspective.


Work Life Balance (or life work balance?)

Earlier this week, I was chatting with a friend who has a 6 month old baby. She returned to work after her maternity leave just as I left my job to move away, and though our circumstances are very different right now, we have a lot of sympathy for each other, mainly because having a child is hard work no matter how you spend the day.

When I went back to work, leaving my infant made me sick to my stomach if I thought about it too much. However, I was unquestionably fulfilled, stimulated and excited by the activities I did at work.  But in the lulls of the day, especially when I looked up and saw a parent with a child my son’s age heading into story time, I longed to be that parent. Now that I am that parent, I look longingly at the librarians working behind their desks, busily involved in something greater than themselves. This is a big flip from my mindset six months ago, and I’m having a bit of trouble forgiving myself for taking my job for granted. At the time, my job so often felt like a means to an end, it gave us financial security, health insurance, professional credence. But now that my job is staying home with my child, I’ve been longing for the intangibles that a career provides. I miss the random witty chats with my co-workers and patrons, the grown up routine I created (involving 6am gym sessions and 9pm bedtimes), the healthy balance of time with my family and time away, dedicated lunch breaks, quiet moments at my desk, adult conversation, professional growth.

There is a lot of angst from American women that our country has unfairly short maternity leave policies.  I might get chastised for being anti-feminist, but if we women want to be treated fairly in the workplace, how can we ask for our job to be held for 6 months or a year off while we care for our new family members? I think instead of longer maternity leave, we should be pulling for the fathers to take paternity leave–6 months is a very reasonable age for a new person to be cared for by others (mom takes 3 months, dad takes 3 months). The world will keep going. If we choose to leave our jobs for a while, that is a perfectly respectable choice, but more than 3 months, I think, is asking too much. I’ve heard confessions from lots of new mothers about how they were ashamed by how excited they were to get back to work after their leave. And that is where I am right now. Not on maternity leave per se, but itching to get back into the world of big ideas and projects and meaning.

In a perfect world, of course, I’d job share with my friend in Silicon Valley.  We’d each work 20 hours a week, and spend the other 20 hours with our little boys.  Maybe we’d even share child care duties so we could avoid the inexorable costs of nannies and day care.  I can’t imagine I am the only one who feels like I need to be contributing to the turning of the world’s gears to feel value. Yes, raising a child has its rewards, but it can feel stagnant on those days he wants to go down the slide 50 times in a row. People have bad days at their job, too, but at least you walk away at the end of the day to something else.

Related: What would Betty say?


Mini Me

I go about the business of daily life now in miniature variations of its former rigid constitution:

Twelve minutes of yoga here.  A shoulder stand on the nursery room floor there.  I try to include a proper (pro-rated) savasana too.

Baby sized meals.  Often eating whatever is leftover on my ten month old’s plate.

There is only time to do quick errands, between nap time and lunch time and story time.

The dog gets walked on a short leash now.  Even though we’re far from any traffic danger, it lurks in other places, like shallow ponds and swampy marshes (snakes and alligators, not traffic, are the main concerns here).

We food shop for one or two days at a time— we only have two arms to carry things inside, after all.

In the end, everything adds up to regular portions.  I have acquiesced my control over things, for now, which has made it essential to do things in bits and spurts if I want to eat and breathe.  Life is a series of short, intense moments—of learning, play, and tears.

There are other things, though, that I am consuming at a much more rapid pace:

Books. I’m quickly reading literature again.  Like 2 novels a week, devouring it, staying up late and waking up early to greet my titles.

Wine. A bottle every two or three days.  It sometimes feels like life is a vacation.  Husband prefers his icy Yeungling (maybe the novelty that it is available here) but sometimes he’ll share my bottle.

Showers and baths.  They feel so good, morning and evening and sometimes afternoon cleansing watery rituals.

Sleep. I know should be letting my hard working husband sleep more than me.  He’s the one at work for so many hours everyday, after all.  I’m home: shopping, decorating, eating, napping, playing, and reading.  But, he insists on letting me sleep in the mornings so he can play with our boy. Its hard to argue with that.

Phone calls. I always used to be the one who texts back to respond to a voice mail.  I’ve talked the same amount in the last two weeks than I have the whole rest of the year.

This last month was about final times, goodbyes, boxes and packing tape, living out of suitcases, eating quick meals, waking up in strange rooms, and starting again in new places.  I’m encouraged by our decision to move, and the change.  Even though I knew, months ago, that this was the right thing for us, it is still sometimes hard to feel confident diving into unfamiliar territory.

I used to rely on my daily activities to derive a sense of balance.  That is impossible now.  Life as a Southern Housewife is a jumble of inchoate ideas for routine and activity.  Its easy to feel like I’m having a bad day when my Vriksasana gets blown out of alignment because the baby wakes up early from his nap.  Or I get hung up thinking its too late for lunch, too early for dinner.  But, I try to remember to breathe, and that these are small troubles with easy fixes.  So I’m relaxing into my new life here, aware that Friday nights may not be able to include a double yoga practice, but they also will never include sitting in smoggy traffic on the expressway.  It is a welcome trade off after five years of city life.  And honestly, even though I can count on four fingers the names of people I’ve met down here, I feel at home.


Reluctantly Becoming a S.A.H.M.

We’re moving in less than a month. Besides that temporary sojourn to the Netherlands, this is the biggest move I’ve ever made. I’m legitimately allowed to bring everything this time, (except my house plants–more on that to come), and I have three live beings to care for, unpack, and help acclimate when we become Southerners. I’ll keep busy tending to our new home, hanging pictures, potting lavender, finding reading spots, testing out bathtubs. I’ll visit all 16 branches of the Charleston County Public Library System. I’ll organize my bookshelves by some new aesthetic postmodern cataloging standard. Maybe I’ll bake bread.

But the truth is, I’m scared to death about staying home all day with the baby. And before I launch any further into descriptions of what I hope my new life as a Southern Belle will be like, I feel the need to explain myself. Partly out of socially induced guilt (I have lots of friends who tell me “this is the best time to be home with baby,” or “a mother is the most important teacher to a child,”), but mostly because I used to love life as a lady of leisure. I didn’t get my first meaningful, moneymaking job until I was 26 (two weeks shy of 27, actually). That is barely two years ago, but so much has changed in that time. I’m a wife and mother now, and I’ve embraced my responsibility to provide and act as a role model with focused and tenacious gusto.

You see, growing up, my mother never worked. And yet she was present for fewer of my field hockey games and swim meets than my friend’s parents who worked as lawyers, magazine editors, and pilots. I regularly had to hitch rides home with these families because my own mother was too busy with her own life. Its not that she was a bad mother–on the contrary, she was superbly nurturing and caring. But she didn’t represent the archetype that traditional “stay at home mothers” portrayed in my small New England town. She is an artist, and by definition emotional, flighty, and self-absorbed. That she was teaching me about feelings, life, and the great world was irrelevant to me when I was a child.

I wanted her to be exactly like my friend’s moms who didn’t have jobs. I wanted to come home to freshly washed sheets, elaborate dinners in the process of baking, to find her on the back porch catching up with a neighbor over a pitcher of lemonade. Instead, she’d be shut off in her wing of the house (we were forbidden from entering if the door was shut). Sometimes we wouldn’t see her until hours (and as we got older, days) after we’d gotten home. Sometimes we’d see her after making our own dinner, she’d glide into the living room with her friends–the gay jeweler, the rambunctious Greek book artist, the waitress-cum-writer from their favorite restaurant. My sisters and I were doted upon by my mother and her friends during these impromptu parties. We had our portraits painted dozens of times, I had a jewelry collection to rival the Duchess of Cambridge’s by the time I was 16, (not to mention I was introduced to my first real Librarian–a mentor who still serves me to this day).

This was not the traditional life I wanted, but I know it was also not the artistic life my mother wanted. Her parents refused to pay for her to go to art school, so she studied archaeology and met my med school bound father instead. When he died, she was left alone with three young daughters to raise. I cannot even imagine how terrifying that must’ve felt–suddenly being solely responsible for parenting three children. I know she did the best she could. The same friend that told me mothers are “the most important teachers” a child can have also told me that as mothers, we have to find our own balance and take care of ourselves.

Children at N.Y. Zoo (LOC)

Children at N.Y. Zoo (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

My great fear: that I’ll lose myself in my own ambitions. OR: I’ll lose my great goals for life while I’m busy playing baby games.

I know balance is the key to not falling into either seesaw pit of these extremes. But balance has been a tricky thing for me to grasp throughout my life. It usually takes me some trial and error. Like just now, two weeks before putting my career on hold indefinitely, I am getting into a groove with my writing, reading, spending time with my husband, with my child, running, sleeping, & eating. I’m even able to sit and breathe for a few minutes every day.

So, lovely lookers of my lexicon: please do not judge me too harshly, or write me off too quickly as a selfish person when I say I’m not super psyched to be a stay at home mom for the next phase of my life. But great things never came without some adversity first, right?


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.