Our friends at Kensington School of Yoga sent out a great article in their recent newsletter about beginning practice. Thanks to Susan for permission to share this with you all here:
TOWARD INDEPENDENT PRACTICE
The closure of yoga schools around the world has meant that we are unable to attend our regular classes. In the aftermath, there has been a rush toward online classes. While online classes can be very valuable and help keep us connected, this may also be a time to just ‘take a breath’ rather than reactively try and replace what is not, at this moment, available to us.
Recently, Iyengar Yoga Association members received a written address from Abhijata Iyengar, the grand-daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar, on yoga in this time of the COVID19 virus. This is part of her letter:
We are confined to our homes and Nature has forced upon us a time to just pause. Though courage is an asset for a yoga practitioner, equally important is sensitivity to the present moment. This is a forced time for self-study for us. Your practice sessions now can be so enriching because you are practically locked down. Take up asanas, pranayama, concepts and books that you always shoved under the carpet. We always complained we had no time on our hands. Here it is. Find the joy in quiet practice sessions. Find the actions and responses in each asana and pranayama.
Following on from this, I have drawn together some ideas and some personal offerings about how we might proceed with our yoga practices independently and move toward becoming home-based practitioners.
LEARNING TO PRACTICE
To practice is the essential ingredient toward becoming a practitioner. Classes provide a supportive learning environment in which yoga can be introduced, confirmed, consolidated and explored. They are the first step to building and developing confidence and independence toward the practice of yoga under the direction and honest eye of a teacher. To become a practitioner requires stepping out of the class and into independent practice. When you become a practitioner, going to classes becomes a support for your practice.
Many people will say they don’t have the self-discipline or the time to set-up a home practice. Yet attending classes requires self-discipline to turn up on time, to be attentive and sensitive to the actions of the asanas, to be responsive to the practice both physically and intellectually.
Of course, in a home practice you don’t have the verbal support of the teacher or the physical support of your fellow students. You can’t just hand it all over to the teacher or rely on the energy of the class members. You are on your own with your mat, in the quiet of your practice space. It is at that point that many lose heart. You need, as Abhijata says in her letter, a little courage. As well as the practical means about how to set up a practice. Looking back, you may see this moment as the beginning of your becoming a practitioner. Every practitioner starts at this point – simply because, it is the only place from which any one of us can start. In the following I hope to be able to give you some personal insight into the way you can think about practicing at home.
BUILDING A PRACTICE
Building a practice takes time so it is important to understand that it may not all happen in a smooth and consistent way. Just because you miss a practice doesn’t mean total collapse. Just turn up next time and move on. Students will say they don’t know where to begin, or how to sequence their practice. They will say they don’t know how to do yoga without the voice of the teacher in their ear; that they don’t feel the same ‘good’ feeling that they feel after a class when they practise alone. They will say: ‘There are so many asanas!’ All of these thoughts and sensations are the norm when you start out on self-practice.
As a practitioner, I also struggle at times to practice. It can be lonely to practice by myself, or I can be distracted by any number of different things, feel pressed for time, or just not ‘feel like it’, feel lazy and uninspired: the list is endless. I would say that my self-discipline and motivation to practice was learned through practicing and was not a pre-requisite for it. I started to practice and, over time, I was motivated to practice. I did learn where to begin, how to sequence, to listen to my own voice, to appreciate the wealth of asanas available to me, and I learnt to be non-judgmental about how I ‘felt’ at the end of a practice. The main thing was to have practiced and out of that grew a personal, independent yoga practice.
The fundamental link between self-discipline, self- motivation and building a practice is having a methodology, which simply put, is a systemised way of doing, teaching or studying a subject. This is exactly what the Iyengar practice of yoga offers to the would-be practitioner.
If you consider for a moment that every Iyengar yoga class you have ever attended has a particular structure and sequence, then you are looking at a methodology in action and already know more than you think about practising.
Every class has the following:
1. A beginning
2. A middle
3. An ending
If you apply this same methodology to establishing your own practice, then you simply need to apply the same structural set-up. Simply put, you need somewhere to begin, some content between the beginning and the end, and a place to finish.
It helps to have a consistent starting point for every practice. If you think of how your classes at the yoga school begin, then you have your place to start.
I start my own practice in the same, sequential way because the familiarity of those first asanas brings me into the practice mentally and physically.
This is a typical example of what my practice beginning looks like:
Adho Muhka Viranasa (forward Virasana)
Adho Muhka Svanasana
Adho Muhka Vrksasana (hand balance)
Pinca Mayurasana (elbow balance)
I would almost always do some Standing Poses to start off this middle section of my practice. If I wanted to focus on the Standing Poses more deeply, I might do them all, or explore more deeply one or two of them that I wanted to look at more closely. Light On Yoga starts with a Standing Pose sequence which can be easily followed and adapted for capacity by students of all levels.
Following Standing Poses, I would generally practice Sirsasana (head stand).
This middle section of my practice is also where I would choose a set of poses that I might wish to explore or focus upon. This might be Backbends, or Twists, or Forward Bends, for example.
So, my middle section poses might have the following sequence lay-out:
And the Parivrtta (Twisting) versions of each
Focus on Backbends (for example): Using any supports required.
Urdhva Muhka Svanasana
Again, Light on Yoga is a good source from which to sequence your own simple backbend practice. And if you are an experienced student, rely on your memory of sequences taught in your classes.
If my middle section has focused on backbends I would want to balance that part of the practice with appropriate finishing asana.
It might look like this:
Uttanasana (with brick between legs)
Adho Muhka Svanasana
Ardha Halasana (on chair)
The sequence of asana I have illustrated here is an example of a dynamic practice incorporating backbends. Likewise, this sort of sequencing could equally be applied to a Forward Bend practice, for instance, where the Forward Bends constitute the focus of the middle section of your practice and where your ending may then incorporate supported Setu Bandha followed by Savasana.
Your practice can be as simple or as involved as you choose to make it. Having somewhere to begin and somewhere to finish makes everything clearer when practicing. If you have these, often you will find that the middle section will determine itself.
SOME PRELIMINARIES TO SETTING UP A PRACTICE
There are certain preliminary things you can do to get yourself ready mentally for practice.
Decide before hand (even the day before) on a specific time that you will practice. You might also decide to allot a specific amount of practice time. For example: Wednesday at 4pm for one hour. If you can set up a time and a day, even if once a week to begin with, and keep a commitment to it, you will have begun a regular practice.
Have an idea before you start to practice what sequence you intend to follow. In the beginning, you can write it down so you have a plan. Use Light On Yoga as a resource and modify according to your capacity.
A very good incentive to practice is to have an allotted yoga practice space where your gear is ‘ready to go’. Some good advice given to me when I was trying to build an independent practice was not to put my yoga mat away. This meant that when I walked past that space and saw the mat it was a reminder that it was waiting.
Ask for advice. From other people setting up a practice, or from those who have an established practice, from your teachers. Read Light on Yoga and use it for the valuable resource that it is.
Turn up for practice. That is really the hardest part. It is also the best and most rewarding part. A good deal of you have been regular students to our classes at Kensington for many years. Your experience and understanding of asana will stand you in good stead in setting up your own practice. Some of you are newer. Whatever your level, what you have learnt in classes will help you toward practicing at home.
The ideas given here of how to think about setting up and structuring a practice will hopefully encourage you all toward developing an independent yoga practice. We encourage you to keep up your practice while we are unable to meet in regular classes. We are also welcoming of any questions as to sequencing and structuring practices. Sequences, as the Immunity Sequence, have already been made available in our last email (and attached again below), so do have a look at it if you haven’t yet.