Right at Home
A satisfying and effective home practice is easier than you think.
By Kate Hanley
When I first started yoga, I never considered practicing on my own until a teacher introduced the concept one day in class. “If you’re scared of coming up into headstand,” she casually mentioned, “you can work on it at home.”
Wait. There’s homework in yoga?! Was this something I had to do? Would I fail if I didn’t? And what exactly would I do on the mat if I were left to my own devices? How could I cook up a practice on my own that would compare with the sequences we did in class? Confused, I ignored the seeds my teacher sprinkled.
My doubts were by no means unique. The biggest misconception people have about a home practice, according to San Francisco–based yoga teacher Jason Crandell, “is they think it should have the same degree of intensity and be as long as a regular class.” Not only is this thinking not true, he says, it can sabotage a person’s efforts to establish a home practice.
“It’s a lot like cooking,” says Crandell. “Sure, you could make restaurant-caliber food for every meal, but a piece of peanut butter toast now and then will also sustain you quite nicely.” In the spirit of creating a peanut-butter-toast practice of your very own, I’ve put together some guidelines to help you overcome the three biggest hurdles we all face: complacency (how to make yourself actually do it); fear (what to do once you commit to start); and busyness (how to find the time).
First, the Why
A quick tour through the benefits of establishing a regular (meaning you do it more days than you don’t) home yoga practice should motivate you to get started:
Self-knowledge. “Practicing on your own helps you learn to self-regulate and self-soothe,” Crandell says. “It’s like driving your own car versus being chauffeured—when you’re driving, you have a greater responsibility to pay attention and to choose where you’re going and to respond to what happens as you travel along.”
Self-help. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at assessing how you feel, so when you first come to the mat, you can choose a practice that counterbalances whatever’s going on—mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Self-indulgence. How many other endeavors allow you to do whatever you darn well please? “Practicing on your own is so indulgent,” Crandell says. “You can take anywhere from 2 to 90 minutes and do whatever you want at whatever pace, tone, and intensity you choose.”
Exponential growth. “When you practice regularly, the effects of each session don’t have a chance to wear off before you come back to the mat,” says Cyndi Lee, a New York City–based yoga teacher and founder of OM Yoga Center. “That consistency offers benefits that double and then double again.”
Not bad for something you can do in your living room without spending a dime. Yet even the biggest dose of inspiration won’t make your home practice a reality if you aren’t also armed with a few guidelines to dispel the fear that you won’t be doing it right.
Next, the What
These six tips can help you chart a course for your home practice and give you the confidence that you do, in fact, know what you’re doing. They also provide the means to keep your practice fresh, so that you don’t have to resort to doing the same handful of poses over and over (unless you want to, of course—it is your home practice, after all).
Start with quiet. Before you dive into a sun salutation or a specific pose, start in a comfortable seated position or even in corpse pose, suggests Amy Pearce-Hayden, RYT, founder of The YogaScape and Spa in Carmel, New York, and youyoga.me—a website geared toward yogis practicing on their own at home. “When you begin with stillness, you can see how your body and mind feel and then decide what to do based on that,” she says.
Pick a direction. This should depend on how you feel. If you’re tired and pressed for time, choose a short restorative practice. If you’re raring to go, opt for a more vigorous practice. If you need grounding and stability, focus on standing poses. If you need energy, incorporate backbends. “The more you use your practice to take care of your immediate needs, the more strength and energy you’ll have in the long run,” Crandell says.
Set an intention. This simple suggestion ensures that you’ll use your time—no matter how short—constructively. Sample intentions Pearce-Hayden suggests include creating a sense of spaciousness in a specific part of the body, working on a specific practice or pose, or noticing (and letting go of) any emotions that arise—without judgment.
Choose poses you love. There’s a common perception that you should use a home practice to work on the poses that truly challenge you. Throw that idea out the window, Crandell suggests. “If you want to build a consistent home practice, it has to be more of a carrot than a stick.” Start by choosing four or five poses that feel great, so you’ll feel compelled, rather than obligated, to roll out your mat.
Pay attention in class. You could start taking mental notes in class: I really like when we do down dog, low lunge, down dog again, and pigeon, I’ll do those three at home. “I would be disappointed if my students weren’t taking some of the things we do on a regular basis and incorporating them into their regular lives,” Crandell says.
Move in all directions. Lee suggests you choose at least one pose for each direction the body moves—leaning side to side, forward and back, twisting, and turning upside down (which could be as simple as downward dog or a standing forward bend). “If you incorporate all the directions,” she says, “you create a complete practice.”
And Then, the When (and Where)
To build a consistent home practice, you need to carve out space for it—metaphorically as well as literally. Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding the time. In order for Pearce-Hayden to keep her home practice alive, she says, “I can’t allow myself to be swayed by the anxiety that nearly always pops up that I can’t afford to take any time away from getting things done.” Taking even a little bit of time to practice grounds you and inspires you, so that when you return to your to-do list, you are more focused and productive. “I’ve come to realize that when I give myself 10 or 15 minutes, the rest of my day feels more spacious,” she says.
Choosing a dedicated area in your home to practice in can also help create room in your psyche for a practice to take root. And that physical space needn’t be large, pretty, or even particularly Zen. “I’ve been practicing for years on a sliver of floor between the fireplace and the coffee table that’s exactly big enough for a yoga mat,” Lee says. “Even though it’s more of a nonspace, all those practices have imbued it with a feeling that is really attractive to me.” Even when you’re dragging your feet, the aura of your regular practice site will make you more likely to visit it. “When you’re in your special spot, you’ll be fully immersed in your practice after only two breaths,” says Lee. “Just looking at it will be a trigger.”
How to Keep Going, No Matter What
So, what about those times when you don’t feel well or when life piles up, making even a five-minute downward dog extremely unlikely? Get creative. “At its heart, a yoga practice is an intention to observe your actions and reactions. It doesn’t necessarily have to take a certain form,” Pearce-Hayden says. Your practice could mean watching your reactions at work, or while standing in line at the grocery store. It could also mean deciding to mother with total absorption during the next diaper change, or “washing the dishes to wash the dishes,” as Thich Nhat Hanh famously said in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness.
“If you can breathe, you can do yoga,” well-known Iyengar teacher Patricia Walden once said. Practice gentle pranayama exercises, or meditate, when you’re laid up in bed or when you’re on hold for a conference call. What really matters is your dedication. “Anything that’s a practice takes commitment, patience, and a certain level of generosity to yourself,” Lee says.
Keep in mind that your commitment can take on a life of its own—that a deeper part of yourself yearns for the connection that a regular home practice can provide. I know of this firsthand: those seeds my teacher first planted 16 years ago began sprouting on their own, despite my initial resistance.
A year or two into my practice, I began noodling around on my mat now and again—mostly working on the inversions that unnerved me whenever they came up in class. I’ll never forget the sensation of my feet spontaneously rising up together to lift into my first unsupported headstand in the middle of my living room. Somehow the privacy and familiar surroundings made that once terrifying act effortless.
As a teacher trainee, I was required to practice at home several days a week and to journal about it. That indoctrination came in handy a few years later when I had two babies in two years, and regular classes were no longer a possibility. I’ve been practicing on my own now for four years. And while I look forward to the day when I again have time for a regular class with a primary teacher, I’m utterly convinced of the power of a home practice—not because it’s something I should do, but because it helps me listen to what’s happening in my mind and body. And it gives me what my being needs to attain something akin to balance. It helps me notice, process, and release the inevitable physical and emotional kinks that build up during the course of daily living. I can’t imagine what kind of mother, writer, wife, or human I’d be without it.
Jason Crandell starts his own home practice with this simple series of poses. “It works great by itself, but a lot of times all you have to do is start. After these 10 minutes, your practice can gain a momentum of its own and go in any direction—whether it’s quiet and restorative or physically vigorous.”
Supta padangusthasana I (reclining big toe pose I)
Lie on your back. Hook a belt around your right foot and raise your foot up toward the ceiling, drawing the shoulder blades onto your back. Hold for 5 breaths and switch legs.
Supta padangusthasana II (reclining big toe pose II)
Repeat reclining big toe pose on the right leg. This time, as you exhale, open the leg out to the side. Hold for 5 breaths, and then switch to the left leg.
Adho mukha sukhasana (seated forward fold pose)
From a seated position, fold at the hips and walk your fingertips forward until your arms are fully extended. After 5 breaths, sit up, change the cross of the legs, and repeat.
Adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog pose)
Press up into downward dog. Keep your knees bent—and your heels lifted. As you exhale, lift your sitting bones, press your thighs back, and stretch your heels toward the floor.
Anjaneyasana (low lunge pose)
From downward dog, step your right foot forward between your hands, drop your left knee to the ground, and bring both hands to your right knee. After 3 to 5 breaths, switch legs.
Adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog pose)
Press up into downward dog once again. Bend your knees slightly and lift your sitting bones up toward the ceiling. Exhale, press your thighs back, and stretch your heels toward the floor.
Eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon prep pose)
Bring your right leg forward into pigeon pose, keeping your left leg extended behind you. Hinging at the hips, rest your forehead on your arms. Hold for a minute, and then switch legs.
Balasana (child’s pose)
Kneel on the floor. With big toes touching, open your knees wide and fold forward at the hips. Rest your forehead on the floor and stretch your arms out in front of you.
Kate Hanley is a yoga teacher, an author (The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide), a blogger, a mind-body coach, and a champion of short, regular practices.