"How do I start a home practice?" is an oft-asked question in the yoga world. Initially, figuring out how to do yoga on your own can be a mystifying, overwhelming, and even nerve-wracking process. For many, home practice is the ultimate “come to Kali” moment; it’s just you and yourself—truly and inescapably. And with no teacher to tell you what to do, uncertainty, lethargy, frustration, and distractions often prevail. Plus, there’s no way to know if you’re going to do the right thing and no way to know how long you're meant to do that "thing" for. There are so many options! Why even bother?
For one, home practice is a radical form of self-care. A bold declaration of self-empowerment, self-acceptance, and self-awareness. After all, following someone else’s cues and direction is usually a heck of a lot easier than coming up with your own way of doing things. It’s in our nature to question the validity of things, including our own capabilities, and sometimes, within gaps of uncertainty, to allow someone else to step in and take control of the decision-making process is just simpler. But imagine setting aside time every day to honor the part of you that feels deeply, to acknowledge what you know on a deep and undeniable level, to facilitate a trusting—even reverent—relationship with your body. That is the power of home practice.
How to Get Started
Let’s make this simple. Have you ever left a class thinking, “That was exactly what I needed today"? A really great class or workshop can serve as the spark that ignites your home practice. Take something you love home with you and recreate it the best you can, almost like cooking from a recipe. In her book "Yoga, Mind, Body & Spirit," Donna Farhi offers a really lovely comparison between yoga and cooking—in both cases, we need to learn fundamentals, and we also need to familiarize ourselves with the ingredients and the ways in which the ingredients complement each other. That's where teachers and classes come in: they introduce us to the ingredients, and once we get familiar with them, it’s time to get creative and cook for ourselves. And that's when things get really interesting!
Sometimes a great yoga class is simply the result of the perfect mix of ingredients—the teacher, time of day, sequence, playlist, and vibe. Home practice presents the perfect opportunity to distill the essence of this recipe. The work will be to examine these ingredients and make them your own through a process of self-inquiry. The first step? Get on your mat and experiment!
But maybe you're thinking “I just can’t focus on my own for that long!”—but how long are we actually talking here? Home practice doesn't have to take 90 minutes; 10 to 20 minutes is plenty to start. After all, it's important to be realistic. The practice you truly need might take only 15 minutes, and you can always go to a class later that day, or the next day, and find even more interesting ingredients to play with. Soon, the amount of time you practice on your own will grow (I promise!).
And if you enjoy yoga classes for their social qualities, I offer you this: While gathering in groups does generate connection, within the context of your home practice you'll have a unique opportunity to connect with yourself. You might even discover that you enjoy taking some time out to be alone. When my home practice first got going it was almost exclusively about that: a time to close my door, turn off the phone, and have quiet (or music, or mantra) for an hour. I realized that I had a lot on my plate, and I often felt depleted. Home practice was an opportunity to create the quiet I so craved. I didn’t need much more than a few minutes to feel like I had gotten "my time" in.
No More Excuses
Once I cultivated a home practice that was tailored to my needs, I also found that my list of excuses for not practicing grew considerably shorter. (This may actually be one of the less-talked-about reasons for not starting a home practice—it forces us to take responsibility!) I had often used my busy schedule as an excuse for not getting on my mat. If there are no classes I can get to when I have time, I can blame my lack of yoga—something outside of myself— for all of my stress, anxiety, and malaise. Except, with a home practice I discovered that the "I don't have time" excuse is a lot harder to justify. Any time that can be classified as “killing time” is perfect for practice, and just that well-used 5-, 10-, 15-minute practice session can ripple out into the rest of the day in profound ways.
Deciding What to Practice
My yoga practice actually started at home—granted I was following along with Patricia Walden and Shiva Rea DVDs, but I was in the privacy of my bedroom having a personal experience. When I left home for college and began taking classes in studios, "going to class" took over my understanding of practice. I was learning so much, and loving it! A few years later I completed my teacher training and soon after I started teaching full time. I got to a point where my schedule (and energy levels) made getting to class a challenge, but more than that, I wasn't getting what I needed at the studio anymore. I found what I needed by once again getting on my mat in the privacy of my bedroom, with nothing else to attend to but my own experience. I first practiced a yin sequence that I remembered from a class, and afterward, I felt incredibly calm and nourished. That became the anchor in my week; every Wednesday around 4 pm, I gave myself a yin practice, and the rest evolved from there.
These days, I generally practice on my own four to six times a week; I stretch my hips and legs for a few minutes, I practice agni sara, surya namaskar (sun salutations), a standing-pose series, backbends, relaxation, and meditation. Sometimes I scale back (depending on how much time and energy I have) and just focus on surya namaskar, pranayama, and meditation. Sometimes I just lie on my back in supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle pose) and breathe deeply until I feel my body ask for something else. There is tremendous power in staying still until you know exactly what needs to happen.
Keep It Fresh
Your needs change, and your practice will need to change along with those needs. A couple of years ago I felt my practice needed a jolt and I began practicing Mysore style. In this form of asana practice students are taught a full sequence of postures (starting with the Ashtanga primary series) piece by piece and expected to memorize what they’ve learned each day. Students arrive at the shala (studio) with mat in hand and sequence in mind and body, and work through their set of poses until the teacher determines they are ready to take on more. It is a humbling experience, especially if you started out going to mixed-level classes with a “bring-it-on” attitude like many of us have done. However, Mysore-style practice also sets the expectation that you are the real teacher; you are responsible for working with the sequence in a way that keeps you safe, and you set the pace each day based on where you are in mind, body, spirit.
Lessons from Mysore-Style Practice
Mysore-style practice taught me to be patient, present, and loving—qualities that have been invaluable when it comes to my home practice. I had to learn to be brutally honest with myself and my needs. On days when I was sore and sleepy (and definitely not in the mood to get up at 5 am), I had to learn to breathe and move with it, not against it, to focus on giving myself what I really needed in those moments of struggle. I was blessed with a teacher who reminded me to let go of expectations, that the only thing that mattered was getting to my mat. Mysore turned out not to be what I needed every day, but for me it solidified the notion that consistency is key, and when it comes to personal practice, "personal" is the operative word. I’ve since returned to my home practice with a renewed confidence in myself and my ability to give myself what I need. What I still love most about the Ashtanga practice is that its promise is so simple and so clear: "Practice, and all is coming."
Just Do It
And that’s the best advice I can give: Just practice! Keep it simple, and do what you know. For example, that might look like surya namaskar A and/or B, followed by five minutes of nadi shodanam (alternate nostril breathing), and ten minutes of meditation. No one’s watching, and no one’s rating your poses against anyone else's. It's either “Yes, I did my practice today” or “No, I did not do my practice today”—not “Well, I didn’t hold handstand, and my warrior I felt a little off.” If we are truly cultivating equanimity in body, mind, and spirit through the practice of yoga, then practice needs to shift with our changing bodies and minds so that ultimately it serves the spirit. Practice is about taking the time to gather ourselves into something that resembles wholeness. And only you know what that means. So practice. All is coming.