Yoga at Home: the Intimate Experience of Self-Practice
There are a lot of reasons to begin a home practice, but one of the most rewarding is the way a dedicated sadhana, or practice, can make anywhere you unroll your mat feel like home. And while nothing quite compares to the live transmission of a living, breathing teacher, there is an unparalleled intimacy that grows out of self-guided practice. Not to mention the opportunity to drop into a personal connection with the divine while eluding the modern obstacles of schedule, cost, convenience, availability, travel time, etc. But before we get into the details of how to practice yoga at home, let us consider for a moment what yoga is.
Yoga is not something you do, it is something you are.
With a more practical explanation, Leslie Kaminoff says any time your body, your breath and your mind are doing the same thing at the same time, you are in a state of yoga. Please don’t get me wrong, the clarity of this message need not take away from the infinite depth of what is a lifelong practice. However, yoga can be plainly understood as a state of union where all the fragmented parts of ourselves — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — coalesce into a singular experience of the present moment. With that understanding, it is possible (and important) to feel the freedom of being yoga anywhere, especially at home.
When you can experience yoga at home, you have the potential to live your yoga every single day — whether you’re a seasoned practitioner with memberships to studios all over town or someone nurturing the initial seeds of curiosity. My humble intention here is to share what I’ve learned in my personal, sometimes messy, exploration of the art of home practice.
Create Sacred Space
For many, myself included, creating a space that feels sacred at home can be challenging, especially for those of us living in tiny places or those who travel regularly. The trick is to get creative. Have you ever heard the concept that you shouldn’t work where you sleep? The thought is you will inevitably have trouble sleeping because your body and mind are conditioned to work in that place. The same goes for yoga at home; it is difficult to practice in a space that still feels like it’s purposed for something else. This doesn’t mean you have to clear out an entire room or even a whole corner for your mat. What it does mean is, there must be something about the space (internal or external) that is different.
There must be something about the space that shifts your awareness into practice mode.
Something that doesn’t tempt you to multitask or become distracted. Perhaps it’s something physical, like an image or an ornament. Perhaps it’s something you say or something you do. It could be something you take out, like your mat or something you put away, like your phone. Whatever it is, it should elicit the transition to yoga. No matter how simple this “something” is, it will evolve over time into your personal ritual of cultivating sacred space.
Before I had a dedicated home practice, I used my mat for everything from post-run stretching to a pillow for watching movies and a blanket for picnics. Naturally, when I laid my mat out for practice, everything about the space I created was distracting. The energy, the smell, the miscellaneous crumbs that inevitably gathered. Needless to say, there was no yoga. With continual refinement, I am beginning to understand what it takes for me to create sacred space. For me, it is largely about internal space because over the years, I have practiced in many external spaces — apartments and kitchen floors, hotel rooms and airports, guest rooms and backyard patios…now the hallway of a travel trailer.
In addition to a conscious internal shift, I also have a traveling altar that comes with me everywhere I go.
It’s a small wooden statue of two humans carved into a whole-body embrace. It reminds me why I practice as a symbol of union and it represents the relationships that are important to me. The weathered wood gently encourages the patience of daily sadhana and brings the sustaining power of Gaia (the great mother) to my mat. With this pocket-sized altar that I can use anywhere, there are just a few more things that I take into consideration before practicing:
In the early stages of practicing yoga at home, time was the biggest obstacle for me. Operating from measurement mentality, I felt as though I needed to be on my mat for at least an hour for it to qualify as practice. The reality is, sometimes carving an hour out of your day isn’t feasible and too readily becomes a reason not to practice. Instead, I suggest committing to a sustainable amount of time, be it 20 minutes or 2 hours, and then just begin. All you have to do is show up one day at a time.
If possible, find a space that allows you to sense the presence of natural sun or moonlight. Consider practicing during sandhya , such as sunrise, sunset, or other times that attune your body’s circadian rhythm to the natural rotation of the earth.
Align your internal compass with the cosmos by purposefully choosing the direction you face. Are you in a cycle of completion where you want to feel the energy of the sun to your back? Or maybe in a period of growth where you want to experience the illumination that lies ahead? Let everything about the space you create be done on purpose.
Leverage Available Resources
It’s practice time. You showed up, you unrolled your mat and you’re standing in your uniquely sacred space. Now what? Perhaps even more challenging than figuring out where to practice yoga at home is figuring out what to do — especially if you are new to yoga. In the beginning, regardless of your experience level, it is helpful to have the expert guidance of a teacher and for those of us wanting to explore yoga at home, we are in luck! For modern-day practitioners, there are countless resources that bring the wisdom of yoga teachings into our homes. The trouble is, when you are first entering into the flow of daily home practice, it can be time-consuming and potentially distracting to find a new online yoga video or guided sequence for each day. Instead of searching endlessly for the perfect class every time you want to practice, try instead limiting yourself to a video or sequence for each of the following practice formats:
Solar and Lunar Practices
In the beginning, you can experiment with resources until you find the right fit for each case, but once you have figured out your go-to sequences in these four categories, stick with them for a month or so. Take a few moments before each practice to evaluate your energy level and receive information from your body, then choose your flow accordingly and enjoy. After a month of devoted practice, you might recalibrate and move onto something different or you may continue to experience the unfolding of new insights with iteration.
In the absence of a live teacher, we must step powerfully into the freedom and responsibility that accompanies self-practice. This involves navigating our intuitive edges with a deep respect for this one body that we are given as we engage in wise practice.
Play the Long Game
A dedicated sadhana can contribute to health and longevity if we simply take our time. Yoga is a lifelong practice that can indeed carry us into old age if we have the patience to let it. With the long game in mind, welcome the simplicity of being more by doing less. What if you spent a whole practice dynamically exploring the energy and mechanics of a single “easy” pose? Sometimes, the “easy” poses are the greatest teachers because as Christina Sell says, “if you consistently make the easy poses hard, the hard poses do get a lot easier.”
Pain is an Intuitive Force
Our bodies are built with a number of self-preservation mechanisms that are designed to keep us alive and well. Pain is one of them, but yoga is not painful. Uncomfortable, challenging, ego-checking, and scary, yes. But not painful. The best time to stop is before pain arises, but in the event that you experience a tweak, a pinch or a twinge, breathe and slowly exit the pose. Give yourself several moments to experience the sensation and evaluate before moving on.
Breathe, Dear Human!
One of the best ways to avoid injury while practicing yoga at home is to pay attention to your breath. Everything you need to know about your internal landscape is embedded in your breath. Notice the effect on your mind when your breathing is shallow and irregular as compared to a smooth, steady flow. Notice the fluctuations as they relate to movement and listen carefully for labored or restricted breathing as it could be a sign of fatigue and is generally an indication that you’ve gone too far. When the breath goes, so does the yoga.
“Whenever you are in doubt, it is best to pause. Few things are so pressing that they cannot wait for a moment of breath.”
Be Your Own Energy Alchemist
When we commit to a devoted practice of yoga at home, we get to choose our own adventure with each new arrival on the mat. Simply going through the motions is no longer an option because when the practice isn’t serving us on a particular day, we have the power to change it. This how we become energy alchemists. Alchemy is “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation or combination” and as alchemists, it is up to us to combine different elements of the practice to yield our desired transformation.
Your Personal Practice Rhythm
As Pranic beings, our energy levels may be affected by everything from the book we are reading to the weather. However, as you begin to enjoy yoga at home more regularly, you may begin to perceive the subtle underlying patterns in your body as they relate to different days and times. In my practice, for example, Tuesdays are generally my courageous heart, nothing-can-stop-me, bring on the week, days. Conversely, Mondays are typically much quieter and it takes a lot more energy just to get my body moving.
As a result, I typically start my week on Tuesdays, which happens to suit my fluid schedule. Similarly, when I know I have a busy day ahead, I try to wake up a little early and move through at least 5 Surya Namaskar A and 5 Surya Namaskar B to keep yoga alive in my body in the event that I’m unable to squeeze in a practice elsewhere. The idea is to let whatever rhythm you choose provides the energy alchemy that serves you best.
Balance in Contrary Complements
We all have our favorite categories of asana and even if you’re in the nascent stages of yoga practice, yours will reveal themselves soon. As such, we organically gravitate toward the shapes that fit into these categories (backbends, twists, hip openers, etc.) because they feel good in our bodies. We must, however, also spend time with the asanas that we don’t love. Those that we are rekindling a relationship with or those we have yet to meet. Are you a lover of backbends? Try simmering in deep forward folds.
Naturally flexible? Explore ways to develop muscular strength and endurance. We have as much to learn from pratikriyasana (reverse action) as we do from the fullest expression of any posture. Despite what poses we think we should practice, it is prudent also give adequate devotion to the shapes we shy away from and inside that devotion, ask the question: why?
Set Intentions, Not Goals
I will be the first to admit, I am a strong proponent of goal-setting, goal-chasing, and overall goal-related enthusiasm. In most circumstances, I believe setting measurable goals and declaring them aloud is like saying to the Universe, “I mean it, I really want this”. The mat, however, is one place that I prefer to keep metric-free. In my experience, a practice that is rooted in the desire to achieve an external pose or aim does not sustain me long-term and keep me coming back for more. If the aim is too challenging,
I have a tendency to become discouraged. Too easy and I will likely become disinterested. Intentions, on the other hand are living, breathing forces of consciousness. Our relationship with them changes and evolves giving them the potential to surprise in new, wonderful ways all the time. Consider how inviting courage onto your mat might get your feet off the ground in crow pose one day and give you the permission to rest in child’s pose the next. With their infinite forms, intentions are better equipped to support the purpose of ongoing sadhana.
Let Your Yoga Move You On the Mat and in the World
Once you have established the basic structure of your practice, it’s time to get creative. Over time, you might find that you rely less and less on what you have planned and more on what your body, better yet your spirit, needs. The root format that you put in place becomes a mere container in which to grow your signature style. The container is important though, it allows you to feel safe and taken care of on your mat.
Tandava: The Cosmic Dance
While living in Japan, I had a Japanese student who used to refer to “playing yoga”. For her, the translation from Japanese to English was the same as “playing tennis” or “playing hockey”. Even though I was her teacher, I struggled to correct her because “playing yoga” seemed to capture the spirit of the practice more astutely. It is from her that I learned the value of play in self-practice. At the end of the day, your home practice should be playful and fun. I encourage you to experiment with different movement modalities such as dance, athletics, martial arts, and the things you see children and animals do. Observe how these expressions can serve as outlets for your primal creative energy and life force. The cosmic dance has no form, it simply calls us to move the way spirit moves.
Satguru: The Divine Teacher Within
Some of the biggest ah-ha! moments that I have experienced on the mat have happened during my home practice when there’s no one around to high-five. This is by design. Yoga does not require an audience to be deeply satisfying. When we open to the teaching available within our own embodiment, we are receiving a direct transmission of consciousness. This is the intelligence of Sat Guru in action. You’ll know it when it happens because it feels like something falling into place or like something new awakening. We can learn so much about alignment and the movement of prana by simply paying attention.
As you nurture your home practice, you begin to understand that self-care is not selfish. The greater capacity you develop for self-compassion and self-love inside the refuge of your home practice, the more abundance you will have of these energies for those around you. This is living Namaste as we begin to see all the highest versions of ourselves reflected in others. Similarly, when confronted with challenging personalities, we do not experience them as separate and deserving of blame. Instead, we see our own struggle reflected in theirs and discover a reserve of kindness.
Redefining the Core
A woman referred by a yoga colleague came to me for an Alexander Technique lesson, hoping to relieve her agonizing neck and shoulder pain. I began by explaining Alexander’s central concept: release your neck to free the spine and relieve the shoulders. Then I stepped back to consider her overall stance. Though she had what might be considered “good” posture, I noticed a strange contraction in the front of her torso.
“What are you doing with your abdominals?” I asked.
“Holding them,” she replied.
“Well,” I said, “let them go.”
She did. Her torso did not collapse without that alleged “support.” After her first and, as it turned out, only lesson, her acute shoulder pain disappeared. What does this show? 1) A symptom may be far from its cause and 2) a flawed concept of abdominal support can be damaging.
Such a quick resolution is rare. Usually, in a private Alexander session or yoga class, we are on a quest to change neuromuscular habits bit by bit, refining awareness, unraveling tension and marshaling the body’s inherent postural support.
Many students pat themselves just above the navel and say, “I’ve got to strengthen my core,” with a vague idea of what that means. There are legions in the fields of physical conditioning and performance who will tell you that maintaining a conscious contraction in the superficial abdominals – those we can see and feel – will resolve back pain, foster better balance and improve posture. But misusing abdominal muscles can actually compress the spine and increase back pain, send you off balance, restrict your breath and compress your posture. In a class or private lesson, I have used the same instruction – let your abdominals go – to help people resolve sciatica, improve their singing, free their hip joints and restore full breathing. I don’t mean a slump or a droop, but the dynamic lengthening that comes from marshaling oppositional forces throughout the whole body.
Let’s correct some prevalent misconceptions and expand our idea of what core support really is.
Don’t Hold Anything
You wouldn’t strengthen your biceps by holding them in contraction all the time, so why do that with your abs? No muscle group should be held.
Muscles work reciprocally, and abdominal muscles work in relation to the head, neck, back and legs. As you walk, your abdominals – which connect from the pelvis to the lower ribs – work automatically. It may take some enlightened instruction to get there, but when you let your abdominals release and you envision ease and length in your spine, your abs work as they should.
The body is a marvelously complex creation – easy to move, hard to understand. Our body’s real function is a dazzling interplay of forces. As we try to sort out how it works, it’s easy to over-simplify. People try to stabilize one area rather than coordinate the entire body in motion. But a little anatomical understanding and some guiding principles can help you access your torso’s genuine support and truly enliven your core.
There are four layers of abdominals:
- Rectus abdominis are straight up and down, easily felt on the front surface of the torso. The goal of crunches is to develop these into “washboard abs.” Washboards – not much in use these days – are made of metal, a hard substance unlike human tissue. I’m all for strong abdominals, but they can be strong without being hard.
- Oblique abdominals are slanted and come in two layers – internal and external. They work when you do a yoga twist, when you breathe and as you walk. They wrap around your torso and go almost all the way back to the spine.
- Transversus abdominis is the deepest of the four layers, wrapping all the way around the torso, connecting to the lower spine. Roughly horizontal, transversus helps contain the internal organs and participate in upright posture.
Core Is So Much More
Let’s keep going, to underlayers you can’t consciously feel or directly engage, deeper within the body.
- Diaphragm – This mushroom-shaped structure at the bottom of the rib cage is the primary muscle of respiration. It coordinates with other torso muscles to expel CO2 – the waste product of breath – and inhale O2, the oxygen we need for survival. You can’t get more “core” than this. The entire rib cage expands as we inhale and contracts as we exhale. Allowing your breath to work fully and easily supports upright posture, calms the mind and conditions torso muscles – subtly and without effort.
- Psoas – You’ll hear this word thrown around a lot in yoga classes as a problem area. Some – not all – anatomy geeks consider this part of your core. Psoas expert Liz Koch calls her work Core Awareness. The full name is iliopsoas. Toward the top, it connects to the diaphragm and lumbar spine, relates to each breath we take and helps support upright posture. The “ilio” part coats the inside of the pelvis. The “psoas” part loops under the thighbone and, when it contracts, bends the hip joint. It is so central, so deep, that some consider it a barometer of our emotional state and level of stress.
- Pelvic floor – This web of muscle at the bottom of the torso helps support the internal organs. A busy intersection devoted to elimination and sexual activity, it connects to fascia in the body’s front and back that indirectly link all the way up to the base of the skull.
- Multifidus – Some back muscles – the ones you use when you arch your back in yoga – are on the torso’s surface. When they engage, they extend the whole length of the spine. Beneath those big surface muscles are intermediate layers and, deepest and closest to the spine are these little ones: multifidus, linking one vertebrae to another. They support us to stand, sit well and initiate larger movements. Studies show that to protect the spine from injury, the multifidus muscles activate before any motion.
The Body Works as a Whole
When you bend your elbow, your biceps work and your triceps release. When you straighten your arm, the triceps engage. If both are working, your shoulder and elbow joints will compress. When muscular work is efficient, one muscle group is active and the opposing group releases. That release is a neuromuscular function called inhibition. We can make that function conscious by pausing before we do a yoga posture to envision the posture as a whole and move into it with ease.
When you learned how to throw a ball or swing a racket, you didn’t analyze a sequence of muscles engaging. You looked where you wanted the ball to go and imitated your teacher, an athlete or adept older kid. You got a whole picture. Your eyes delivered that picture to your brain and nervous system in a flash, and you did your best to fulfill the action you saw. Over time, you practiced and got better at it, not from analysis, but from keeping your eye on the ball and repeating a whole body experience. When we see the objective of an action in the mind’s eye, we are better able to engage the body’s complex, integrated response.
Many people think that surface muscles – the back and superficial abdominals – support upright posture. It’s nice to know where the abs are and what they do, but here’s the big news: if the outside shell of muscle is tense, the inner muscles fail to engage. Rather than working, the core muscles actually inhibit, making the spine less spacious and more vulnerable. Before we do something, the spine can enliven and lengthen to prepare for our next move. When you understand this, it can bring more ease and balance to your daily tasks and to the practice of yoga.
Ways to Build the Core
Here are some ways in everyday movement and yoga to build a truly strong core:
- Standing – Whether waiting for a train or standing in tadasana, Mountain Pose, notice whether your weight is more toward the front of your feet or the heel. If you’re not centered, envision the top of your head guiding you right over your feet. If it feels weird, you’ll know you habitually stand back on your heels. Once you’re in balance, central muscles naturally engage and upright poise can become effortless.
- Sitting – To sit well, envision space and ease where the spine joins the head – a point between the ears. Balance your weight on your sitbones, breathe easily and envision those little muscles along the spine supporting you from within. If in yoga class you find it a strain to sit with legs crossed, sit on a folded blanket or bolster to make upright posture easier. Rather than lifting your rib cage, let it be buoyant with breath.
- Breathing – Believe it or not, a full easy breath is one of the most accessible ways to improve your posture and engage your core. Your lungs go from your shoulders to near the bottom of the rib cage. Allow your breath to fill the whole torso, including the back where you have more lung tissue.
Many yoga poses demand and can inspire core support. Here are just a few:
- Seated Spinal Twist – Allow your breath to support the easy movement of your rib cage and shoulders as you wring out the waist.
- Plank – When you do this pose in yoga class or at the gym, allow your head to rotate slightly at the top of your spine. That will allow the spine to lengthen and give this strong pose a foundation of ease. Your core – you can’t do this pose without it – will engage as needed.
- Side Plank – In Vasistasana, allow that slight rotation as you send the crown of the head away from the heels of your flexed feet.
Practice either of these plank variations as you hold a block between your thighs to spark deep, genuine core support.
We’re not like an ice cream sandwich, with a slab of muscle on the front facing another slab on the back. We are round and multi-layered, with the largest muscles on the outside and the smallest deep within. Isolating and overworking one surface muscle group is misguided. It’s not how movement and function work. In fact, one part of engaging the core is breathing fully and easily. You can think of your core as beginning from the long arch in your feet, your inner heels and big toes, and ending at the top of your head.
And please, don’t hold your abdominals. Remember that your body is supported by a complicated, orchestral set of interactions that harmonize when you envision your body working – as a whole. Enjoy your new core.