By Rachel Woolhouse
In this blog I share my own experience of starting home practice, some of the main benefits of home practice, as well as hints for overcoming basic obstacles to getting on your mat at home.
It was a modestly early morning, perhaps 7am. I ambled into the living room of my shared house, observing the wreckage of a mid-week bender. The room had been in use just a couple of hours before and the not-so-subtle traces of my housemates and friends of friends consisted of a generous decoration of empty cans, a sprinkling of cig-ends, a fine icing of stickiness across the laminate floor and table, and a dusting of ash and tobacco.
Mildly irritated but undeterred, I set to work making the room vaguely hospitable. Minimal cleaning completed, I unfurled my mat and wondered how this was going to pan out. I’d become utterly accustomed to the ‘relentless’ flow of the Ashtanga Primary Series in traditional led classes with my teacher at the time, Paul Kleesmaa, so I was aware this would feel a bit ‘start-stop’ in comparison.
Prepared, I’d printed off a ‘cheat sheet’ I was relieved to have found online, Ashtanga Yoga Canada’s it might have been. I can’t remember how much I did, I think I remember feeling vaguely stiff without the heat of lots of other bodies around – my capacity for increasing the heat was limited as my good friend and frugal housemate had removed the radiator temperature controls.
The point is, what I do remember is a significant feeling of pride that I’d managed to just crack on and do it. From then on, I interspersed led classes with home practice in the mornings and soon started practising Mysore-style Ashtanga too, (doing the equivalent of a home practice but not at home, with a group and with my teacher giving helpful input).
Since then, I’ve never really looked back. I graduated not long after and drifted home to Leeds, having no clear plan except the conviction that I wanted to keep up my Ashtanga practice. In Leeds, I discovered that Ashtanga is traditionally practised six days a week, so even though the Mysore programme back then was Monday to Friday, I was motivated to maintain home practice at the weekend.
Home practice in a new location brought new challenges, less late night debris rather the friendly interjections of family members who were awake early enough to cross my path. I would find myself struggling with deep frustration when a family member would try to have a polite conversation with me whilst I was doing my finishing sequence – anything as friendly as ‘see you later, love’ or ‘what time will you be finished?’ might be enough to make me feel thoroughly cheesed-off for the rest of practice.
Fortunately, I’m now less phased by ‘interruptions’ in yoga practice, I’ve adjusted as kids wander in and out of the space where I’m practising, making noises corresponding to some imaginary game being played out, or asking the odd question, some pressing, others abstract. Now that I’ve accepted this as an inevitable part of home practice, it doesn’t seem to bother me much.
There are many reasons to do home practice but the most obvious from our perspective is that we currently run a Mysore programme 3 days a week in Leeds and 2 days a week in Mytholmroyd (near Hebden Bridge). Traditionally Ashtanga is practised six days a week, with a day off to rest at the weekend and although for some this is not viable, for those of us who are able to practise in this way, the consistency and regularity is very helpful for yoga practice and the positive impact can be very powerful. So supplementing studio classes with some practice at home too is a wise move.
If you’re used to practising in led classes then the chances are, you won’t remember the order of the poses so easily at first. As soon as you start a regular home practice or Mysore-style practice you quickly learn little chunks and it starts to seep in.
I remember trips to my mum’s place in Spain when I’d been doing home practice for a while and it felt great to just roll out my mat anywhere and keep up my practice, even travelling alone in India, the ability to squeeze my mat in between my bed and the wall and get on with it meant my mat felt like my home away from home. From doing home practice you realise you can practise without your teacher, you can practise without the ‘ideal’ conditions.
Let’s face it, there will be a few hurdles when you start to establish a home practice. You don’t have the energy of the group to lift you up on those less energetic days, the helping hand and beady eye of the teacher or, (unless you’re lucky), a dedicated space for yoga.
Lower your expectations of your space. You might not have quite as much space to practise as in a public studio, maybe you’re in the spare room with a few dusty bookshelves and the B-ornaments which didn’t make it into the main stage of the other rooms of the house. The mat you bought might be less grippy than the ones at the studio and maybe the floor beneath is a bit carpet-y. It doesn’t matter. Ultimately any space you have is a good place to start.
If you can spare enough space to use this area just for yoga practice then do. Make the area clean and organised to minimise distraction. To create the right ‘feel’ you might like to add some object that helps to inspire you, be that a candle, flower, statue or photo to your practice space. Give other people in your house a heads-up that you’re wanting to have a bit of quiet time, preferably undisturbed.
Equally as important is to lower your expectations of yourself. At least to begin with, you are likely to find that your concentration doesn’t come as easily as in group classes.
This is where drishti (gazing point) and ujjayi breath really come into their own. Now, drishti is what keeps you from focusing on the pile of washing-up/unattended paperwork/crumbs and fluff beneath furniture (delete as applicable), that would gladly lure you away from your mat. Steady ujjayi, counting the breaths, sticking to the vinyasa count is what helps prevent you from getting lost in thought and realizing you’ve been in one pose for an inordinate amount of time.
So, hardest bit, try to be patient and kind with yourself and if your space is not as well heated as a studio, notice the stiffnesses without too much ill-will, the state of your body/mind/practice will fluctuate from day to day and your task is to observe it and remember on the ‘bad’ days and the ‘good’ days that it will change.
For me at least, when practising at home, particularly on my own, my biggest hurdle is the nagging feeling that there is something else I should be doing! This is a tricky one, as for many of us it often feels like there is an endless list of to dos and never quite enough time to do it all in. It can be helpful at the start of practice to take a moment to remind yourself of the good that the practice brings you and acknowledge that time spent on yoga practice is time well-spent.
A few ‘cheats’ which might help too, particularly when you’re lacking motivation!
In essence, it’s fair to say that you can expect to come up against a few distractions, mental objections and temptation to do those ‘more important things’. However, it’s my belief that as long as you’ve got a mat you’re ready to start an Ashtanga home practice, anywhere. You have your user manual: a set sequence to follow, your power tools: the breath and the drishti, and your power source: determination. Getting started is the hardest bit but soon it becomes a habit and you start to feel the benefits of a committed relationship to your practice. Show up on your mat day-in, day-out and your practice will be a source of strength and inspiration for you, helping you navigate the rollercoaster ride of life.