Cultivating an at Home Practice

As a yoga instructor people often ask me, “Do you practice everyday?!”.  The simple answer is, yes, I practice yoga everyday.  The more we practice, the more we understand that the awareness we first learn to cultivate in class extends far beyond our mat and way out into every part of our life.  To quote one of my lovely teacher’s Jeanmarie Paolillo, “I practice yoga every minute of every day.”  Some minutes more successfully than others, but that’s why it’s called a “practice”.  For me, the first step towards gaining this understanding was bringing my mat out of the studio and into my home. 

Outside of making the effort to get into a Daily Down Dog much easier, having your mat in the comfort of your living room (or bedroom, or kitchen, or maybe parts of all three of those rooms if you live in New York) opens the door to something much more profound.  In yoga, we call this opportunity svadhyaya, or self study.  Practicing on your own, without the distraction of an instructor’s voice, without other students to compare or compete with, is a much different experience.  For some of us it’s liberating, and for others of us it can actually be quite scary.  Practicing alone means the chatter in our mind might have space to grow louder than normal, the judgment starts to rage, we find ourselves unmotivated without the feeling of the eyes of our teacher or other students on us.  Ahhhhh!  It’s scary!  But if we look through the fear, and turn our own eyes inward we can see the opportunity to learn, to pay attention to the kind of chatter that arises and to find within ourselves the motivation to move forward and grow.

At some point in our lives we’ve all experienced the feeling of hiding from ourselves.  It’s a natural defense mechanism and makes life feel a whole lot “easier”.  Taking the first step toward looking in the mirror and deep into our own eyes, flaws and all, requires courage.  So, if you’re feeling courageous, or ready to take your practice to a new level, here are 5 tips for cultivating an at home practice:

My home office.

1.     Props.  Get yourself a mat you like, a few blocks, a blanket or two, and a strap…and if you really feel like spoiling yourself, a bolster.  Having new props to play with (or staring at you in the corner of your room) provides a little extra motivation and encourages you to give it a go.  In this sense, they not only provide physical support, but emotional support as well.  Lean on them.  Use that block in trikonasana that you usually snub.  Sprawl out across them in a yummy supta baddha konasana and give yourself a break.  Props are amazing tools and they teach us a lot about accepting support and being kind to ourselves. 


2.     Do what you can, when you can.  You don’t need to be an “advanced” yogi to start practicing at home and you don’t need to set aside hours in your day for practice.  Some days you might be able to set aside only 10 or 15 minutes, and good for you!  There are tons of online resources, including my new Videos section, where you can find quick simple sequences.  But I also encourage you to explore on your own, with your own guidance and body…you know much more than you think you do. 

3.    Turn off your phone while you practice.  And I don’t mean put away your phone, turn it OFF.  Whoever is calling, emailing, texting, instagram-ing you, can wait.  This is your time.

4.     Disignate a “Yoga Spot.”  Choose a spot in your home where you feel comfortable and at ease and make that the space you practice in.  Having this consistency will help inspire your practice and quiet the mind.  My spot is my living/dining room.  Surrounded by books that inspire me, cool calming colors, and art that I admire.

5.     Practice compassion towards yourself.  It’s so cliché to say “love yourself”.  But yeah, love yourself!  You’re going to be stuck with yourself for a very long time so you might as well learn now.  For most of us, it’s much easier to have compassion for others than to turn that kindness on ourselves.  We judge and compare and decide whether we’re worthy of our own compassion.  When we can tap into that part of ourselves that connects all of us, we realize that we’re all worthy of compassion.  Taking quiet moments to explore yourself, and your practice, facilitates the awareness of that connection. In yoga, we call that Yoga. 

I hope these five tips will encourage you to take the time to tap in.  Yoga is a practice in which perfect does not exist.  We’re always changing, always evolving, always growing.  When we set aside moments to tap in it makes the journey much more enJOYable.  

Bruised Elbows and Egos

Many an article have been written on the subject of Yoga injuries.  Yoga Basics author Mara Carrico writes, "Sometimes it seems that the only thing growing more quickly than the number of yoga classes offered in fitness facilities is the number of injuries sustained by eager participants."  With this flood of injuries comes of course criticism, of both teachers and Yoga as a whole (some of them fair),  fearful students, and a plethora of “new” ways to avoid injury.  One of the fairer arguments criticizes newbie teachers as being too inexperienced to handle students coming into class with pre-existing injuries and low fitness levels.  It takes practice to learn the difference between pain and sensation in our bodies.  Both are speaking to us, but learning their language can leave beginners lost in translation, creating new injuries or worsening old ones.  

My own body was familiar with bumps and bruises, sore muscles, and broken bones long before I came to yoga.  I’ve broken fingers and toes, my right wrist, my left clavicle, and learned the limits of my pain tolerance when a fly ball at a baseball game made a line drive for my face at over 90 mph (ouch!).   As a consequence, my endurance for pain was informing my yoga practice much more than any desire to develop awareness.  That poorly set left clavicle giving you trouble?  No worries, bind your way through that pain Chelsea!  I never once raised my hand to inform a teacher I had an injury.  In fact, it took me two years to realize that the tightness in my shoulders might stem from that injured left clavicle.

Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves.  Our teachers are there to guide us, but just like any relationship, communication is key. 

The other side of this high pain tolerance spectrum is the fear of sensation.  Without an understanding of what it’s like to feel pain in our bodies, we interpret any sensation as pain.  As the lovely and renowned Iyengar teacher Carrie Owerko would say, we have to know our maximum as well as our minimum in order to find our optimum.  I had the pleasure of learning from her this past weekend and we spent all of Saturday and Sunday discussing how to work with injuries from the ground up, making space for the body and mind to begin the healing process.   

Just as every body is different, so is every injury specific to that body.  Learning how to practice in a way that promotes healing for yours takes time, and sometimes requires trying many different methods until you find what works for you.   It’s our job as teachers and students to recognize that symptoms are the body’s way of telling us that something needs to change and that we need to give ourselves the opportunity for variation in our practice. 

For me, this variation meant being gentle, giving myself support (in the form of props and people), and learning to communicate what I needed to both my self and my teachers.  For others it might mean letting go of their fear and learning safe ways to discover their limits.  As always, these ups and downs in our practice teach us even more about life than they do about our bodies.   As my teacher Jeanmarie often says in class, “How we do one thing is how we do everything.” We have to be open to exploring, to admitting we might be doing something wrong, and to finding strength in our vulnerability.   

Our goal as yogis, and more importantly as human beings, is not to be so unaffected by pain that we charge through life without any compassion, or to be so passive that we never discover the courage to challenge ourselves, but to live somewhere in the middle.  In our own personal optimum.