In the past several years I’ve had hundreds of conversations with students who declare that practicing at home just doesn’t have the same feeling as practicing in class. The presence and voice of a teacher, the support of the group environment, and the pleasure of being guided are difficult to replace. Yet a personal practice is the foundation of yoga. What may be missing in our attempts to build a home practice are some of the things the teacher usually provides: a clear intention and a step-by-step approach toward reaching the goal. Often the tendency is to approach a personal practice haphazardly—a little of this, a little of that, and whatever else comes to mind just for fun.
Setting an Intention
Personal practice is most fruitful when we begin with a clear intention. Forming one can be difficult, however. I first realized this at a retreat I attended many years ago. The teacher asked each of us to explore the question: What do you want from the practice? At first it seemed like a simple question, but as the retreat progressed it became clear that there were significant stumbling blocks on the way to the answer.
I have since learned that self-observation is the first step. Setting an intention requires that we know something about ourselves and our current situation. Observe yourself before beginning, like a gardener who tests the soil before watering. An intention can be simple (I’ve been at my desk all day so I’d like to relieve the compression caused by prolonged sitting) or complex (I want to work on a difficult posture to develop self-confidence). But whether simple or complex, keep the intention concrete. Be specific—this will keep the practice focused.
The intention you choose will determine the direction of the practice, the postures you select, and the order in which you do them. Here’s an example from my own practice: When I am feeling lethargic in the morning before practice and have a demanding workday ahead, I set an intention to raise my energy level. To do this, I might practice an asana sequence designed around a backward-bending posture, much like the bow posture sequence that follows.
Taking it Step by Step
The best way to bring an intention to fruition is to approach it step by step. T. K. V. Desikachar often states that yoga is the ability to do something you could not do before—the process of creating well-organized steps leading toward a goal (vinyasa krama) is an important aspect of his teaching. Following steps creates the possibility of approaching postures (or states of awareness) that may have been previously unattainable. In asana practice a step-by-step approach includes preparing for a posture, practicing the posture, and counterposing. The sequence for the bow posture illustrates this approach.
The first six postures are preparatory. To cite only a few examples, Steps 1, 3, 5, and 6 lay the groundwork for the bow’s spinal arch with progressively propelling backward bends. The shoulders are prepared in the “stay” position of Steps 3 and 5, where the chest opens, the shoulders drop down, and the lower scapulae move toward the spine, much as they do in the bow. Without lengthening the front of the thighs, the bow can be uncomfortable for the knees, so Steps 3 and 5 prepare the quadriceps and Step 3 also lengthens the psoas, an important muscle in most backward-bending postures. Step 6 displays many of the aspects of the bow: the abdomen and hips bear weight, the back arches, the legs lift, and the chest opens.
Step 7, the bow posture proper, requires endurance and vitality. It is an energizing pose, which strengthens the back and opens the chest, making it an excellent preparation for pranayama.
Complex asanas, like the bow, usually require more than one counterpose. The last three postures in the sequence are counterposes to compensate for the strong action of the bow pose on the spine, shoulders, and knees. Step 8 allows the breath to return to a natural rhythm. Step 9 lengthens the back of the neck and releases the shoulders. Drawing the knees into the chest in Step 10 lengthens the lumbar spine, releasing the lower back. The leglifts in Step 10 also lengthen the hamstrings and the muscles behind the knees.
Try the sequence and notice if a step-by-step approach to the bow pose contributes to your experience of the posture. During asana, remember to initiate a deliberate pause (2–3 seconds) at the top of your inhalation and at the bottom of your exhalation.
Step 1: Arm Raises (Tadasana Variation)
Stand with your feet parallel, hip-distance apart, and your arms relaxed at your sides. Take a few breaths before proceeding.
Inhaling, raise your arms to the front and over your head. Pause at the top.
Exhaling, lower your arms.
Repeat six times, carefully synchronizing the duration of the movements to the duration of your breath.
Then go into the posture and stay for one breath. Lower the arms. Return to the posture for two breaths. Lower the arms. Continue adding a breath with each repetition until you have completed a four-breath stay in the posture.
Suggestions: Before you begin, pause to observe how you feel. Notice your physical sensations, the quality of your natural breath, and your state of mind. As you begin practicing the armlifts, allow the breath to lengthen slightly with each repetition until you have reached a full but comfortable duration of inhalation and exhalation.
Step 2: Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
Stand with your feet parallel, hip-distance apart, and your arms at your sides. Take a few breaths before proceeding.
Inhaling, raise your arms to the front and then over your head, keeping your elbows relaxed.
Exhaling, fold forward, slightly bending the knees, taking the arms to the side and resting the hands on the small of the back.
Inhaling, lift your back, taking the arms to the front and over your head as you stand, keeping your knees slightly bent until the end of the movement.
Exhaling, lower your arms.
Repeat six times, synchronizing your movements to your breath.
Suggestions: Stay with the quality of your breath. Does it change as you practice the posture? Does the posture facilitate a deeper inhalation or a deeper exhalation?
Step 3: Kneeling Warrior (Kneeling Virabhadrasana)
Kneel, placing padding under the right knee. Step your left foot forward. Placing the hands at the center of the chest, take a few breaths in place.
Inhaling, bend your left knee while opening the arms and lifting the chest.
Exhaling, bring the hands back to the chest as you straighten the left knee and return to the starting position.
Repeat four times.
Then go into the posture and take the hands behind the back with the palms together and the fingers interlaced. Stay for four breaths before changing sides.
Suggestions: Let your attention rest at the hands on your chest. Notice your heart rate and the ribs moving with your breath. As you bend the front knee and open the arms into the posture, bend the elbows so you’ll feel the lifting action coming from your back instead of your shoulders.
Step 4: Kneeling Forward Bend Sequence (Vajrasana/Chakravakasana/Adho Mukha Shvanasana Vinyasa)
Place padding under your knees and sit on your heels with your knees slightly apart and your hands on your thighs. Alternate beginning posture: Kneel upright with your arms at your sides and your knees hip-distance apart.
Inhaling, raise the arms to the front and over your head, while standing up on the knees.
Exhaling, take the hips toward your heels as you fold over the thighs. Keep the arms relaxed as they come to the floor.
Inhaling, move the chest forward over the hands, slightly arching the back and keeping the elbows soft.
Exhaling, tuck your toes under, lift the buttocks, lower the chest, and press firmly through all parts of the hands as you take downward-facing dog. Keep the head down.
Then do all the postures in reverse order until you find yourself where you began: Inhaling, bend the elbows and the knees, while dropping the knees to the floor and moving the chest forward. Arch the back slightly.
Exhaling, move the hips toward the heels, folding over the thighs. Rest the elbows on the floor and allow the forehead to relax onto or toward the floor.
Inhaling, lift the back, raising the arms to the front and over your head as you stand up on the knees.
Exhaling, sit down on your heels and lower your hands to your thighs.
Alternate: Exhaling, lower your arms to your sides.
Repeat six times, adding a breath in downward facing dog with each repetition.
Suggestions: An alternate beginning (and ending) posture is provided, because for some people sitting on the heels with the knees bent can create discomfort and compression behind the knees. Others (especially athletes) often feel cramping in the arches when sitting on the feet. If you try the alternate position, press the tops of the feet into the floor to provide a stable base.
Step 5: Supine Back Arch (Dvipada Pitham)
Lie on your back with your feet hip-distance apart on the floor and your arms comfortably at your sides, palms down. Pause for twelve breaths, fully releasing the back of the body into the floor. Link your attention to your breath before proceeding.
Inhaling, press through the feet and raise the hips off the floor, while lifting the arms over your head to the floor behind you. Keep the elbows slightly bent and all parts of each foot firmly pressing into the floor.
Exhaling, lower the hips and arms to the starting position.
Repeat 6 times dynamically, linking your movement to the duration of your breath.
Then take the pose, grabbing the ankles or placing the palms together behind your back with the fingers interlaced, and stay for six breaths.
Suggestions: As you hold the posture, inhale first into the chest and then into the abdomen. As you exhale, feel the support of the abdominal muscles moving back toward the lower spine and slightly up toward the chest. How does the breath affect your pose?
Step 6: Prone Back Arch Sequence (Bhujangasana Vinyasa)
Lie on your stomach and place your forehead on the floor and your hands under your shoulders, or slightly in front. Separate your ankles a foot apart and relax your legs.
Inhaling, lift the chest, shoulders, and head, without pushing down on the hands. Keep the neck relaxed and the chin in a neutral position.
Exhaling, bend the knees, lifting the feet and drawing the heels in toward the buttocks.
Inhaling, lower the feet back to the floor.
Exhaling, lower the chest and forehead to the floor.
Repeat the cycle six times.
Then add a breath in each position for two cycles.
Suggestions: Notice the steps in this cycle. As you practice, be patient. Wait for the breath to initiate your movement, and pause to feel the completion of each step.
Step 7: Bow Posture (Dhanurasana)
Keeping the forehead on the floor, lift your feet and reach back and take hold of your ankles.
Inhaling, lift the chest, shoulders, head, feet, and thighs.
Exhaling, release the posture.
Repeat six times, linking your breath and movement.
Then stay in the posture for six breaths.
Suggestions: Notice how smoothly you can move into and out of the posture. Avoid pulling into the posture with the head or craning the neck. Shorten the number of repetitions or the length of the stay if you are unable to keep the breath smooth and relaxed. Your breath capacity will increase in the bow if you continue to practice it.
Step 8: Supine Rest
Lie on your back with the legs outstretched for twelve breaths, observing the sensations in your body and breath.
Suggestions: Always take a short rest before counterposing. Observe the effects of the posture. Notice the cadence of your breath. As the rhythm returns to normal, proceed with the counterposes.
Step 9: Supine Back Arch (Dvipada Pitham)
Practice the supine back arch (Step 5) with the following arm variation:
Inhaling, sweep the arms along the floor and then over your head while lifting the hips.
Exhaling, sweep the arms back to your sides while lowering the spine.
Repeat six times.
Suggestions: Counterposes are practiced dynamically—in other words, move into and out of the posture with your breath rather than holding the pose. Notice how the neck is lengthened as the hips lift and how the shoulders release as the arms sweep along the floor.
Step 10: Knees-to-Chest/Leglift Combination (Apanasana/Urdhva Prasarita Padasana Vinyasa)
Lie on your back with your knees comfortably in toward your chest and the palms of your hands on your kneecaps.
Inhaling, allow the thighs to glide away from you, keeping the chin in a neutral position.
Exhaling, draw the knees toward your chest, bending the elbows.
Inhaling, stretch the legs up, while lifting the arms to the floor behind you.
Exhaling, bring the hands to the knees and the knees to the chest.
Repeat the cycle six times.
Then repeat it twice more, staying for one breath in each posture into which you exhale.
Suggestions: Stay focused on the sensations of your breath and carefully link the duration of your movement to the duration of your breath. Allow the exhalation to become slightly longer than your inhalation.
Step 11: Final Rest (Shavasana)
Lie comfortably on your back with the legs extended and the arms at your sides.
Suggestions: Observe the results of the practice. Once again, notice your physical sensations, the general quality of your breath, and your state of mind. Is there a change from the beginning of practice? Let your breath be natural as you rest for 3–5 minutes.