One of the questions I’m asked most frequently when I teach hatha is “What should I do when I practice alone?” After learning the basic postures, most people realize the importance of daily practice, and want to develop a routine that meets their individual needs. But obstacles arise almost immediately. In spite of good intentions, great ideas, and ambitious plans, most of us can’t seem to follow through. It’s a bit like changing your diet or breaking the cigarette habit. Some of us don’t know where to begin, or find no satisfaction in our efforts.
The best approach to overcoming these obstacles is to: (1) take a careful look at your intentions and needs; (2) make an honest evaluation of your strengths, limitations, and environment; (3) design a practice that works for you; and (4) work to deepen and advance that practice.
The answer to “How do I develop my own practice?” can be found by first answering two other questions: “Why am I practicing? What do I want to achieve with my asana practice?” The answers are as numerous as the individuals asking the questions. Ultimately, the goal of hatha yoga is to prepare us for higher spiritual practices by removing the obstacles in the physical body, eliminating physical and mental disturbances, and concentrating and channeling the spiritual energy that unfolds as we turn our attention inward.
But regardless of our higher aspirations, most of us have psychophysical obstacles that need to be addressed with asana and pranayama practices. The larger goal can eventually be achieved by first working with a modest agenda.
Your experiences in hatha classes have probably made you aware of what you want to accomplish in your individual practice, at least to some degree. For example, you may want to work on a specific posture, such as headstand, because of its benefits. Or, perhaps discomfort in your sitting posture is interfering with your meditation practice, so you want to get rid of the stiffness in the legs or back to make your meditation more comfortable. Your goals may be entirely therapeutic—strengthening a weak shoulder, balancing a curved spine, or hastening recovery from injury. Some of us may want a practice that increases our energy and enhances our general feeling of well-being. Others may want to counter the negative side effects of other activities, such as sitting at a computer all day, or participating in a sport like jogging, which strengthens some muscles and organ systems at the expense of others.
When you set goals, be willing to have them change. Begin by making an honest assessment of where you are. Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. This applies to everything—from the condition of your body, to your daily schedule and the other commitments in your life. As you plan your practice, take your whole environment into consideration, both internal and external.
When you set goals, be willing to have them change.
As you continually observe and assess yourself, you’ll want to adapt your routine to accommodate what you discover as you practice. For example, suppose you are working to learn the headstand and have designed a practice to achieve that end, but find yourself increasingly interested in exploring tension in the pelvis. This may be inhibiting your progress in all postures, so adjust your goals and methods accordingly. Similarly, if you realize that mastering the headstand is too ambitious at the moment, put it on the shelf with other long-term goals. Focus on developing confidence in the standing postures and increasing abdominal strength and shoulder flexibility—all of which are necessary for a comfortable headstand. Allow your practice to grow, and build on the discoveries you make as you proceed. Your purpose will change as your life changes.
The time and place you choose to practice can be either a powerful obstacle or a support. Choose a time that is consistently convenient, remembering that it isn’t healthy to practice while you’re still digesting a meal. The habit of practicing at the same time will help you in the matter of discipline—if you are regular in your practice, your body will begin to insist on its asana practice.
Many people find that the best times are before breakfast, or after work and before the evening meal. Mornings are especially good because outside intrusions and commitments are minimal before breakfast. It’s true that you’ll be stiffer in the morning, but think of it this way: you’ll feel much better the rest of the day, and you won’t have to look very far to find the places in your body that need work.
Choose a quiet place where you can move freely both outwardly and inwardly, a place where you won’t bang into the television, the refrigerator, half-read novels, or other enticing, unfinished projects, and where other people won’t bang into you. It’s a time for inward focus and self-observation; minimize the distractions as much as you can.
How long you decide to practice is an important factor in designing a routine you can live with. Be realistic. If you can only devote fifteen minutes over the long run, then set fifteen minutes as a goal, use that time effectively, and be satisfied. A common pitfall is to do nothing because there’s not enough time to do everything. As you continue practicing, you may long for more time and may find a way to make it, but in the beginning, let yourself be content with whatever time you can comfortably spare from other activities. Otherwise, it’s too easy to find excuses not to practice at all.
A common pitfall is to do nothing because there’s not enough time to do everything.
Once you’ve settled on a time and a period of practice, develop a session or a series of sessions tailored to your specific needs. Put yourself in the teacher role. If you develop a sequence (or at least an outline), you’ll find it easier to practice on those days when you don’t quite have the energy to decide what to do next. Working from a plan takes a little less discipline than simply winging it. It allows you to focus on the postures themselves, as if you were being told what to do.
If you have multiple goals, you may want to develop several classes: a general session, for example, and another session designed to correct a particular weakness, such as lack of upper body strength. Then alternate. Or, develop one set of basic postures for days when you have little time, and a longer, more elaborate set for days when you have more time.
Start with easier poses. Those that follow the more natural common movements of the body will limber the joints and spine as you work up to the more difficult postures. For example, you will need to warm up the neck, shoulders, and spine before doing shoulderstand.
Many postures—especially inverted poses, backward bends, and twisting poses—require counterposes. The principle of counterpose is that an asana that involves a significant effort should be followed by a milder posture that soothes and releases the affected areas. For example, an intense backward bending posture like wheel or bow should be countered with a few minutes in child’s pose or with the knees drawn up to the chest—postures that gently round the back in the opposite direction. You may use different counterposes for the same posture, depending on where you feel the strain. Resting between postures is another good counterpose.
Any set of postures should strive for balance. The following sequence uses the principle of counterposes while covering postures that are necessary for almost all of us. The choice of which particular postures to include in this sequence will depend on your goals, needs, and abilities.
Standing poses to limber and align the body
Poses for strengthening and energizing the navel area
Backward bends to counter gravity
A final relaxation to rest and integrate the body and mind
Another important design element is variety. Adjust the postures to your abilities at the time you are practicing, remembering that each time you practice, your capacity will be different. The purpose of asana practice is not to conform to some idealized external form. The postures are tools, so use modifications as necessary.
Repeating the same routine over and over again can result in a dull, stale practice. It’s important to retain a sense of discovery. The mind is attracted to what is new and different. Rather than struggle with the mind’s craving for change, use it to deepen your practice. For example, use variations of the forward bend. If you have difficulty focusing in the seated forward bend, try the standing forward bend (uttanasana) instead.
Repeating the same routine over and over again can result in a dull, stale practice. It’s important to retain a sense of discovery.
Another way to keep the mind engaged is to focus more deeply on the breath and subtle energy in the body, and to remain aware of the “in-the-moment” physical and emotional state, which is always unique, regardless of the posture. Let yourself be totally present, approaching the physical and energetic self in the spirit of investigation and exploration. Explore the posture itself. What happens if you bend the knees slightly in dog stretch? Or boldly roll the hips from side to side? Let your renewed attention and sense of discovery teach you.
At some point, you may begin to improvise your entire practice, following the dictates and needs of the body in the moment, so that you approach your asana sessions without any preconceived ideas of what you are going to do. The postures will flow, each dictated by the preceding posture and your own awareness of what needs to be done to bring yourself into perfect mental, physical, and spiritual harmony.
Perhaps the hardest part about working on your own, once you commit yourself to doing it, is staying present both in the posture and between poses, without the aid of an external voice to bring your attention to troublesome aspects of the asana and to tell you when it’s time to move into the next posture. In a class, problems of pacing and timing are left to the teacher. You also get corrections, hints, and moral support from the other students and the teacher. When you’re working on your own, you have to concentrate without the external reminders. You must set your own pace, make your own corrections, and challenge or comfort yourself as necessary.
On the other hand, you can use this opportunity to find the teacher within, directing the stream of awareness inward without interruption or externally imposed direction. Work from the gross to the subtle: from muscular awareness to the breath, from the breath to the more subtle, pranic level of energy. Be aware of details: the placement of the foot, the space between the shoulder and ear, the slight pause or jerk in the breath, places where you feel dense, or can’t feel at all.
Deepening your practice may require lengthening your stay in the postures. Give yourself time to focus your attention and reach and explore your edge—that place where you are still comfortable and steady, but are at the limit of what you can tolerate physically, mentally, and emotionally. The time it takes to reach that edge of tolerance will vary, as will the physical location of that edge, so full concentration is always necessary. Watch the breath. A short, shallow, jerky breathing pattern indicates mental, emotional, or physical resistance that needs your attention. Use the breath to recognize and ease that resistance.
Even as you release the posture, and in the final relaxation which should always follow your session, full attention and concentration will allow you to integrate the changes you’ve made and give you time to adjust to the new alignment of the body and energy field.
As you practice, keep your purpose, desires, capabilities, and the time you have available in mind. Start where you are, be alert and relaxed, pay attention, prepare, compensate, improvise, and then rest and surrender. Finally, ask yourself: "Do I enjoy my practice?" If the answer is no, then ask yourself, “What can I do to make my practice more deeply satisfying?” Would you really be happier staying in bed?