Should You Really Practice Asana #EveryDamnDay?
Despite my intentions to do something constructive during my daily train commute—reviewing Sanskrit grammar, organizing my email, or rereading Jane Eyre—inevitably, I almost always find myself browsing instagram before I reach my final destination. I spend a good chunk of my daily instagram time looking for asana inspiration (well okay, asana inspiration and cat videos). And a while back, I began to notice that nearly every yoga-related picture or video clip I saw was accompanied by the hashtag #YogaEveryDamnDay. It’s an empowering sentiment, to be sure, and each time I saw it paired with photos of friends and fellow practitioners, I’d enthusiastically nod in agreement. "Go, you! Do that daily asana!" But the more I saw the hashtag, the more I began to ponder what "yoga every day" actually means (hey, it’s a long train ride). Does it have to mean asana every day? And what are the physiological, psychological, and cultural implications of the "every day" expectation anyway? Is setting daily asana practice as the "gold standard" for everyone really a good idea?
Is setting daily asana practice as the ¨gold standard¨ for everyone really a good idea?
More Than Just Asana
When I spoke with the creator of the #YogaEveryDamnDay hashtag, yoga teacher Rachel Brathen, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that her intention behind the hashtag, and the challenge that goes along with it, is to remind practitioners that "yoga" means so much more than advanced or intense asana.
"I started the challenge as a monthly challenge; yoga—something, meditation, pranayama, asana, every day for one month," she says. "I had just joined instagram and wanted some inspiration and I started noticing these crazy challenges. I disagreed with a lot of the challenges because they seemed really unsafe. People in their work clothes just getting into a no-handed headstand for the first time. When I started the hashtag, I wanted to get away from the idea that ‘yoga is a pose,’¨ she explains. "[I wanted to] remind people that it’s about more than that. It’s meditation, it’s contemplation, it’s pranayama, along with the asana."
The Benefits of Regular Practice
There’s no doubt regular yoga practice, including asana, comes with a massive amount of benefits—and not just physical benefits. "The biggest benefit is that you feel better, and better, and better," Brathen encourages. "Yoga has become like a blanket that I can wrap myself up in ... a moment of peace, calm, that creates the space for me to skillfully respond to a situation, instead of just reacting."
I know I’ve certainly found this to be true. When life feels especially tumultuous and unpredictable, daily mat-time serves as a much-needed grounding force and a steady constant amidst the frenzy of life. In fact, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika refers to hatha yoga (which includes asana) as a refuge for the suffering. During times when I’ve felt especially depressed, or angry, or uncertain, the simple steadiness of routine practice has been especially significant. Asana becomes less about fancy poses and more about self care.
Part of what makes steady asana practice so therapeutic is that it allows us to be present in a way that’s not always easy in today’s world.
Part of what makes steady asana practice so therapeutic is that it allows us to be present in a way that’s not always easy in today’s world. "We have somatic intelligence that we as a culture don’t always value or listen to, and asana helps us to listen to it," says psychotherapist and yoga teacher Darcy Lyon. "There are so many ways we’re disconnected from our bodies and the present moment. By having an everyday routine where we’re showing up in the breath, in our bodies, and in these shapes—it matures us in a way that we can sense things on more subtle levels. If something in life is off, we'll feel it before it gets more stressful."
If you look at a typical list of asana benefits, stress reduction is often at the top. While regular practice is by no means a cure-all, it can serve as an invaluable tool when it comes to shifting our perspective. "Regular practice definitely helps strain out a certain amount of toxicity, stress, uncertainty, and anxiousness," agrees owner and director of Portland Ashtanga Yoga, Jason Stein. ¨When I finish a practice, all of that stuff seems less palpable. I have more of a sense of it all being temporary.¨
A Physiological Perspective
Few would argue that regular, consistent practice is a good habit to get into, but "regular and consistent" doesn't necessarily mean "seven days a week." What about from a physiological standpoint? Is asana every day safe, or can it be detrimental to practice as a whole?
"It really depends on the structure of your practice," says Lyon. "I think that a certain balanced approach to practicing asana every day is very beneficial, and I’m very supportive of some element of asana every day as part of a well-rounded wellness routine that also includes cardio and strength training." Balance, however, is key. It's when practice gets out of balance that daily asana can become problematic. "We’re seeing injuries in teachers who practice two to three hours a day, every day, for 20 or 30 years, and they don’t have any other [fitness] components," cautions Lyon. "Like anything done out of balance, it can cause strain or injury."
Whether or not daily asana is a good idea also depends on the intensity and athleticism (or lack therof) of your practice. "If you’re training in sports," says teacher and author Christina Sell, "you'll have recovery days so your muscles can rest and develop, but there seems to be this trend for yogis that we should be practicing hard every day. There’s not a reason to do that, and there are lots of reasons not to. Your body needs time to restore. I have an athletic, strong practice," she adds, "and I don’t practice like that every day. I find I make better progress with asana if it’s not every day."
Take Ashtanga yoga for example (in this case, referring to the style of hatha yoga codified by Pattabhi Jois). "Strong" and "athletic" certainly seem appropriate adjectives to describe the primary series (and subsequent series). For serious Ashtanga students, consistent practice is key, but that doesn’t mean you never get a break. "In Ashtanga we take moon days off [meaning the days of the new or full moon]," says Stein, ”and in more traditional practice, Saturdays off as well. It’s important to have a day off to physically and psychologically recover. Your ability to practice is hugely based on your ability to sleep and rest. "Built-in rest days not only help to curtail mental and physical burnout, but can also cultivate reverence for the practice. "In a greater sense," says Stein, "[rest days] give value and meaning [to the practice] by interrupting the pattern. It makes you appreciate time off and appreciate the practice you’ve undertaken."
The Challenges of Regular Practice
While daily practice is not for everyone, regular practice is a great habit to get into—though consistency is not always easy.
While daily practice is not for everyone, regular practice is a great habit to get into—though consistency is not always easy. "One of the greatest challenges when it comes to regular practice is our tamasic mind and body that would rather nap, watch TV, do just about anything other than put down the mat and get on it," reminds Lyon. So how to address these challenges? How can we keep practice consistent, even when we’re not feeling very motivated? "Adapt your practice to fit your life," she suggests. "If your highest dharma is [for example] raising a small child, maybe you have ten minutes, and that’s fine. If you have space to practice for an hour and a half, that’s wonderful, but it’s not necessarily better than a 30 minute practice. The best daily practice is the one you actually do."
"Set yourself up for success," encourages Sell, "It’s not empowering to fail at a lot. It is empowering to succeed at something smaller."
The fact is, asana isn’t "one size fits all." Unreasonable expectations can be a major obstacle when it comes to steady practice. "The biggest challenge for me," says Stein, "is remembering that our ideas about what yoga is are just ideas. The idea is fixed, but reality is much more fluid. The idea that practice has to be a certain length or series of postures can cause anxiousness, if you feel like you’re not doing that," he explains. "There’s a give and take of what practice looks like depending on the time of year and season of life. The challenge is not to be really rigid about what it should look like."
Perhaps that’s the real problem with the "every day" ideal—the assumption that it’s what all "good" practitioners "should" be doing. "I’ve watched so many people struggle with the ‘every day’ aspect," says Sell, "and a huge group of people who struggle with the every day practice is mothers. They have their hands full—car-pooling, working, an asana practice, and many times teaching too. If every day is the standard, then they beat themselves up. It’s yet another set of expectations they see themselves falling short of. Asana practice is to restore ourselves," she reminds. "It's not for anybody else. It’s for ourselves. We don't want to have society’s standard of beauty, but now we have yoga’s standard of practice. That’s something to watch out for."
That’s where it gets tricky, I think—perhaps especially for those of us who lean toward the type-A end of the spectrum. Take, for example, the time I had to catch a cross-country flight at three a.m. on Christmas Day and worried about whether or not the quick practice I did before heading to the airport would "count," due to the time change. Looking back on it, it seems fairly ridiculous. Practicing before hopping on a plane is a pretty good idea, don’t get me wrong. But what motivated my pre-dawn practice was not a desire to stretch out before being scrunched in an airplane seat for hours. Rather it was my anxiety about adhering to the "every day" ideal. Intellectually, I knew that skipping a day wasn’t a big thing—it’s not like my hamstrings would turn to stone if I went more than 24 hours between down dogs—but I accepted the "every day" standard and for me at the time, there wasn’t room for negotiation. Though my pre-flight practice was a little silly, it certainly didn’t do me any harm. But what happens when we use that same reasoning to practice when we’re sick, or injured, or when the "every day" expectation makes practice feel like a chore?
"The Problem," says Sell, "is [the ‘every day’ expectation] sets up an all-or-nothing type of thinking. I’m not saying don’t practice every day, but there’s not a need for everyone to feel obligated to practice every day. There’s this idea out there that you’re a ‘good yogi’ if you do and a ‘bad yogi’ if you don’t, and this conversation is problematic."
Discipline vs. Rigidity
The challenge, it seems, is discerning the difference between discipline and rigidity. "There is an inherent rigidity to discipline," reminds Stein. "Lax discipline doesn’t work." But when it comes to being overly-rigid or harsh with ourselves, Stein encourages practitioners to remember that yoga is about connection. "Intimate relationships with partners, friends, family, that’s where dialogue is important. Someone has to hold up that mirror for you, to let you know if you’re becoming overly-rigid."
Family and friends most definitely play a key-role when it comes to keeping us grounded, and cultivating relationships with fellow practitioners and teachers can be especially useful too. For example, it might seem like your teacher practices handstands for three hours every day, but if you actually ask her about it, you might be surprised. "Find a teacher," urges Stein, "establish a dialogue and start a conversation, so that you know what’s expected, and what it should look like, so that you’re not just getting caught up in your own notions of what practice should be."
Teachers and yoga friends can bring us back to reality when our expectations get out of hand, and they can also provide encouragement and support when we need a little extra "push" to practice. For Structural Integration Practitioner and Ashtanga student, Kyra Ahlstrom, practicing with the same teacher each morning helped her practice to become stronger and more consistent. "It's been a very helpful thing for me to see the same teacher daily," she explains. "You get to build a relationship with someone who knows your body, limitations, injuries, and interests. It inspires daily practice because there's a commitment there—even in a casual ‘see you tomorrow!’ I now have new impetus to get out of bed and show up the next day."
Perhaps, however, the relationship that's the most important to cultivate here, is a relationship with Self. Luckily, one of the major benefits of a balanced and appropriate practice is that we get to know ourselves better and are more easily able to discern what we need. "One of the most helpful things I have learned [with consistent practice],¨ says Ahlstrom, "is to distinguish between when I really need to rest, and when I am being resistant. Deep exhaustion or sickness feel different than ‘I don't wanna.’ I feel it in a different place in my body. At first, I couldn't tell very well. I practiced sick, or I skipped on days I just wanted to sleep in, and then regretted not practicing all day, [but regular] practice helped me become much more aware."
Why Are We Doing This?
In the end, perhaps more important than the "should I practice every day?" question is the "why do I practice?" question.
In the end, perhaps more important than the "should I practice every day?" question is the "why do I practice?" question. I’ve found that regular practice helps me to be a kinder, calmer, healthier human, and as a teacher, I also feel it's my duty to consistently practice what I teach. This doesn't mean 90-minute asana sessions laden with difficult arm balances Monday through Sunday though. In fact, I suspect I would be a rather grumpy, stressed-out human if that were the case. Some days, practice is 15 minutes of surya namaskar before breakfast or draping myself over a bolster for an hour after work. On a very practical level, one the most extraordinary gifts of a balanced asana practice is the myriad ways that it supports our lives outside of yoga, whether it makes it a little easier to get on the floor and play with your kids or be present and breathe mindfully during a stressful situation at work. As Sell puts it, "Asana should be supportive of having a full life. It’s a part of life, not our full life. If I hiked a mountain today, do I really have to do some sun salutes now? I wouldn’t think I'd be falling short in my practice if I didn't."
And that’s the thing, asana can be such a gift—a tool to move through life more skillfully, a refuge from life’s proverbial storms, and a support for the more subtle practices of yoga, like pranayama and meditation. But if, instead, you find your asana practice is a major source of guilt, shame, or stress in your life, it’s probably time to re-think your practice.
The fact is, whether or not you do arm balances seven days a week (or at all) is ultimately irrelevant—but presence, patience, and kindness, those are worth practicing #EveryDamnDay.
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!