Establishing a Self-Practice Mar 21 2015

21 March 2015

It appears that we are either enjoying a growing interest in these workshops in general, or there was greater interest in this specific topic, for once again, we had our biggest turnout yet – 19 people came along to workshop how to establish a self-practice.

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I was a few minutes late, so missed both Nina’s and the first few participants’ introductions; but I think it’s safe to assume that Nina kicked off with a brief explanation of why she chose to focus on “self-practice” rather than “home-practice”. Rather than making this up, though, I can focus on the enthusiasm with which she replied to the person who commented that “My self-practice at the moment is getting up early twice a week and getting to the studio”.

This workshop was not about where we practice, but when and how. How do we stay motivated? Do we need a set schedule? How does that work when life gets in the way?

20150321_141943As we went around the circle introducing ourselves, it became apparent that the greatest difficulty for most people is building and sustaining momentum.

Many spoke about getting up a good rhythm and then being disrupted; practicing regularly for weeks or months – and then not feeling like it. Someone mentioned “always thinking that I should”, and the pressure that we put on ourselves to live up to such “shoulds”. She also noted that this feeling is

boosted after a good class, when you leave “all fired up” and raring to keep up the good work. And that it easily peters out after a couple of days off.

Someone else explained that her challenge is not so much getting in a practice, but in stretching it out to a full 2-hours. When she can’t do that, she stops doing anything.

Others said that the biggest concern when practicing on their own, is that maybe they’re “not doing it right”, or that they might injure themselves when working unsupervised. This concern was voiced both by relative newcomers to yoga and by some who have been practicing for a long time, but still wonder how to incorporate lessons learnt in taught classes into their private practice.

A slightly different concern was voiced by the (self-described) fitness junkie, who has no trouble whatsoever in getting motivated to work-out every day – running, bicycling, going to the gym; but doesn’t know enough to “do yoga” on her own.

This is a good place to note that this was the 2nd workshop in a row in which the vast majority of our time was spent talking about things than in doing things. Nina is worrying that we’re getting too wordy – too cognitive – and moving away from the practice itself. You can see this already in her introduction to the next workshop, Balancing Effort and Surrender, where she has promised that to ensure that we get a physical practice into the session. (Personally, I’m getting a physical practice in during Renata’s Saturday morning classes before the workshop, and am very happy engaging in these stimulating discussions :))

Anyway, I mention that here, because the conversation in this self-practice workshop really took off – but not in a neat linear fashion, which makes it a bit difficult to summarise neatly. So, rather than being true to our conversation, let me outline a few of the key themes that arose.

• Our practice goes through phases; these phases are context dependent

• Nothing is achieved by beating ourselves up about the [inevitable] “failure” to do all the things that we think we “should”

• A yoga practice is not just a physical asana practice – it occurs on many different levels, both on and off the mat

• Self-practice is not necessarily a solo practice – working with a friend, working in a taught class, working with a video camera are all ways of working with / on / for your self

• Being creative and playful can take a lot of the pressure off of the practice, making it more fun and rewarding – but also deepening and internalizing our understanding

I’ll try to elaborate on each of these points separately – but they sometimes intermingle and intertwine.

Understanding that our practice goes through different phases or stages – and that these stages are context-dependent – is an incredibly important insight for addressing the “issues” of sustaining a regular practice. During the initial self-disclosures in this workshop, as mentioned above, issues of motivation and sustainability arose again and again. But it was not until we’d gotten all the way around the group that someone said “and that’s okay”. We have lapses, we have changing needs, and varying levels of commitment and enthusiasm. Such is life.

Long ago someone responded to my new-found enthusiasm for a daily practice by saying: “yoga is for life; life is not for yoga”. Most of us are not surrendering our lives to yoga. Instead, yoga is a path (Nina objects to calling it a “tool”) that helps us to navigate the lives that we lead. It helps us to build and sustain focus, clarity, peace, calm, fitness, and hopefully joy. Although some of us choose to make it our life path, for most it must be fitted around the other things that go on in our lives. Thus we might find it somewhat easier to sustain a daily practice while on holidays, or visiting our parents, than we do when the demands of our ordinary working lives intrude (although we might need it more the other way around). 

Some of us have irregular working hours, which means that irregular yoga times are the only way we can achieve consistency. But irregular working hours might also mean that we have more flexibility about studio timetables – providing more degrees of freedom to explore and experience different teachers and different styles. People with regular working hours may find it much easier to develop set practice times. If those regular working hours also take place in a stable working environment, then it may be possible (as one of our participants does) to set aside a time and a space at work for a regular self-practice.

Other individual particularities also matter here. Some of us identify as the all-or-nothing-type, for whom nothing less than a full 2-hour workout will suffice. And if we cannot do it daily (or 4–5 times per week), then we just won’t do it at all.

Among the suggestions made for dealing with these issues – besides simply accepting that they are real, normal, and quite okay – was the advice to “just do something”. Repeating the same move / pose / mantra for “one minute a day” is guaranteed to ensure that you learn and embody it fully. Just “busting a move” at random times of the day is different a way of having a regular (even if irregular) practice that can cope with irregular hours, places, life events and so on.

These two suggestions combine in Nina’s repeated suggestion to practice balancing by standing on one leg in the check-out queue at the supermarket, or while peeling veggies. If you’re stuck at a desk all day, regularly (or irregularly) extend your spine back over the chair, or drop your shoulders between your knees in a deep seated forward bend. Be sure to do some wrist and shoulder stretches to get the kinks out of the computer back. And so on…

All of these, and many other suggestions, revolve around the physical practice of asanas. And as we all know, but frequently forget, asanas are not the end of the practice, but a means towards sharpening the focus of our attention, to calm the fluctuations of the mind, and take us to deeper insights into the true nature of our selves.

A sitting meditation practice is similarly a means to this end. And this need not be restricted to a mat, or a quiet room. As above, just one-minute-a-day is enough to embed such a practice, whether that minute is sitting at the kitchen table, or on a train. Before you become quite adept at this, it’s probably best not to do it while driving your car! But later, sitting at a traffic light is a great place to practice mindfulness. Becoming aware of your reactions to the uncontrollable fluctuations of other drivers is excellent practice – it’s an ideal place to take yoga off the mat and into everyday life.

This raises all of the issues that we discussed in our last workshop, on Intentions. I might’ve gotten a bit carried away writing that up, so won’t go into it again now. You can read about it here.

But one obvious connection is about the self-recriminations of “failing” to carry through with our intentions. As we discussed in the Intentions workshop, although it might be “good” to set and follow through on our intentions, it is important to recognize that this does not mean that there is something “bad” or “lacking” in where we’re at before the intention, and there is no failure in deviating from the intended path. It is what it is. Becoming obsessed about “wants” and “should” is a sure-fire way to fill our minds with distractions.

So let’s get down to some practical suggestions for how to build and maintain a self-practice.

• Making regular time to get to a studio and do a lead class is excellent. How many times have you heard some say at the end of a class that they had been um-ing and ah-ing about whether or not to come, but they’re “so glad they did”? I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say that they regretted their decision. Motto: if in doubt, just do it.

• From there it follows that developing a regular practice requires a commitment, and that requires setting priorities. Is watching telly, going to a party, or having another session at the pub more important than your practice? If it is, then go do it – and don’t beat yourself up about it.

• Making the time for a regular practice often requires training significant others to respect your priorities. This may seem onerous at first, but if you’re focused and consistent, they will learn – and then may prove (even if inadvertently) to support you when you might be tempted to waver.

o Felicity recounted being on tour with a theatre company, who had learned that she had a set time for practice each day. After a couple of weeks, on a particularly stressful day, when they said “hey, let’s go get a drink” and she was tempted, one said, “oh, but you can’t, can you? you have to practice.” And she said, “yeah, I do” as much to herself as to them.

• Self-knowledge works both ways. We practice to deepen our self-knowledge – we need to know our-selves in order to deepen our practice. Some days you’ll whip out the mat and then just not want to do anything. That’s ok. Roll it up and go away. Come back tomorrow.

• Stick with being hungry, rather than going too far, too fast, and exhausting your knowledge, your creativity, and your body.

o One suggestion is to begin by limiting yourself to a six-minute practice. Set a timer for six-minutes. Then do sun-salutes, or any other poses you want – or just sit and meditate until the alarm goes off. Then get up and go about your day. After a couple of days of this you’ll want more. Set the timer for eight minutes. And a few days later give yourself ten. It’s easy to fit in these few minutes each day – and you’ll leave yourself hungry for more and more.

• Alternatively, if you find it’s easy enough to put together a 30 or 40 minute practice, but you have exhausted your repertoire then, and you still want to fill out a 1-1/2 or 2-hour session, find some YouTube or Yogaglo video classes. There are heaps of resources available on line. Importantly, do your own thing first; and be aware that you may only be inspired to follow the video for a few minutes before it prompts you to remember something else that you already know, and would rather do.

• If you roll out your mat and really don’t want to – maybe just bang out five sun salutes and call it a day.

• Some people find though, that after they’ve run out of ideas, they just sit quietly until a new idea arises; or until they’ve sat long enough to get up and leave the mat.

• If you don’t remember any sequences – just do something else. Unless you’re preparing for serious spinal-extensions or inversions, the sequence doesn’t really matter.

[A late addition: as I’m writing this up, Nicole shared this handy tool from Bad Yoga — a beginners guide to building a sequence]

o If you are preparing for serious spinal extensions, then do some gentle extensions to prepare for it.

• A set sequence, or even a broad range of poses is not necessary. A good self-practice might just be working out some variations on a single pose. Maybe there’s something that happened in your last class that you didn’t fully get. Play with it. Work it out. See how it feels when you can dwell on it. Too often in a taught class we just whack it on, and then move on to the next thing. Spend your private time working it out in more detail.

o But how do I know I’ve got it right? Well, if you can’t find a friend to work on it with you, use your video camera – prop it up to do selfie, then watch it, and do it again. Remember this is a practice, not performing for an audience – do it again and again until it feels right. (Then maybe check-in with the teacher next time you’re in the studio.)

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Nina runs us through alignment issues in surya namaskara

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• Be sure that some pranayama and some quiet sitting is a regular part of your practice. If you cannot be bothered doing any asanas, sit. And breathe!

• The Five Tibetans is an excellent and easily learnt sequence. It can serve as a sufficient daily practice, or provide a sound foundation from which to explore and develop further.

o Advocates of the Five Tibetans consider them to be the “minimum daily requirements” – they are an ancient sequence developed to mobilize every joint group and muscle group, and they develop strong core strength.

o They can be done fast or slow – either aerobically burning energy or slowly building strength.

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Can we practice now??

We ended our discussion with a note of caution. We need to be wary of misleading ourselves with self-delusion, wishful thinking or externally derived goals. If our motivation for a personal practice is to achieve specific weight-loss or body-image objectives, it’s time to check-in with ourselves. That trick never works.

When we focus on yoga and its elements, we are looking for sattva: for balance in our practice. Yoga helps to c/ease the fluctuations of the mind by developing contentment. Hence, the outcome of our practice “should” be contentment – rather than exhilaration, exhaustion or over-stimulation. An effective practice of asana, pranayama and meditation will fine-tune the nervous system, with the side-effect of making you both mentally and physically fitter.

Your body is not your “tool”. It’s more like your child, needing nurture, training, support and love. Do not abuse it by using it to achieve externally determined objectives.

The next workshop is Balancing Effort and Surrender, April 18th, 1.15pm.

Balance effort and surrender flyer

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