I get lots of questions from both students and prospective students about how to practice yoga. Some amount of answering that question about how to practice yoga means first deconstructing some often held assumptions about what is necessary for practice. All that is really necessary to practice yoga is the will and desire to practice. It is also helpful to have some kind of direction. Usually that is provided by a teacher who has traveled that way and can provide a sense of the map and waypoints. What is not necessary is the perfect mat, the perfect studio, or the perfect body.
How to practice yoga — cultivating equanimity in a practice context
No matter what the context is surrounding each yoga practice, something will not be perfect. Maybe it’s a little warmer or cooler that you’d prefer. Maybe the space isn’t ideal because you’re practicing at home and the dog is barking or you can hear the neighbor’s stereo. Maybe you’re feeling a little stiff or bored. And that is the yoga practice. “Yoga citta vrtti nirodha” = Yoga is a practice of not identifying with the context of the moment as more or less perfect — it is a practice of cultivating equanimity. Every day when we step onto the mat and things are not perfect, those are the opportunities that we can use to practice not getting caught up in our own preferences. The more we can manage not to get caught up in our own likes and dislikes, the more awareness and space we can hold. The more awareness we can maintain, the more discerning we can be about what is truly important to us and what is just flotsam and jetsam of the mind.
So once we have established that we are going to practice yoga, due to the vagaries of life, we will probably spend some time doing a home practice alone, and some time practicing in community. There are benefits and challenges to both. Having both of these experiences over many years has provided me with a lot of different kinds of learning opportunities.
Solo practice – home practice
Challenges to home practice can include:
- Some self-motivation is necessary since no one is there to tell you to get started.
- You’ll need a willingness to set your own boundaries based on what you are feeling in your body, since no one else will be there to notice when you seem tired and need to shorten or modify your practice.
- Sometimes the home practice space can be feel more distracting as there may be dogs/kids/roommates who are occupying that space as well.
- The space itself may seem less ideal depending on what kind of space options you have. You may have to be more creative to find a flat space large enough for a yoga mat.
Benefits to home practice:
- The space is yours. You can set it up however it feels best to you.
- The time is flexible. You can practice whenever it works best for your schedule.
- You can gain confidence in yourself and in your knowledge of your own body by working on your own.
Long-time Ashtanga teacher, Eddie Stern has this to say about self-practice: “So I would go home, practice on my own for nine months or so, save money, and then when I had enough money together, I would go back to India to get some help with my practice. There were no Ashtanga yoga schools in NY for me to go to everyday. I was on my own, and had to build up self-reliance, independence, and a little spirit of experimentation in order to figure out how to make some of the postures work. Jocelyne learned in the same way. It was a great way to learn yoga. I learned about balancing self-reliance with the importance of having a teacher.”
Practicing yoga in community
There is a zen proverb about the benefits and challenges of practicing in a sangha, which is the Sanskrit word for a practice community. Practice in community is said to be like washing a big pile of potatoes in a bowl. The potatoes bump up against one another in the washing process and there is friction. It’s that friction from the potatoes bumping into one another that results in the whole bowl of potatoes getting washed faster than if you tried to wash them one at a time.
That zen story is a good metaphor for both the challenges and benefits of practicing in community. When you are practicing in community, it’s not all about you. It requires accommodating others — making space for others and whatever it is they need to practice. Practically, that might mean you need to adjust your mat or how you do a pose in the Mysore room to accommodate others. Energetically, it’s also an opportunity to lift one another up — to support one another’s practice. We all benefit from the uplifting energy of practicing in a group, especially when we are feeling low energy or less motivated. This is the yoga practice — the practice of yamas — the first limb of yoga.
It’s all practice
Ultimately all of the contexts in which we do practice will not be perfect. This is how we learn to stretch ourselves, and if we choose to, how we can work to cultivate equanimity on the mat that will translate into equanimity in life off the mat. Rather than trying to change the context or the environment in which you have the opportunity to practice, consider what you can change about how you respond to it. Decide that you are comfortable and content doing your practice despite the dog barking or the sound of the neighbor’s stereo and comfortable and content will start to become your experience.