So you need to start a home practice…

I know you’re out there. The people that practice at home in the somewhat redundantly named “self-practice.” Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has the singular honor of being a form of yoga where this is possible and maybe even optimal. Once you learn the sequences, you can do it yourself. And you do. You toil in obscurity.

There may be any number of reasons for it. It may be that you have never had a teacher—you are self-taught. I’ve run into these folks at the Ashtanga Yoga Confluences, and at workshops and teacher trainings. They get it when and where they can. I salute you, dedicated practitioners!

Or your teacher may be a long way away, making the trek there a masterwork of logistical planning. Our hundred-mile drives to see Tim Miller involves packing the car with changes of clothes, food, and coffee, since we often have to get back to our householder duties. Which is why it only happens once a month or so.

Sometimes, you’ve lost your local shala or your teacher. This has happened to me more times than I like to talk about, through studios closing, moves (mine), or even the death of a teacher. Heartbreaking.

Sometimes, though, you have to “break up” with your teacher. You have, shall we say, “artistic differences.” Also a familiar thing to me—that instinctual feeling that something’s not working, and you just can’t take it anymore. Here I am, I think, once again rolling out my mat in my kitchen for practice, “between teachers.”

Often, it’s cost. Daily Ashtanga practice at an established shala is an expensive proposition—especially if you’re like us: A couple that practices together. We’re talking close to $400 a month, with gas (at our closest studio). Some are even more than that, and sometimes that cost is just out of reach.

When Steve and I went looking for a new house, we actually factored that cost into our price range. We figured we could get an extra bedroom for that, one that we could dedicate to our practice. We did.

Now we are lucky enough to have a yoga room (as opposed to the yoga kitchen we used to have), one that we can easily heat, and has space for both of us. All that’s left to do is find the motivation: Because we’re not dropping the moola and don’t have a teacher waiting for us every day, we have what William Blake called “the dizziness of freedom.”

I can practice any time I want.

Which can swiftly morph into “I don’t have to practice at all.”

But because I’ve found myself in this situation any number of times, and because it’s now taken on the quality of a permanence, I thought I’d run through the things I’ve learned over the years about motivation from the experts.

It’s a moveable feast. There are days when I have to practice in the morning, others when the afternoon is best, and others when the early evening is the only time I have. Is that optimal? No. But here I am, doing my practice when I can.

Rock on. Play music. Yes, yes, I know. You have all kinds of objections to this, and I’ll keep them in mind while I’m practicing. But if Nancy Gilgoff can find motivation in Santana (she does), I can find it in White Denim (I do). Tim Miller adds that music is fine, as long as it doesn’t dictate your movement over the breath (no Shiva Rae funny business, in other words) (no offense, Ms. Rae).

The 70% Rule. At the last Confluence, David Swenson suggested you chill out. One of the things that can keep you off the mat at home is, well, the fact that Ashtanga is hard. David suggested practicing at 70% instead of 110. Eddie Stern also said that some days, “practice” is three As, three Bs, and the last three poses. That’s all you might manage. But that’s still practice.

Future suffering can be avoided. Says Patanjali. So true. When I have that little moment of hesitation, I think, wow, if I don’t get in there, I’ll be sorry. There’s another David Swenson gem that goes something like, “You never regret the practice you do but you always regret the practice you don’t.”

Break the rules. Among those rules I’ve known senior teachers to break: No Saturday practice, no Moon Day practice, Primary only on Friday. Many of these observances are teacher-originated (the Friday Primary rule, I’ve heard suggested, was to give teachers a break). These rules also often conflict with workweek demands. Saturday may be your best chance to do a long, full practice. The Moon Day might actually be a better time than the day before or after (we call that “Choose Your Moon Day” around our house). If you have an Intermediate practice, maybe Thursday was the day for Primary. Or not. There’s no Ashtanga Police here!

Have an Improv class. If you ever get a chance to take Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Improvisation class, do so. And no, that’s not an oxymoron. Well, maybe it is. In any case, Tim takes requests from across the sequences, and weaves them into an improvised class. There have been many days where I’ve rolled out the mat, listened to the Ashtanga muses, and done a “greatest hits” practice with lots of Tim’s research poses thrown in.

Ignore it. The story goes like this. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once had an amazing opium-induced dream in which he composed a long poem in its entirety, in the most amazing poem ever. He woke up, totally remembered the whole thing, and ran for his pen and paper. He was working furiously when some yahoo from down the road knocked on his door, demanding attention. By the time he got back to his desk: Poof! Poem gone. (What he managed to get down is the fragment “Kubla Khan,” by the way.) There’s something to learn in this story. To the rest of the world, you’re not home. The cell, the email ding, the dryer buzzer, the doorbell…You don’t care. It’ll wait.

Think long. This is one of the great blessings of a home practice: Solitude. There is only self study in a room where there is only one practitioner. If you put each practice on the string of days that is your life, no one session on the mat has importance over any other, which can give the practice an arching trajectory that extends out over the days like balm, which in turn can lend each practice the intangible quality and intimacy of a prayer. A mala, if you will. And speaking of which:

Put a cherry on top. Credit for this is going to Eddie Stern, and the japa mala practice he taught at his weekend workshop in New York. I often have trouble with what you might call “transitioning”: leaving the practice to get back to the dozens of other things I have to do. Somehow, this is more difficult when you’re not physically moving through the vestibule of the shala to your car or the walk to the bus. It’s been very helpful for me to close (after the finishing sequence) with a chanting practice, and a short pranayama. Maybe for you, transitioning into the start of your practice is hard. A japa mala might help.

Of course, there are the usual bits of advice for a home practice you can find anywhere: Clear a space, and make it pleasant. Make it a habit. Set achievable goals. Etc. etc. Somehow we know these things already, just by practicing. It’s the fact that we’re lucky enough to have found Ashtanga and its difficulties that makes it both more rewarding and more challenging than, say, just going to the gym or for a run. It requires something more, and gives us more in return.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

8 thoughts on “So you need to start a home practice…”

  1. I enjoy reading all things related to Ashtanga lately. I discovered Ashtanga last year, attended once a week instructor-lead class. I am fascinated with this practice; especially the drop back and jump through transition. I also notice Ashtanga teaches me when to push my limit and when to be patient with certain asanas because my breathes are not there. Anyways, long story short- I decided to start my home practice this year following Maria Villella’s primary series video. It’s a really good video and she counts for me without me working too hard on thinking about the next pose. I also compiled a song list with the practice. Other than the social factor of going to yoga class, I do find peacefulness with practicing alone. There are no mirrors, no fluff, no one else around me, so I can explore and work on poses I wouldn’t get a chance to work on in the instructor lead class.

  2. Nice post Bobbie! I have been contemplating a home self practice. I have been to Tim Millers and want to go back! A home practice will definitely put me closer to that goal! Thank you for the motivation.

  3. Bobbie, many thanks for this, you and Steve have a way with words! Just curious, what arrangement do you have for taking on new asanas? Do you only take on new asanas with permission while visiting your teacher?

    1. I spent quite a long time stuck in place–First and Second, stopped at kapo. I stayed there for years before giving up on practice with the two Los Angeles teachers I had been practicing with. Tim Miller and Maria Zavala then welcomed me and taught me second in a very short period of time. I took Tim Miller’s Second Series Training course to learn the series. So, basically, I went to Tim to learn more poses, and will do the same for Third if I think I might have more to learn, or may need to learn more. I’m pretty content with what I’ve learned. Really, my advice is to go to intense training to learn more about the practice: Tim Miller and David Swenson are generous and will teach you much, and you can take it with you, to your home practice.

      1. Thanks for sharing! I have the fortune of practicing daily at a shala under the guidance and watchful eyes of a teacher. I was curious of the etiquette when not practicing under daily guidance. Thanks again, keep practicing and writing when you can 😉

  4. Thank God for Ashtanga Yoga and the tradition. The way Vinyasa Krama (Krishnamacharya) and then of course Ashtanga Yoga (Guruji) works encourages a self practice which drew me to it. The whole point is to be more contemplative in the end and Ashtanga really exemplifies this for me. I find being in a mysore class is wonderful for the benefits of having a teacher pull you deeper into the postures but the energy is much different than being in a quiet room, alone, to the rhythm of my own breath timed with my own movement (some times I feel my energy influenced by those around me in a Mysore class). My SELF awareness at home becomes more acute especially with the mind chatter I start to see the patterns a little more clearly. Being a full time caregiver i’m forced to be at home and this practice was just the thing I had been looking for to not only hold me together, spiritually, physically, and mentally but also to take 8 limb practice further. Being at home you can try anything you want, chant, meditate, mantra, japa mala you can create your own saddhana practice. The beauty of home practice (coupled with having a teacher you can visit here and there) in the end is that I create an environment in which I have no excuse to not practice it really creates a high level of independence and reiterates that the SELF is the ultimate GURU. Another great post thanks!

  5. Thank you for sharing!! This post reflects many of my thoughts and stories around home practice. One of the harder things I find about home practice is that the community is not as easily accessible – the home practicing community, that is. Thank you for building that here!

  6. Love love love this post! I love all of your posts but this one is especially helpful as I have been practicing at home for the last year. I had/have an Ashtanga teacher about 20 miles away that I went to for 7 years until I broke my arm. I knew I had to ease myself back into my practice on my own (I’m 52 years old) before I could go back to class. What i thought would take me a few months turned into a year and what I’ve discovered the last year has been marvelous. First of all, due to location and time restraints, I could only attend class in the evening. Now i practice at home in the morning and what a difference! Totally addicted to the morning practice! I also love the the solitude which i never thought i would. I switch locations in the house, practice when convenient on the weekends and practice outdoors during the summer! I do miss the “community” of like minded people but have added in some online classes here and there which is helpful. I can sit and meditate after my practice which is so incredibly powerful that i can’t justify (right now anyways) going back to class. The biggest struggle is obviously stepping onto the matt. After that it’s bliss! 🙂 Thanks again for a great post

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