That home Ashtanga barrier

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing.


Apologies up front as this is another in our rare (on purpose) posts about our practice.

As I noted earlier, for the coming month I’ll be practicing at home — something I’ve done fairly successfully in the past, but certainly not something that’s my first choice when working through Ashtanga.

But, given the regularity of Ashtanga, there may be value to changing up some other aspects to the practice in order to get fresh perspective and not fall into samskaras. The change from practicing at a shala with a certified teacher to being alone at home has got to be among the biggest one can make.


I recognized today — the first day when I had time to complete a full practice — that I face a barrier when practicing at home that I don’t at a shala. It’s what we call “The Back Nine” of the Primary series: the poses after navasana.

I’m sure navasana is a marker for me because I was kept there for a while; that was the end of my practice. (And, like most, I struggled with the teacher’s call on that.) Now, it seems perhaps ingrained somehow as a dividing point; everything up to then is attainable, “easy” (so to speak). But after is beyond the pale.

I wonder if this is common, if most home practitioners have a point that is a struggle at home that may not be at a shala. (Probably it’s a lot “farther” along than navasana.) And I don’t mean something as explicit as a pose that’s difficult without some assistance. I mean something more… mental.

If so, what might be the cause? What’s the difference externally that results in the difference internally? Is it simply the environment? Is it a subtle peer pressure from others, or perhaps put more positively, is it the encouragement generated by others’ practicing? Is it a revert to an earlier time in the practice, as mine seems to be? Is it something to do with tapas or just having the parampara of a teacher there, in front of you?

Posted by Steve

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

Richard Freeman on building a home practice

Richard Freeman has a new “Ask the Expert” post up at his page; this one is on developing a home practice.

Here’s the link. There’s some excellent stuff, including:

Probably the biggest stumbling block for most who try to establish a home practice is, well—you’re HOME. The phone rings, the refrigerator beckons, the dog paws at the door and laundry starts to call out……


Start with the intention to do an uninterrupted practice for a specified amount of time—2 hours, 1 hour, 45 minutes or just 10 minutes. Anything is better than nothing. Then see if you can stick with that. If you do, great. If not, no worries. Re-establish the intention the next day and see what happens.

Familiarize yourself with the core aspects of the practice; breathing patterns that are associated with the postures, bandhas, mudra and dristi.

Set a specific (and preferably consistent ) time for practice. And find a space that has as few distractions as possible. Early in the morning or at the end of the workday are good times to practice, though any time can work. Setting aside a place in your home that you (and the rest of the family) determine to be your space for practice is good.

I’ve had some success with practicing at home, but certainly for me nothing beats the dedicated space of a shala. That may be in part because I don’t have a space that could be dedicated for yoga. Would I love a future home with a dedicated yoga space? Yes. I think — minus the benefits of adjustments and other teacher shakti influence — I might be able to be more focused in such an environment.

What Freeman writes here reminds my of words I’ve heard from another of the Confluence teachers: David Swenson. He’s answered questions about how long to practice and using other encouragements (i.e. music) by saying, essentially: Whatever gets you to practice. And 15 minutes is better than no minutes.

In particular, Freeman writes this:

However practicing at home and what is called “self practice,” where you work on your own without the constant guidance and cues from a teacher, is a great thing. In fact it is at the root of the Ashtanga system. Part of what makes a self practice good is that you can breath at your own pace and work carefully and deeply to observe and address particular physical (as well as mental and emotional) states as they arise.

That captures, in my mind, what is a commonality among the Confluence teachers: An openness to and focus on doing what works for you. Tim Miller certainly has offered me ideas about how to make the practice work better for me, and that sometimes means tweaking a pose to best serve my needs.

My sense is this openness is something the Confluence teachers, and their peers, have really brought to Ashtanga — the very fact there are many of them means there is a diversity of opinion and thinking and insights and knowledge.

And I think the bubbling together of such opinions is almost always a good thing and results in progress.

It certainly is something I’m looking to be on display in March.

Posted by Steve