Some Thoughts on the Conundrum of Getting to Yogic Self-Practice

A seemingly universal refrain amongHawaii suptapadanusthasana yoga enthusiasts is that they miss their usual class when it is interrupted for some reason and they find it difficult to practice on their own what they have learned between formal classes lead by others.

This complaint tends to apply to novice and experienced yogis alike.

A notable exception are students of ashtanga who have memorized a series and go to practice in early morning at a Mysore-style studio or teachers or therapists who have made a routine out of getting to the mat every day.

Let’s consider why this difficulty with adapting yoga to the ups and downs of life might exist.

Perhaps the most likely possibility is that the melange of thinking / doing / experiencing offered in a class is difficult to achieve on one’s own. 

In a formal offering such as a class, workshop or retreat lead by someone else, the facilitator typically has done all of the thinking and preparation: the organizing theme, the uninterrupted time and appropriate space and materials, the order of the component pieces, and how the pieces will be executed, for example.  (When the offering is specifically therapeutic, yet another layer of individualization and holistic consideration come into play.)

Suffice it to say that, in an organized yoga offering, participants are mostly free to act and feel. 

While the relative amounts of doing and experiencing will differ based on class style and purpose, one or both of activity and experiential qualities will be more intense because the thinking aspect has been taken out of the equation.

And let’s face it, we tend to like intensity, especially when we think it feels good or is associated with achieving some desired result.

So why are the ashtangi and the daily-practice-committed yoga professional able to bypass the need of a teacher-induced intensity?

How able we are to practice on our own seems to largely be a matter of motivating factors, or purpose.

Using the ashtanga practitioner as an example, there customarily is an established series of poses on which to work and the yogi usually wants to improve performance on one or a few of them.  Often there is the carrot of perfecting this series so as to be permitted to move on to the next, more difficult and showy series.  There are many rules set by a guru and enforced by junior gurus, a community of regular practitioners and a consistent practice time and space into which one would like to fit, and arguably some bragging rights that all work together to motivate the practitioner.  This situation can play out in other styles of yoga, too, but generally to a lesser extent.

Aside from an ashtanga practice, the dedicated daily yogi may have any one or more of a number of motivators.  Some experience their daily time on the mat as their spiritual practice which, for certain people, can be an overarching driving force.  (There are a number of different paradigms that guide a practice that has spiritual growth as its purpose.)  Others find it to be a self-care time during which they can maintain their health or address aches and pains or energy or moods, or simply be with themselves, in their bodies, in the present moment (this sounds trivial and yet is fundamental in working with trauma).  Yet others have certain proficiency goals or are working out how to share an understanding with others.

All of these purposes presume some level or degree of understanding or knowledge of yoga.  Attentive class participants, over time, should be able to transfer some material or process from their formal training to their home mat although it may not constitute a long practice.

One way to increase the viability of informal yoga practice is to form a group or duo with whom to be “yoga buddies” – people who get together regularly or occasionally to practice together.  But this solution still leaves the sole yoga aspirant at a loss most of the time.

Facilitating such a transfer of knowledge from class to personal practice truly is my passion. Those who have spent time “yoga-ing” with me know that I like to give reasons or purported benefits, provide background info, encourage feeling into practices, give permission to do something different, show various ways of approaching a pose depending on purpose, and so on.

I do not subscribe to formulaic answers as a rule; rather, I like to work on principles.

Recently I saw this comment on a Yoga International online post:

I’m in India now for some months and have the blessing to learn from great teachers here. There is one big difference that I keep seeing back compared to the classes I experienced in the West. Yoga is down to earth here. Natural like taking a shower. There is no fluff. It is part of life. It is part of maintaining health, maintaining physical and mental cleanliness. I do think that is how yoga should be. ~ Orsi Hegyi •

Orsi, I wholeheartedly agree!  Even though my life circumstances haven’t allowed me to be in India, what you describe as the Indian yoga class experience is what yoga continually is to me, and it is what I try to impart in my classes and private sessions.

Yoga as part of life, for the maintenance of life, for and adapted to the individual and their situation.

A Life Lesson (or Two) Learned from Yoga

I am a yoga devotee and (usually) proud of it. Largely due to yoga, I have adopted an evolving awareness and acceptance of my body’s capabilities, ways to keep body and mind healthy, as well as ideas that help me get along in the world.  But that’s not to say that I have all the answers or that I do not value, or even adopt, aspects of other forms of exercise, lifestyle or philosophy.

I’ve come to be suspicious of quick fixes, one-size-fits-all solutions, quotations and one-line “words of wisdom.”  For concrete thinkers, slogans can be deadly.

For concrete thinkers, slogans can be deadly. 

Let’s take the sage piece of advice, “live each day like it’s your last,” for example.  Most days, I read this as “make amends, extend friendliness to others, and make a positive difference in the world.”  But on other days when all seems like drudgery, I can see how someone might construe it to mean “throw all caution to the wind, spend all your money on frivolous things, and party like there’s no tomorrow!”

If slogans were meant to stand alone, scriptures for the various faith traditions would be one sentence long. 

Seriously, when it comes right down to it, slogans are not meant to stand alone.  If this were so, scriptures from the various faith traditions would be one sentence long.  Invariably, people need more explanation because they interpret a quotation or one-line catchphrase in the context of their own history and circumstances.

People interpret a one-line catchphrase in the context of their own history and circumstance.

But, we can convey a meaningful message by stringing a few key sayings together.  The word “yoga” is both a noun and a verb:  a state of such perfect balance that all appears still; and practices that lead to that balanced state.

yoga balancing rocks

In yoga philosophy, balance is a key theme: balance is the goal, at virtually every level and in almost every conceivable way.

But it also is very yogic to be attentive.

A noted meditation master says, “Treat your life like an experiment.”  (Yes, meditation is part of the yoga toolbox!)

Balance, attentiveness, experimental approach:  a worldview begins to congeal.

When you put these last three concepts together, you start to see a worldview congeal:  undertake routine and new endeavors alike with a view to enhancing equilibrium and see what happens.  Make adjustments and try again.  Like a scientist, use educated guesses to formulate your hypotheses with an intended effect of harmony, not chaos.  And observe the results, ready to make adjustments or even completely change tact!

As we move into fall, I invite you to make yoga out of everything you do, be it working at a desk, playing with children, running, eating, partying.  While honouring both yourself and all creation, experiment and then pay attention.

If you’d like to do this in a group with guidance, consider signing up for a class or inquiring about dropping in if you can’t make a regular commitment.

Revised from a community newsletter submission, 2008

Honouring the Heart – A two-hour Evening Retreat


Date:  Monday, April 4th 2016

Time:  7:00 – 9 PM  

Place: Shaganappi Community 2516 14 Ave SW Calgary

Cost:  $25.

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