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.