A saying has been popping up in the yoga world lately that sums it up perfectly: “practice, not perfection.” In order to reap the benefits of practicing yoga, you have to put in the work, but your efforts don’t have to be perfect. You simply need to commit to practicing yoga on a regular basis. But how do you do that? And what do you need? Here are some answers to these very good questions.
Making a Commitment
The best way to practice yoga is regularly and often. How-ever, this does not mean that you have to commit an hour and a half of your day to flowing through the poses. In fact if you have just one free minute a day, you can do yoga. Remember those eight principles of yoga?
- Self-control (yamas)
- Methods of discipline (niyamas)
- Physical postures (asanas)
- Breath work (pranayama)
- Withdrawing from the senses (pratyahara)
- Concentration (dharana)
- Meditation (dhyana)
- Meditative absorption or liberation from the mind and the body (samadhi)
This is where they come into play. Because yoga is more than a purely physical workout, you can find the time and space to practice some element of it every day. For example, do a simple breathing exercise where you spend a minute decompressing. Take five minutes to stretch out the tight-ness in your hips and shoulders from sitting at a desk all day. Practice an entire sequence that gets your heart pump-ing and your body moving. Maybe it’s as easy as keeping your promise to practice one of the yamas like santosha, or contentment, for the day. No matter what form your com-mitment takes, the objective is to do yoga daily in order to maximize its benefits over time.
Here are a few simple ideas to help you commit to a regular practice:
SET ASIDE A SPECIFIC TIME EVERY DAY. Practice some form of yoga, whether it’s meditating, breath work, a few poses, or a whole sequence of poses. Pick a time that you can commit to every day and stick to it. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you, put it in your calendar, leave a sticky note on your bathroom mirror. Do something to make the practice a part of your life.
PUT YOUR MAT OUT AT NIGHT. Seeing your mat in the morning can be a positive reinforcement. Set it next to your front door when you leave for work or go out for some other reason. That way, when you return home, your mat will be the first thing you see.
REWARD YOURSELF FOR COMMITTING TO YOGA. Perhaps you want a new mat or a new pair of yoga pants or you simply want a treat at your favorite restaurant. Set up a system that makes sense to you and reward yourself every week for committing to your practice.
FIND A YOGA CHALLENGE ON SOCIAL MEDIA. Look up the hashtags #yoga or #yogaeverydamnday to find teach-ers all over the world, then join a challenge that fits with your experience. These challenges will not only teach you new poses, but they also will hold you accountable for doing some form of yoga daily.
SET AN INTENTION. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing yoga?” Once you figure out the reason, remind yourself of it daily. Find something that inspires and encourages you to keep going. This can be a word, a quote, a mantra, or a goal. Find something positive that moves you and focus on it every time you come to the mat.
FOCUS ON ONE OF THE YAMAS OR THE NIYAMAS. Let it be your guide for the day or the week in all that you do. For example, if you pick satya, every time you make a decision to do something, wonder, Am I being truthful? Am I being honest with myself and others?
LISTEN TO MUSIC. There is something about good music that will get you up and moving. While this might not work if you intend to meditate, it will certainly get you off the couch and onto your mat if you’re feeling lazy.
GET A FRIEND TO JOIN YOU. Maybe you can practice together every day. Perhaps you check in with each other to make sure you’re keeping up with your practice. Whatever it is, find someone to keep you accountable.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF. Do not beat yourself up if you miss a day or you fail to meet one of your goals. Accept it for what it is and move on. Practice ahimsa (doing no harm) and remember “practice, not perfection.”
Once you’ve committed to the practice, it is important to find a place where you feel comfortable doing yoga. Not everyone has empty rooms with nice bamboo floors like many yoga studios, so be ready to get creative with this.
Clearing a Space
I live in Los Angeles, where rents are high and space is lim-ited. Rentals seem to come with some form of an obligatory beige carpet. For the longest time I hated practicing at home because I never felt comfortable: The carpet was too squishy, I had to move my couch, and the lights in the living room were in my eyes. But then one day I got creative and decided to test out my galley kitchen. I laid out my mat on the lino-leum floor and found that I could move with ease. Because some of the counters and cabinets stuck out at just the right heights, I was actually able to improve my practice by using these items as props. I share this story because I want you to know that no matter what your living situation is, I am cer-tain that you can find a space that works for you.
Once you find this space, claim it as your yoga spot. Regardless of its dual purpose as a kitchen or your living room, take note that this is going to be your place of refuge. This is where you’ll come to let go of your day, clear your mind, and move your body.
As you start to practice yoga, you begin to tune out the exterior world. Suddenly, the only things that matter are those that are on your mat. This is one of the benefits of the practice. If you can start to think of your yoga space as a spe-cial place, then when you step onto your mat, it will be that much easier to focus on what your body and mind are doing. It will be easier to let go of the things that do not serve you.
Now that you’ve got your yoga spot, what are you going to wear? Truthfully, if you’re in the privacy of your own home and you want to wear your birthday suit, go for it. However, if you’re looking for something a little more modest, certain fabrics and types of clothes are more suited to moving in and out of the poses than others. For example, big baggy T-shirts make yoga difficult. When you’re in Down Dog and your head is toward the ground and your hips are lifted, guess where that shirt is going? Right over your face. Unless you’re planning on doing yoga blindfolded, fitted tops are best because they allow you to move without distraction.
As for pants or shorts, there are plenty of options on the market. Because yoga has become such a big business, most brands and stores carry yoga clothes. When shopping, look for things that are comfortable. Then, try them on and move around. Here’s a little test for pants. In the dressing room, bend at your hips and reach for your toes. If the pants stay up and they’re not see-through, they’ll work. If the waist-band starts to creep toward your thighs and you can see your undergarments, look for a different pair. Men’s pants tend to be a little looser and a little less transparent than women’s. Again, try them on. Make sure you can move freely in them without getting caught in the fabric and without having them sink down.
Getting Your Props
Once you’ve got your clothing figured out, there are a few more things you might need to help your practice. These items are listed in order of necessity.
YOGA MAT: This is a definite must-have. When shopping for a mat, place your hand on it to see if it slides easily. If it does, look for a different mat. You want a mat that has some stickiness or grip to it so that when you’re moving through the poses or holding them for extended periods of time, your hands and feet do not slip or slide.
YOGA BLOCKS: These come in pretty standard sizes, and you really can’t go wrong with your purchase. Stay away from anything that is too squishy, which might collapse if you put any weight on it; otherwise, any yoga block should work. If you’re purchasing blocks, then buy two. Having the second one will make some of the poses easier to access.
YOGA STRAP: Yoga straps are pretty standard as well. They should be approximately as long as you are tall or even longer. Make sure there is a metal or plastic attachment on one end that allows you to make an adjustable loop.
BOLSTER: This is like a giant, superfirm pillow. These are great for relaxing or restorative poses. Of course, you can also just use a pillow or two to get the same effect.
BLANKET: Yoga blankets are usually made of wool and are pretty strong and durable. They have many different uses, but again, you can improvise by using any blanket you have around the house.
Setting Up Your Space
After you have all the essentials you might need, you’ll want to set up your yoga space:
- Lay down your mat.
- Place your props close by.
- Keep the blocks at the front of the mat and put everything else to the side.
When you’re finished practicing, roll up your mat and put it away. If your space is limited like mine, use a basket or other container to hold your mat and all your props. Keep everything together and store it conveniently so you’re ready to practice again tomorrow.
Once you’ve got your mat laid out and you’re dressed in your yoga clothes, it’s time to relax.
Relaxation is a key component to yoga. In fact, Patanjali says it best:
Practicing yoga in a relaxed manner with strength creates harmony within the body. SUTRA 2.46, STHIRA SUKHAM ASANAM
Sthira means “strong and steady.” Sukham means “com-fortable and relaxed.” Combine these two and you get an asana, or pose that works to create a happy body.
Here’s a simple way to demonstrate the important bal-ance between strength and relaxation:
- Sit up straight in a comfortable position.
- Notice which of your muscles are working and which ones are not. Your core is engaged to keep you upright, but your shoulders are relaxed.
- Tense your shoulders and bring them toward your ears. Suddenly this becomes a very uncomfortable pose. There is no way you’d be able to hold this for any extended period of time.
- Relax your shoulders. Now sitting there doesn’t seem so hard, does it?
This is sthira sukham asanam in action, the balance of strength and relaxation that creates a healthy yoga practice. Another essential element is breathing.
Like the correlation between strength and relaxation, the body and the breath share a similar link. This connection is called vinyasa. If you’ve checked out any yoga classes in your area, you might have found that they’ve described them as vinyasa classes. This means they link the breath to the movement. Almost all yoga practices do this in some manner or another.
The breath is an extremely important part of the practice. It helps heat the body and also calms the mind by giving it something to focus on. However, breathing in yoga is differ-ent than the breathing you’re probably doing right now as you read this.
In yoga, you breathe in and out through your nose. This is a specific method called Ujjayi Pranayama. It is not required, but it certainly adds to the practice. It’s easy to learn—in fact, you can try it right now.
- Place your lips together softly.
- Breathe in through your nose.
- Exhale out your nose.
How did that feel? Perhaps the breath you took was pretty shallow. Maybe you felt like you needed a little more air. Try it again.
- Concentrate as you breathe through your nose.
- Make your ribs expand by filling your lungs with air.
- Exhale slowly.
Did that feel a little bit better? I’m guessing it did. Take it one step further.
- Inhale slowly through your nose.
- Let your ribs expand.
- Keep breathing in and let your belly expand.
- Hold it there at the top.
- Slowly exhale.
That should’ve felt entirely different than the first breath you took.
Continue to breathe in this slow, deep manner. As you get more comfortable with this breathing, add a slight constriction in the back of your throat, kind of like you were trying to fog up a mirror. This will create a soft sound, like an ocean wave that should be barely audible. This breath is the Ujjayi Pranayama. You’ll hear teachers talk about it a lot asyou move through poses.
Once you learn how to breathe in this manner, you can use it to relieve stress. Stop at any point in your day, espe-cially when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and practice this breathing. After a few breaths you will be more relaxed. Try it for a minute or two and you might start to experience a stronger sense of calm.
Now imagine linking the breath with movement. You’ll get another feeling that might be entirely new to you.
Before we delve deep into asana, or the practice of the phys-ical postures, I’ll teach you eight poses that you can practice daily. These are simple postures that aim to bring movement to your body, stretch out any tightness that may have devel-oped over your day, help you relax, and keep you committed to the practice.
You can practice these poses by themselves for a short period of time or do them all together in sequence. How-ever you choose to practice them, make sure that you pay attention to the fundamentals: Find the balance between strength and ease, and continue to breathe in a slow and conscious manner.
When it comes to poses that stretch your body, you never want to overdo it. Find that happy medium in your stretch and breathe through it. If you cannot breathe in a slow and controlled manner, you have gone too far and you should back off the stretch. This advice applies to all the poses in this book.