Bringing Your Practice Home
What's your hardest yoga pose? If you and your yoga friends were to compare notes, you'd likely come up with a wide variety of answers. But virtually all practitioners will tell you that a greater challenge lies in developing and maintaining a home practice. Beginners face the task of remembering poses to practice; more experienced students face the dilemma of deciding what emphasis to choose during any particular session. Even teachers and students with decades on the mat can be daunted by the difficulties of maintaining and renewing a home practice. Illness, family obligations, boredom, travel, and that universal bugaboo, a perceived lack of time: All these obstacles, and more, will inevitably appear.
Even if you've established a strong desire and commitment to practice regularly, knowing which poses to do right now, for today's session, is one of the most concrete challenges of a home practice.
This challenge can be met by choosing a specific sequence of poses that will meet your needs, in this moment, for health and wholeness. Some systems of asana practice, like the Ashtanga Vinyasa of Pattabhi Jois, use set groupings or series of poses, so sequencing is not an issue. But many systems do not designate the order of poses; within limits, choosing the sequence is left to the student. And even students who practice set sequences like the Ashtanga series can benefit by working especially diligently on different poses on different days.
Even with years of regular class attendance under your belt, if you don't have the technical knowledge to create a well-rounded and well-organized home practice, that practice may very well remain spotty. It probably won't sustain itself-and you-over the long haul.
Planning Your Practice Sessions
To create a satisfying practice that you approach with enthusiasm, at least on most days, requires two basic kinds of knowledge. The first kind is gained by answering this next question for yourself: What do you really need from your practice today? If you are very tired from a long airplane trip, for example, you might choose a restorative practice to replenish your energy. At the least, you might start with resting poses and then see where the practice leads you; if you find your energy is increasing, you can always move into more dynamic asanas. On the other hand, if you feel energetic at the beginning of your practice, you might use a more vigorous session to channel that energy. For example, you could choose to emphasize standing poses or arm balances, making challenge and strength your focus.
Regardless of what you actually do, if your practice is an expression of what is alive in you now, that practice will help you stay present during your time on the mat. That experience can serve as a model for practicing presence all day long. It will also satisfy you and thus help give you the impetus to practice again tomorrow. If you force yourself to practice because you think you should, because you didn't yesterday, or for any other more external reason, even the most technically polished poses will not answer your inner need for ease and wholeness.
The second kind of knowledge necessary for creating a home practice is an understanding of the principles behind sequencing yoga poses. Once you know what type of practice you want for today, you need to decide the order in which you'll do those asanas. But before you can understand the effect a pose has in relationship to others, you must first become aware of the effects of the individual poses on your body and mind. Then you will better understand where exactly to place each asana in your sequence.
One way to increase your understanding of a pose's effects is to hold it longer than you usually would-say by counting breaths and gradually, over a period of days, increasing the number of breaths as you hold the pose. If you do this, it may become more clear to you, for example, that backbends tire your arms quickly. Thus, you may decide to focus more on arm strengthening in your practice sessions and remember to follow backbends with poses that do not additionally challenge your already tired arms.
Another way to observe the effect that a pose has on you is to practice it and then lie quietly for a moment, eyes closed, paying attention to all the sensations that arise in your body. The more clear you are about the effects of a pose, the more understanding you will have about exactly where to include it in your practice, as well as what might beneficially follow it.
The Basic Pose Groups
To begin to create effective asana sequences you enjoy, keep in mind that yoga poses fall into several groups. These groups are analogous to food groups. Most nutritionists will agree that health comes from balancing our intake of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. And any particular person's needs for one of these groups may be different at different times. Pregnant women, for example, have an increased need for protein; other people may do well limiting certain forms of carbohydrates. But to be healthy, we all need some of all these kinds of nutrients.
A similar balance is necessary in asana practice as well. On a certain day you may need more of one particular type of pose, but generally you need some of all of the basic types of poses. Here are the basic groupings of asanas. The first group is called standing poses and includes many poses, like Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), the various Virabhadrasanas (Warrior Poses), and Vrksasana (Tree Pose), as well as other one-legged balancing poses. I also place Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) in this group.
The arm balances are a relatively small group of poses that require both balance and strength. They include such poses as Bakasana (Crane Pose), Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose), and Vasisthasana (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Vasistha). I also include in this group other poses that require arm strength, like Plank Pose and Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose).
The next group of poses is inversions, which draw on the vertical power associated with standing poses as well as the upper body strength needed for arm balances. Inversions include Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), Sirsasana (Headstand), and Halasana (Plow Pose), of course, but also Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance), and others. Inversions are considered by many yogis to be at the core of asana practice. However as these powerful, satisfying poses can cause injury if performed incorrectly or when you have contraindicative health conditions (including menstruation, pregnancy, high blood pressure, and glaucoma), I strongly advise you to learn them directly from a qualified teacher who is able to guide you personally.
There is disagreement in the yoga world as to whether Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) is an inversion. I prefer not to include it in this group; even though your head is lower than your heart (one technical definition of inversion) in Downward Dog, the inversion effect is muted by the fact that your legs are semi-vertical and by the fact that you cannot hold the pose very long compared to Headstand and Shoulderstand.
A fourth asana group consists of backbends, like Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Salabhasana (Locust Pose), and other basic spinal extension movements; this group also includes Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose), and more advanced poses like the Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose) variations.
Twists are exactly what the name says. They are usually done sitting, but some can be done lying down as well. Always remember that it is not a good idea to end your practice with a twist, as these poses are so one-sided in their effect on the spine. Instead, after twists practice at least one symmetrical forward bend, like Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) or Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), before Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Forward bends along with various miscellaneous seated poses other than twists form the next group. All are done while sitting or reclining on the floor. While there are forward-bending movements done from standing, like Uttanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend), I would group these with the standing poses.
I also group the other seated or floor poses in the forward-bending category, even though they are not actually forward bends. Such poses include the various meditation poses, including Padmasana (Lotus Pose); hip and groin openers, like Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Hanumanasana (Monkey Pose), and Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose); reclining poses such as Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) and Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose); and a number of others.
Restorative poses are the final group. These include Savasana, the basic relaxation pose that should be done at the end of every session, as well as other supported relaxing poses like Supta Baddha Konasana (Supported Bound Angle Pose).
The Well-Rounded Practice
The foundation of a home practice is a basic, well-rounded pose sequence. Such a well-rounded sequence does not emphasize any particular area of your body. Instead, it attempts to move your spine in all directions and thus includes vertical stretching, inversion, forward bending, backbending, twisting, as well as relaxation. This basic sequence should also attempt to equally increase balance, strength, and flexibility.
A well-rounded foundational sequence should include at least one or two poses from each of the main groups. It's a good idea, especially when you're fairly new to creating your own sequences, to practice the pose groups in roughly the same order I listed them: standing poses first, then the arm balances, inversions, backbends, twists, and forward bends, ending with restorative poses. As you become more knowledgeable about the poses' effects and the relationships between poses, you can begin to create other, more varied sequences. However always be careful to end with a relaxation pose. The relaxation at the end of practice gives your body a chance to integrate all the new information, physiological as well as mental, that the previous poses have created. Such a period of rest and integration is especially important for us in the bustle of modern life. Fifteen or 20 minutes of lying at rest will reduce your stress levels and thus affect your health and well-being in many positive ways.
A good way to initiate a well-rounded sequence is with warming poses that require strong and big movements, like Sun Salutations and standing poses. End with poses requiring smaller movements and more "letting go," like poses done seated or lying on the floor. This will give your practice a natural progression from more activity to more introspection.
In addition, since Sun Salutations and standing poses use large muscle groups and require large movements, such asanas seem to capture your attention more effectively at the beginning of a practice period. The quieter seated poses, on the other hand, require a deeper level of inner awareness that seems easier to achieve at the end of a practice session when your mind is a bit more settled and your body is more stretched and relaxed.
Here's an example of a brief but effective well-rounded practice session. Begin with Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) to stretch your hamstrings and calves, open your chest and shoulders, and generally wake yourself up. From Downward Dog, move into Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) to stretch your back and your legs as well as your hip joints. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) come next; they serve to strengthen your back muscles and posterior shoulder muscles, stretch your chest, and create mobility in the spine.
After doing the backbends, move on to inversions. Either Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) or Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) will help to rest your legs and are believed to contribute to health by flushing the internal organs. These poses also quiet the mind.
Start to wind your practice down with forward bends. Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose) will stretch not only your hamstrings but also your back, and especially your lower back; in addition, it will open your hip on the bent-knee side. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) will also stretch your hamstrings as well as gently increasing pressure on the organs of digestion and absorption in a way that is believed to improve these functions. Both of these forward bends are usually quieting for the nervous system and mind.
Finally, Savasana (Corpse Pose) integrates your whole practice. Fifteen to 20 minutes of rest in Corpse Pose reduces stress, improves immune function, and can give you a sense of ease and well-being that sometimes lasts for hours.
Once you have created a well-rounded practice, you can begin to create other home practice routines that expand on it or vary it to achieve more specific goals. Each day's practice should in one sense be complete in itself, but it can also focus on a specific group of poses, a specific part of your body, or a specific energetic shift you would like to create. You can begin to think of balancing your practice in long-range terms: not just how you want to sequence your practice today, but how you want to sequence it over the next week, the next month, or even the next year. If you have identified poses, groups of poses, or parts of your body as weak links in your practice, you may choose to give them more time and attention until you feel you've achieved more balance.
One way to create a well-rounded practice over time is to divide your week up into specific practice segments, alternating between the more vigorous and the more restorative practices. For example, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday you may want to practice more vigorous poses. These might include standing poses, arm balances, backbends. Or you could choose some of these poses to do all three days and some to do only on Wednesday; perhaps you will focus on standing poses on Monday, arm balances on Wednesday, and backbends on Friday. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday you could choose to focus on seated poses, forward bends, twists, and other poses done on the floor. On Sunday you could exclusively practice restorative poses to give yourself a profound rest.
Deep, Deeper, Deepest
Another approach to varying your practice over time is to alternate between a basic, well-rounded practice and sessions that focus on a specific group of poses. Decide which group of poses you want to concentrate on that day-let's say backbends, for example. Begin with several warming poses like standing poses, Sun Salutations, and/or arm balances. Then move on to basic backbends like Locust Pose, Cobra, and Upward-Facing Dog. Practice each of these at least twice, perhaps by adding a slight variation after the first time. For example, you could do Locust with just your arms, then just your legs, lifting one arm and one leg, and finally with both arms and legs. Or you could also put yoga blocks under your hands in Upward-Facing Dog to facilitate the lift of your chest. Then gradually add more advanced backbends, so the bulk of your practice that day is taking you from simple to intermediate to challenging backbending movements.
This approach to sequencing can allow you to go deeper than usual in a specific type of pose. But of course, you should pay attention to your ability level and not push yourself beyond it. If you are practicing backbends, for example, remember to allow time toward the end of the session to practice a few poses that relieve your back (perhaps a couple of twists). After a focused practice like this, you might enjoy going back to your foundational practice and waiting a day or two before trying this approach with another category of poses.
A slightly different way to balance your practice over time is to create theme sessions that focus on a specific part of your body. For example, you might choose to focus on your shoulders for three days this week. You can choose poses that will stretch the shoulders, like Down Dog and Gomukhasana (Eagle Pose), and follow them with poses that will strengthen the shoulders, like Chaturanga Dandasana and Headstand. On the other days of the week, go back to your basic well-rounded practice.
In the next week, you can shift your focus to another part of the body. You may choose to work on your hip joints, choosing poses like Warrior II, Baddha Konasana, Upavistha Konasana (Wide-legged Forward Bend), and other poses which stretch the hip area. If you choose this pattern of sequencing poses, be sure to warm up first with a few standing poses and end with a relaxation pose.
A somewhat similar and traditional approach to sequencing is to follow some poses with their opposite movement. Most often, the concept of pose/counterpose involves practicing a forward bend after a backbend. In all my years of teaching, I have never heard students request backbends after forward bends, only the other way around.
With only a few limited exceptions, I prefer not to practice or teach using this approach; instead, I like to examine what I am doing in my backbend that makes me feel as though I need to immediately practice a forward bend. Such an urge makes me suspicious that I am compressing my spine unevenly in the backbend. Rather than jumping to practice a forward bend to undo the side effects of an uneven backbend, I attempt to discover exactly where and how I am compressing my back and to relieve that compression.
I do, however, make an exception when I am teaching beginning students. Sometimes after backbends I will give beginners a little bit of a forward stretch, such as Downward-Facing Dog. However, the poses I most like to do and teach following backbends are twists. I would suggest you follow a deep backbend practice with Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist), as it is the twist that most resembles a backbend and thus is the least likely to strain your lower back.
The main point to remember about pose/counterpose sequencing is that the best counterpose to a backbend is not a forward bend; instead, it is to do a lesser backbend. Most students seem to find that a lesser backbend is a relief, and it also does not strain the structures of the back as moving from an extreme backbend into a forward-bending movement can do. A couple of simpler backbends after a deep backbend practice feel great.
After several Urdhva Dhanurasanas, I sometimes have students just lie flat on the floor on their backs, with legs straight, and their arms over their heads and resting on the floor. This position is still an extension or backbending movement for the spine, but it is also, of course, less of a backbend than the previous pose. From this pose, you can easily and comfortably do a supine twist or another supine pose like Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose).
Always remember to pay attention to the effects of a pose before you choose the next pose. If you choose a counterpose, be careful not to move to the most extreme opposite movement right away. Instead, proceed gradually toward that movement, using several intermediate movements to get there.
Harmonizing Subtle Energies
Almost everyone who practices yoga will tell you that their "energy" feels different after they've practiced. This is no doubt one of the main reasons why we practice: to change our experience of how energy moves in the body. We want more energy; smoother, more even energy; or energy that is quieter and less agitated.
Another way to think of sequencing has to do with consciously manipulating two of the main energies in the body, prana and apana. In the ancient teachings of India, these two energies are considered extremely significant in the overall health and spiritual evolution of the practitioner. Prana is believed to exist above the diaphragm and to have a tendency to move upward; it is "masculine energy" and controls the heart and the respiration. Apana, it is said, exists below the diaphragm and has a tendency to move downward; it is "feminine energy" and controls the organs of the abdomen, pelvis, and legs.
One way to organize your home practice on any given day is first to ascertain which energy you want to increase and then to practice the appropriate poses to accomplish this. For example, inversions increase apana. Standing poses stimulate prana; forward bends quiet apana and prana, as do supine poses. If you are feeling scattered and fatigued, you may want to practice to increase apana; if you are dull and unenthusiastic, you may want to practice to increase prana.
This can be a rewarding way to practice, but it does first take a little study to understand how different poses affect prana and apana. If you are interested in working with these energies, I suggest you consult a yoga teacher trained in this knowledge. You can also consult written sources for this information. Basic information on prana and apana appears in The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnudevananda.
No matter what approach or approaches you use in constructing your home practice sessions, keep in mind that the point of practice is not just simply to become more adept at the poses or to improve your health. These are worthy goals, but even more importantly, your home practice can ignite awareness about how you respond to difficulty and ease, to consistency and change, to the way you fall into the universal human strategies of avoiding the difficult (whether for you this means Savasana or challenging backbends) and clinging to the familiar and comfortable (whether that means calming, inward-looking asanas or difficult poses in which your ego is happy to show off).
If your home practice draws you deeper into such awareness, it will achieve its most important purpose—and it will also create a momentum of consistency and a sense of accomplishment, pleasure, and well-being.
Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D. and practicing physical therapist, has taught yoga since 1971. She has written consistently for Yoga Journal since its inception in 1975. She is the author of Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life.