Bringing It Home
I moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, from New York City when I was 21. I had been practicing yoga for three years, attending group classes four times a week. When I moved, though, things changed. Chiang Mai's yoga scene didn't compare to the abundant supply of classes I had grown so used to in New York. If I wanted to keep practicing, I had to do it alone.
Forced by circumstance to foster a home practice, my relationship with yoga quickly deepened and became more intimate, more connected. Equipped with a solid foundation from the group classes I had attended, both my insights and physical prowess quickly evolved. That was 10 years ago; the ritual of unfurling my mat continues to this day.
But most students won't be faced with the necessity of practicing at home. Often the only way they'll begin to explore a home practice is when a trusted teacher gives them a push in the right direction.
As a teacher, you know that inspiring your students to practice at home is the most effective way to help them grow, both on the mat and in their lives. The tricky part can be convincing them of that. Here's how to motivate your students to turn inward and approach their yoga mats—alone.
The Boons of Being on Your Own
Remind your students that developing a regular home yoga practice is an essential stepping-stone on the path toward embracing the gift of self-illumination through yoga.
"When we practice alone, we're allowing ourselves the opportunity to embody what we've been taught," says Jill Satterfield, founder of Vajra Yoga in New York City. "We empower ourselves with personal experience, which is essential to truly know something."
The independence students gain from practicing at home will strengthen their overall practice and seep out into all areas of their lives.
"I can immediately tell when students are practicing at home," says Rodney Yee, who leads yoga workshops all over the world. "There is an authenticity to their practice and a depth to the way they are feeling their own bodies—a much more direct connection to the poses."
Home Practice versus Group Classes
While you never want your student to give up group classes altogether—they give students a foundational understanding and add to their yoga repertoire—the experience of being under the supervision of a skilled teacher in a classroom setting can, at a certain point, become a limitation.
"A teacher can introduce us to our practice and offer some advice," says Ashtanga teacher David Swenson, "but the real learning comes from personally experiencing the subtle nuances that accompany the internal journey of yoga."
In a group setting, it's more difficult to turn inward to listen to and answer one's own needs than it is when practicing alone.
"Often in a class we can get swept away by the group energy, because it's so powerful," Yee says. "While this is often fun and exhilarating, it takes us away from our own true rhythms and needs."
Step by Step
Those students with good body and breath awareness, a solid understanding of alignment, and a steady attendance in group classes are ready to start a home practice. But it's imperative to broach the topic skillfully and with care.
"The relationship with the student is key," says Susanna Nicholson, a teacher who runs a private studio at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"A teacher offers the student compassion and understanding while holding firm to the importance of daily personal practice," she says. "For certain students this means telling success stories, or it may mean simply making the program very doable and making oneself very accessible for advice and feedback along the way."
Instead of overwhelming them, ease students into a personal practice slowly. It should become a pleasure rather than a chore. Encourage students to practice for short periods at a time to give them a taste of success.
"Begin with just one day a week, or twice a month, and then add some more gradually," Swenson suggests.
Nicholson gives her students a 10- to 15-minute sequence, with a longer option for weekends.
"I ask students to forgive themselves for missed days, while insisting that the practice needs to be done regularly and with dedication," she says. "Often I put the fault on myself to take away guilt. I say, 'If you're not doing it, I've made it too long—so call me, and we'll work it out.'"
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