I follow most rules: I rarely drive faster than the speed limit. I eat my dinner before I dig into dessert. I almost never wear socks with sandals. Most of the time, I approach my yoga practice with the same respect for the rules. I get to the studio 15 minutes early. I try not to walk on other people's mats. I never EVER turn my head from side to side during Shoulderstand or press the sole of my foot into my inner knee during Tree Pose.
The older I get (and the more I practice), I realize that there are some rules for order and safety, but there are also other rules that we follow just because that's how we learned to do things.
Most of the time, I follow the rules, but every now and then, I like to go off the beaten path and experiment with something new and sometimes even off-limits. Here are a few of the "yoga rules" I've been breaking recently.
You have to practice with bare feet on a yoga mat. You know what I've been having so much fun with lately? Practicing on hard wood floor—in slippery socks! You have to know how to keep yourself safe and respect your own boundaries, but practicing sans yoga mat has really helped me connect to my muscles in a whole new way. You absolutely have to engage your core in Down Dog and Plank Pose and you have to hug all the muscles of the legs onto the bones to stay steady in standing poses or your feet slide apart and you fall down. Try it next to a wall or a study piece of furniture so you can brace yourself just in case.
There's one "right" way to practice a pose. There are different reasons to approach poses in different ways. For example, when I was first taught seated forward bends, my teacher kept telling me to keep my spine as straight as possible, even if it meant I wasn't folding forward as much. She wanted me to practice this way to find more length in my hamstrings (and possibly cut my ego down a bit, too). But after I figured out the form, she began to guide me to round my back slightly to find some softness in the pose. Both approaches are correct—depending on what you're going for. In my experience, once you understand the basics of alignment there's a lot of room for interpretation and many different ways to approach different poses.
Poses must always be practiced in a certain order. Sometimes I throw the sequencing principles I learned in my teacher training out the window and do what feels good. I'm not saying you should come into a big, deep pose when you haven't warmed up properly. But playing with the order in which you practice certain poses can give you a different perspective on the practice. Sometimes I start my session with Savasana or try an inversion toward the beginning of the practice instead of at the end to see how that affects my energy.
You must have a close relationship with one teacher. It's true that traditionally yoga has been passed down from teacher to student--and a close relationship with one teacher can be a great way to learn. But I'll let you in on a little secret: Now that the world wide web is making all kinds of amazing teachings available at your fingertips you can study pretty deeply with a teacher (or many teachers) without even meeting them. Some of my most beloved yoga teachers don't know me from Adam. I might be missing that intimate student-teacher relationship that some people have, and possibly some individualized instruction, but I don't feel like I'm missing out on the yoga. And I'm OK with that at this point in my practice.
You must have some higher goal or intention every time you practice. Sometimes I unroll my mat for no reason other than it feels good to move, breathe, and be in my body. I'm not trying to meditate or save the world. I'm not thinking about the yamas and the niyamas. I'm just moving. There are many people who say that isn't "real yoga." I'm OK with that. Call it whatever you want to—it's a practice that makes me happy and that's why I began yoga in the first place.
Do you ever break the rules?