Bringing Your Yoga Practice Home
Don't know where to start when you unroll your mat? Here's how to plan a balanced home practice.
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YouTube videos and Zoom yoga classes afford us unprecedented options for when, where, and with whom we practice yoga. But there is something to be said for skipping the “class” altogether in favor of a personal home practice–just you and your mat. Designed by you, a home practice allows you to take as much time as you want exploring poses that spark your curiosity, challenge your body, or quiet your mind.
Whether you’re just beginning to embrace yoga, or have been practicing for years, follow this guide to learn how to design a practice that is exactly what your body and mind need. Written by noted yoga instructor Judith Hanson Lasater—one of YJ’s founders and a frequent contributor—it will help you plan and cultivate a personal practice that will evolve to serve you well for years to come. –YJ Editors
Beginning an at-home yoga practice
Developing and maintaining a home practice doesn’t come without challenges. 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 today is one of the most concrete challenges of a home practice. You can meet this challenge by choosing a specific sequence of poses that will meet your needs for health and wholeness.
Some systems of asana practice, like Ashtanga Vinyasa, use established groupings or sequences of poses, so deciding which poses and in what order is not an issue. But many systems don’t designate the order of poses; 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—or you—over the long haul.
How to do yoga at home
To create a satisfying practice that you approach with enthusiasm (at least on most days) requires two basic kinds of knowledge: understanding what you need, and knowing how to arrange your practice.
1. Understand what you need from your practice today
Before you begin to practice, answer this question for yourself: What do I really need from my 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 increases, you can always move into more dynamic asanas.
On the other hand, if you start out feeling energetic, you might use a more vigorous session to channel that energy. 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, it 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 help give you the impetus to practice again tomorrow. On the other hand, 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.
2. Understand the principles of sequencing yoga poses
Once you know what type of practice you want today, you need to decide the order in which you’ll do those asanas. Sequencing involves understanding how poses relate to one another. But before you can understand the effect a pose has in relation 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. Doing this may make it clearer, for example, that backbends tire your arms quickly. With that knowledge, you may decide to focus more on arm strengthening and remember to follow backbends with poses that don’t tax 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.
Some points to remember about sequencing:
- Pay attention to the effects of a pose before you choose the next pose.
- The best counterpose may not be a pose that moves your body in the exact opposite position. The counterpose for a deep backbend, for example, may not be a forward bend; it can be a lesser backbend or a twist.
- If you choose an 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.
Learn the basic yoga pose groups
To begin to create effective asana sequences you enjoy, keep in mind that yoga poses fall into several groups, analogous to food groups. Most nutritionists will agree that health comes from balancing our intake of protein, carbs, and fats. And any particular person’s dietary needs may be different at different times. 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.
This group includes many poses, including Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended 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/Kakasana (Crane/Crow Pose), Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose), and Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose). I also include in this group other poses that require arm strength, like Plank Pose and Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose).
Inversions draw on the vertical power associated with standing poses as well as the upper body strength needed for arm balances. This category of poses includes Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance), of course, but also Halasana (Plow Pose) and others that put your hips higher than your head. These poses are considered by many to be at the core of asana practice.
However, these powerful, satisfying poses can cause injury if performed incorrectly. I strongly advise you to learn them directly from a qualified teacher who is able to guide you personally. This is especially the case if you have health conditions including menstruation, pregnancy, high blood pressure, and glaucoma.
I prefer not to include Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) in this group. Even though your head is lower than your heart (one technical definition of inversion), the inversion effect is muted by the fact that your legs are semi-vertical.
A fourth asana group consists of backbends, such as 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 poses like the Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose) variations.
As the name suggests, these poses involve a spinal rotation. They are usually done sitting, but some can be done lying down as well. It is not a good idea to end your practice with a twist because of their effect on the spine. Instead practice at least one symmetrical forward bend—Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) or Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)—after your final twist and before Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Forward bends and other floor poses
This group includes various miscellaneous seated poses other than twists. All are done while sitting or reclining on the floor. I would group forward-bending movements that are done from standing, like Uttanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend) 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, they do involve hip flexion. Such poses include the various meditation poses, including Padmasana (Lotus Pose); hip and groin openers such as 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.
This group includes Savasana, the relaxation pose that should be done at the end of every session, as well as other supported relaxing poses such as Supta Baddha Konasana (Supported Bound Angle Pose) or Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose).
How to create a balanced yoga practice
The foundation of a personal home practice is a basic, well-rounded pose sequence that doesn’t emphasize any particular area of your body. Instead, it attempts to move your spine in all directions. It 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 listed above: standing poses first, then the arm balances, inversions, backbends, twists, and forward bends, ending with resting poses. As you become more knowledgeable about the poses’ effects and the relationships between them, you can begin to create other, more varied sequences.
It may be tempting to skip the relaxation at the end of practice. Please don’t. This gives your body a chance to integrate all the new information—physiological as well as mental—that the previous poses have created. 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 affect your health and well-being in many positive ways.
Model of a Well-Rounded Practice
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.
Because Sun Salutations and standing poses use large muscle groups and require large movements, they 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 may seem 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 effectively 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.
- 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 backbends, move on to inversions. Either Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) or Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) will help to rest your legs and quiet your mind.
- Wind your practice down with forward bends. Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose) will stretch your hamstrings and your back, especially your lower back. It will also open your hip on the bent-knee side. In addition to offering a hamstring stretch, Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) creates a gentle pressure on the digestive organs and may promote gut health. 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.
Add variety to your at-home yoga practice
Once you’ve created a yoga sequence, you can begin to create other personal practice routines for more variety or to achieve more specific goals. Each day’s practice should be complete and well-rounded, 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.
Think of 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.
Vary your practices from day to day
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 such as standing poses, arm balances, backbends. Or perhaps focus on standing poses on Monday, arm balances on Wednesday, and backbends on Friday. You could devote Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday to forward bends, twists, and other poses done on the floor. Then Sunday would be a good time for restorative poses for profound rest. Of course your needs in the moment come before any plan that you create.
Take your practice of certain poses deeper
Another approach to varying your practice over time is to incorporate sessions that focus on a specific group of poses. Decide which group of poses you want to concentrate on that day and concentrate on those. Let’s say you want to focus on 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 two times or more, perhaps by adding a slight variation each time. For example, you could do Locust with just your arms, then just your legs. Then lift one arm and one leg, and finally practice 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. Gradually add more challenging 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, pay attention to your ability level and don’t push yourself beyond it. And always include counter poses in your sequence. If you are practicing backbends, for example, allow time at the end of the session to practice a few twists to relieve your back.
After a focused practice like this, you might enjoy going back to your foundational practice for a few days. After a day or two try 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 them such as Down Dog or Garudasana (Eagle Pose), and follow them with poses that will strengthen them, such as Chaturanga Dandasana and Headstand. On the other days of the week, go back to your basic well-rounded practice.
The following 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 (Bound Angle Pose), Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angled Seated 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.
Harmonizing your 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 come to the mat: to change our experience of how energy moves in the body. We want more energy or energy that is smoother, more even, quieter, and less agitated.
Another aspect of sequencing has to do with consciously manipulating two of the main energies in the body, prana and apana. 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. In the ancient teachings of India, these two energies are considered extremely significant in the overall health and spiritual evolution of the practitioner.
One way to organize your home practice is to first ascertain which energy you want to increase, then practice poses that will accomplish this. If you are feeling scattered and fatigued, you may want to practice inversions to increase apana. If you are dull and unenthusiastic, standing poses may help to increase prana. Forward bends and supine poses quiet both prana and apana.
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, consult a yoga teacher trained in this knowledge. You can also consult written sources for this information such as The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnudevananda.
Advice for beginning yoga at home
No matter what approach you use in constructing your personal practice, remember that the point of practice is not just to become more adept at the poses. It’s not even to improve your health. These are worthy goals, but even more importantly, your home practice can ignite awareness about how you operate in the world. Your practice reveals how you respond to difficulty and ease, to consistency and change, to the familiar and the uncomfortable, to humility and ego, to clinging and letting go. It can inform the way you fall into the universal human strategies for living. If your home practice draws you deeper into such awareness, it will achieve its most important purpose.
This article has been updated. Originally published August 28, 2007.
About our contributor
Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, is a noted yoga instructor, physical therapist, and author of ten books, including Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life, Yoga Myths, and Teaching Yoga with Intention. Visit her website for information about live events and digital courses.