The secrets of sustainable self-practice

On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure.
Bhagavad Gita

Yoga self-practice i.e. independent practice without a teacher, is such a common stumbling block. No time, no space, not experienced enough, no motivation. The list of reasons for not doing it seems endless. Or we begin with good intentions, and then somehow lose momentum.

How can we keep returning to our mat? And for what?

Self-practice is - a truly wonderful thing.

Over the past 25 years it has become a haven, an inspiration, an education and a constant in my life. I admit it has not always been easy (rehabilitating myself after major surgery was initially tough), but I have never regretted it. I have always felt better after it.

If anything, the time you dedicate to meeting yourself on your mat in self-directed practice is the most illuminating and fulfilling.

These days there are hundreds of great books and online resources to aid self-practice. Here though, I encourage you to try it without these external influences, in favour of unearthing and trusting your inner guide.

I hope these five tips serve you in your exploration:

1. Begin where you are and take ownership
Self-practice is possible for all, including beginners and recent beginners. Simply practise what you know or remember from class, as long as no discomfort is involved. To have some re-assurance, check in with your teacher to share your intention to practise on your own, and to see that you're on the right track.

A few preparatory poses (e.g. cat/cow), sun salutations, breath awareness techniques or three minutes of quiet sitting at the beginning or end of your day. These are all invaluable options, no matter how much experience you have. And if all you do is roll out your mat and take 10 mindful breaths that still counts as self-practice. Small, sustainable steps make progress.

The point is to take reponsibility for our practice, to experience the many layers of how it feels and to recognise how it impacts our being, our behaviour, attitudes and daily life.

As well as discovering nuances and insights that only become apparent when we have the space of being alone, this process is incredibly empowering.

2. Swap irritation for compassion
Self-practice gives us a chance to take care of ourselves, to be kind to ourselves. This builds compassionate resilience. This is the foundation of our positive relationships with others. Note: if you notice that it feels hard to extend compassion towards yourself, please know that you are not alone, and allow yourself to notice patiently until change starts to come. It does.

When we release any notion of expectation, pressure or harshness and swap it simply for focus - dharana, pure concentration - progress comes with much greater ease. We maintain a healthy balance between effort and ease, the sthira and sukha of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, and retain our clarity.

Of course it's fine to have goals and plans, but it is imperative to maintain mental flexibility and to modify these when needed. Otherwise, our goals can become a source of irritaton, disappointment and doubt, or on the other side, endless striving, judgement and self-criticism. If we aren't getting that headstand or handstand on the second attempt that day, maybe it's time to leave it and return tomorrow. If we're recovering from illness or longhaul travel, surely it's wise to opt for a restorative rather than a dynamic pratice.

The Bhagavad Gita encourages us to practice - and live - without focusing on the fruits of our actions. With pure intention results take care of themselves.

3. Embrace any time, any place
Becoming a mother gave me a new perspective on self-practice. As I lost the luxury of organising my time so that I had a good hour or two for self-practice per day, I gained the freedom that comes with adaptability.

I am now content with fitting self-practice in when I can and for the length of time that is available. This may mean any of the following: half an hour of asana, three minutes of meditation, a guided yoga nidra or a short restorative practice in the early evening, or taking elements of my practice at different times of day, in digestible chunks. And I'll do this anywhere - at a venue before teaching a class or wherever I'm staying when travelling, indoors or outdoors, with or without a yoga mat. If you work in an office, even a few minutes for some tension-relieving stretches or focusing inwards is beneficial.

Self-practice gives us the precious option of any time, any place. Over time, it becomes easier and easier to tap into that focus and feeling of being grounded and centred. For example, if we meditate consistently for just a few minutes over a long period of time, simply visualising ourselves in meditation is enough to bring the same feeling of peacefulness.

4. Invest in R&D
Self-practice gives us the chance to delve deeply, and at our own pace.

Dedicating more time to fewer poses and practices is invaluable. It allows us to explore their full meaning and to be free of the pitfall of practising on automatic pilot. We can keep returning to them as they reveal something new to us on each occasion. They are never 'done', but full of fresh insights on each occasion.

I like to think of this process as investing in research and development, with its space for risk and uncertain outcomes and its intrinsic, cumulative value in uncovering new knowledge and ideas.

5. Go with the flow, be open to grace
When we have the courage to step onto our mat - and into new ventures in life - with an open mind and heart, magic happens. There is no need for a prescribed sequence or order. The practice simply comes.

We feel moved into certain poses or called towards particular practices. We are alert and able to hear what our body, mind and heart require at that particular time. Inspiration comes naturally and we are able to improvise and create, from a place far greater than us and at the same time within us. This intuitive, awakened experience can then become part of our everyday life.

Self-practice is a gift. It is such a rich experience and I hope it becomes part of your yoga practice and your life.

Keep returning to your mat.

Enthusiasm, perseverance, discrimination, unshakeable faith, courage...bring success in yoga.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika

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