I really need yoga in my life right now. I mean, I always need yoga in my life, but right now I really need it. (See my last post for why.) And as I am not working full time, my savings scarily whittling away as a pursue my dream of an independent life/career/higher purpose, more often than not I am alone on the mat these days rather than in classes.
This is certainly not a bad thing however! In fact I have been practising alone regularly ever since I returned from the Chaya Yoga retreat in January, without which I am quite sure I would not have coped with those final weeks of working in a job that caused me daily anxiety and stress. While it felt a bit alien at first, nine months on and my self-practice has evolved a lot. Complemented by the many classes I attended on my travels in India and Thailand, as well as here in London, I now feel fully confident about practising alone. And I adore it!
Yoga is my meditation, and my mat, my sanctuary. It’s the place where I tune into my emotions, my passing thoughts and my body in a way that I simply cannot elsewhere. It’s where I can let go of all that is happening around me and focus only on my breath – that deep inhale and exhale that connects me with the Universe and reminds me of my power and my purpose, and of the beauty and bliss of being present fully in the moment.
While I love the environment of a group class and worship my London yoga teacher Annabel Jones (if you are a Londoner I cannot recommend her classes enough!), there is something about my time on the mat alone that is extra special. With no one around to glance over at, no teacher’s voice to follow, no shuffling of bodies in my peripheral vision, and no timetable, schedule or structure to adhere to, I feel an incredible sense of freedom and empowerment that in turn connects me deeply with my inner Being. It is one of those few times in life that I am, simply and fully, with myself. And in a world where we are constantly glued to our phones, computer screens and/or surrounded by other people, I believe that is a rare and worthy pursuit.
Sadly though, I think a lot of people shy away from self-practice, perhaps worried they will not remember the moves or make mistakes. Or maybe the perception is that you need a teacher qualification to do it? Well, you don’t. I don’t have one (yet!), and I began practising alone when still a relative novice. Whether for ten minutes or two hours it has become a vital part of my ongoing personal development and healing. Naturally therefore I would like to inspire others to do the same!
Below are my tips on how to take your yoga self-practice to a deeper level, whether it’s your first time alone on the mat or not. As you will see this is not about asana (postures); I’ll leave that up to you. What I aim to share is the insights I have derived from many a solitary practice that has enabled me to take my experience on the mat from a purely physical to a profoundly healing and spiritual experience.
As a quick aside, this might sound obvious, but I should note that if you haven’t done any yoga before I would definitely recommend attending some classes before going it alone, (a) to avoid injury and (b) so that you can focus on your breath and state of being rather than the postures themselves. Secondly, self-practice isn’t something I’m advocating instead of group (or private) classes. It’s really important to learn correct alignment and you will get a host of other benefits from finding a teacher and style you connect with.
BUT, if you already have a reasonable grasp of asana and breathing, then there really is nothing stopping you from complementing your favourite classes with your own practice at home. You’ll be surprised what happens when you open yourself up to the transcendent possibilities of this act of self-love. All you need is a quiet space, a mat, and yourself (and a little common sense… please don’t try anything you are not wholly confident you can do without injuring yourself!)
1. Bring with you no judgment and no expectations
First and foremost, before you even get onto your mat make sure that you are coming from a place of kindness, love and understanding. That means no judgment and no expectations.
Just as yoga should not be a competition with others, neither should it be with yourself. It is easy to become frustrated if you are not as flexible, strong or balanced as normal but the truth is it doesn’t matter. What matters is to honour your body and soul in that moment, regardless of what has come before or what your mind tells you you ‘should’ be able to do.
Try not to plan ahead, to set goals or to have any expectations at all about how your practice will unfold. Instead, trust that you are exactly where you are supposed to be in that moment.
2. Set the mood: prepare your sacred space
This doesn’t mean you need to redecorate a room in your house as a makeshift shala, but do take a few moments to create a peaceful space for your practice. Somewhere quiet and de-cluttered is ideal. I like to dim the lights, or even turn them off, and play some gentle music to help me tune out of the outside world and into myself. This Soundcloud channel has some great mantras and other peaceful playlists which I am working through at the moment, in particular the Kundalini one below.
Burning some incense or a scented candle can be a lovely touch too. And it should go without saying, but leave all distractions outside, in particular of the technological variety.
3. Close your eyes
When alone (and also in classes) I try to do as much of my practice as possible with my eyes closed. If you are not in the habit of doing this I promise you’ll be amazed at the effect!
Closing my eyes immediately slows down my rhythm and turns my attention inwards, which is my intention when practising alone. I am not trying to rush from one asana to another, but to go deep into myself, tune into any emotions that may arise and feel my connection with the Universal energy I am drawing in and out of my body via my breath.
4. Seated, slow, and simple
As I said above, when practising alone speed is not of the essence. To enjoy a deep and meditative practice go slow and stick to the basic postures you are comfortable with and which you can hold for a while, allowing you to lose sense of time and space and become present in the moment.
Make the most of the freedom you have alone to explore each asana. Play with subtle adjustments. Notice how deepening your breath brings you further into each pose. And particularly at the beginning of your practice stay in seated postures, as this rooting to the ground will help to guide you deeper into your breath and your Self.
It sounds obvious, but really, really focus on your breath. Closing my eyes definitely helps with this as I cannot get distracted by anything around me or even by the appearance of my own body. By really tuning into my breath I feel the effects of my practice far more deeply.
Pay attention to your breath as it expands into your belly, lungs and chest, creating space with each inhale so that you can sink deeper and deeper with each exhale. This in turn enables you to stay longer in each asana without tensing up and creating resistance (and pain).
By keeping your focus on your breath you will also find the chatter in your mind (the chitta vritti) slows down significantly, which as you’ll probably know is kind of the whole point. (We practice yoga in order to calm our pesky, nattering and often neurotic ‘monkey minds’ in order to find peace through the blissful absence of thoughts.)
The deeper, smoother and longer you make your breath, the more your mind and nervous system will relax, soon sending you into a deeply meditative state.
6. Keep coming back to the present
It is easy to find your mind wandering during yoga, especially when you practice alone. If you’re new to self-practice, with no teacher’s voice to listen to you’ll probably find at first that to stay focused in the moment is a bit of a challenge. Something that tends to happen to me is that I begin to think about the next asana, or sequence of asanas, jumping ahead in my mind to the future rather than fully focusing on the here and now. If I notice myself doing this I simply remind myself again to breathe and be only where I am, not worrying or planning ahead, but making the most of each moment in its entirety.
7. Let your body be your guide
Yoga teaches us to trust our instincts – our own intuition. Tune in to your body and respond to its desires. If something feels great then stay there. If you have an urge to adjust your position or go into a counter-pose then do it. Let yourself be guided by your body rather than your mind. It will know what to do, I promise. As you practice alone more you’ll soon find yourself moving in a trance-like state with less need to think at all about what you are doing.
8. Pause often to feel the effects
Between each asana, or sequence of asanas, I like to take a pause in a seated cross-legged position, usually with my hands in Siva mudra. This is also how I start and end each practice. By pausing in this way it allows me to explore how I feel at different points of the practice, taking note of any physical, emotional, mental or spiritual goings on.
Take notice of subtle changes each time you come back to this position… Is your body more aligned? Do you feel more grounded or more lifted? Have any thoughts or emotions risen to the surface? This little check-in can help direct you to your next asana and is also very meditative.
I also take this time to again check in with my breath and make sure it is still deep and smooth, allowing that prana (energy) to flow fluidly all around my body.
9. Savour your Savasana
Every yoga class you go to should end with Savasana and so should your own practice. Never forgo it, even if you’re only on the mat for a short time. If you do have the time however, indulge in a ten or fifteen minute final Savasana at the end of your practice and you will reap the benefits
The final resting pose (‘corpse pose’) is essential to allow your nervous system to integrate the changes that you have made during the physical practice and for your muscles to relax and rebalance . There are also a host of psychological (and spiritual) benefits that will be bestowed upon you if you really allow yourself to relax and let go.
I remember when I first started yoga I found it quite difficult to fully relax in Savasana. I’d get an itchy nose, a cold foot, or I’d start planning my day/evening in my mind whilst lying there. It was through self-practice that I ‘trained’ myself to get the most out of this pose, gradually learning how to surrender into the relaxation and truly feel its effects.
Take the time to make sure you are really comfortable with your spine lying as flat as possible along the floor and having released any tension in your muscles, in particular your back, jaw and neck. Then take some deep inhales through the nose and exhales through your mouth, forcing out all remaining air until you feel ready to slow down your breathing. Keeping your breath deep for a few more breaths (now through your nose) with each exhale imagine your body is sinking deeper and deeper into the ground, letting go of any remaining tension and allowing gravity to pull you down. Surrender to the relaxation, enjoying the feeling of your body heavy and soft as if melting into the mat.
Your body becoming more and more relaxed, a sense of peace should wash over you and your mind chatter will slow almost to nothing. If you feel yourself drifting off to sleep, bring your attention back to your breath, now shorter and shallow, hardly noticeable as all your bodily systems have slowed down. Bring your focus to your third eye… The deeper you go the more transcendent the experience. For me a good Savasana can be my most powerful form of meditation.
10. End with gratitude
I like to end my own practice in a seated meditative pose, still with closed eyes and with my hands in namaskara mudra. Taking a few moments more of quiet, I observe the beautiful sense of peace and calm that I have cultivated within myself from the work I have done with my movement and breath. I use this time to say a few (silent) words of thanks. In particular I thank myself for taking the time to practice – for taking a time-out from the crazy and demanding world around me to nurture my body, mind and soul, honouring through this act of self-love who I am in the truest sense of the word.