photo by Heather B. Davis
Non-harming is the foundation of yoga. If you’ve practiced for any length of time, you are sure to have encountered this topic, whether you know it as ahimsa or have heard it referred to as non-violence, non-harming, or compassion and kindness.
I believe strongly in this philosophy of consciously avoiding harm. The world needs more of this, and so do we. But I’ve found that despite this central tenet, yoga as it is often taught in group classes can unintentionally reinforce our tendencies to be unkind to ourselves. Experimenting with self-led practice at home is a great way to counteract these tendencies and build more kindness and goodwill toward ourselves.
This is not a condemnation of yoga classes. Group instruction is a way to be introduced to the practice of yoga and to increase our pose vocabulary. We gain a broad understanding of what yoga is and what it might do for our lives, and hopefully some knowledge of safe alignment. Ultimately though, yoga is about our relationship to ourselves. Self work done in a group setting can be an uplifting experience, and it can also sometimes be like lighting off fireworks in a trash can.
Here are some key indicators that self-practice might be worth exploring:
- Instead of leaving yoga class calm, relaxed or contented you commonly notice a general malaise or frustration.
- You have a tendency to overexert, overstretch or even injure yourself in class.
- The teacher insists you keep your eyes open, when it feels right for you to close them (or vice versa)
- You wonder what you would even DO on your own, without a teacher to guide you
- Exceptionally critical thoughts about yourself, your body, other students or your teacher often distract you during class.
- You find yourself keeping score, ticking off poses you’ve learned or comparing your practice to that of other students.
- You crave your teacher’s approval and feel disappointed if you aren’t acknowledged by your teacher during class.
- Class culture makes you crazy. You love yoga, but could do without the fancy accessories, pseudo spiritualism or often uniform student population.
- You groan when the teacher guides you out of pigeon pose, wishing you could stay forever.
- You curse pigeon pose, stinky birds and the yogi who invented it and would happily erase the pose from your memory.
Note that every one of these are normal and human and it’s likely that we’ve all had some of these experiences in our yoga classes. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be taking classes, that you’re doing it wrong. But it does mean that you might gain some valuable insights by working on your own. Even a little solo practice can create more tolerance and kindness for ourselves.
By removing the guidance of the teacher, we learn to hear what our body is actually saying as opposed to what has been suggested or what other students seem to be experiencing. By removing the stimuli that triggers the critical, demanding and achievement oriented side of our nature, we allow space to notice these thought patterns, creating greater self-awareness. By removing the class structure, we allow time to play, explore, and stay in those poses that feel so good. We can even avoid the ones we hate! Don’t worry, there is plenty of time to gently approach these poses later. For now, cut yourself some slack. If a pose is miserable for you, it may be that you need it, it could be that there’s a different way to approach it, or it just might be that it’s simply not good for your body. There is plenty of time to discover these distinctions and here too, self-practice can help.
If you’ve practiced yoga mainly in classes and are beginning to see the value of doing some work on your own – your next question may be “Where do I start?”
This is a big question, but truth is that what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as the attitude you bring to it. And the answer? It’s one of the best parts about home practice. You get to choose! Now, this could feel liberating to you, or intimidating (notice how you feel about this). If you feel suddenly overwhelmed at the thought of what to do, can you reframe this in terms of freedom and enjoyment? What is your favorite yoga pose? Yes, you can do that! You get to choose. What would your body love to do? If you aren’t sure, this is your opportunity to find out! Experiment and try a few poses that you have experienced in your classes. Approach your self-practice in terms of kindness and self-care, this practice is for you.
One other hint to get you started: Start small. Think tiny, even. 10 minutes. You can grow your practice over time and you can always go longer if you don’t feel like stopping.
If you still feel a little stuck on the question of what to do, here’s a super simple suggestion for where to begin. Ready for some (extra) kindness in your yoga practice? Try this at home.
|Melinda Hunt is known as Mel to just about everyone, including her husband. She’s a yoga teacher who loves working with groups AND sharing the beauty of self-practice through her mentoring program, the Yoga of You. Whether instructing on physical details, breath work or how to gently move through our hangups about practice, it’s all about bringing more kindness, presence and connection into our lives and our world. Visit melhunt.com for writings and practices to fuel your own yoga exploration.|