I live in New York City—the city that never sleeps. I first learned yoga here 36 years ago, but unlike many of today’s New Yorkers that I see on the street and the subway, I am not carrying my yoga mat bag and heading off to a daily class. I practice yoga at home. My teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of the Ashtanga Yoga method, lived in Mysore, India, and every year for 15 years, I went to Mysore to study with him. Every morning before the sun rose, I practiced with a small yet growing group of students in his home yoga shala (a place where students practice). The room was tiny, just twelve students, and Jois was able to hear each student breathing, and he would observe and instruct every detail of our daily practices. We were under the microscope. He was a true yoga master and his knowledge reached back to the beginning of the 20th century. He was strong and vital but was already in his late seventies when I first met him. When it was time to leave Mysore, when three months of daily study came to an end, I always nearly wept when I said good-bye, fearing I might never see him again. “Don’t worry,” he’d say, “you go home, you take self-practice every day, and no problem, you come back next year. I will be here.”
Home practice, or self-practice, provides a reliable platform to create the time and space (no matter how small) to focus my yoga practice. I can more easily choose how and where I place my attention. When I take a group class or teach one, there is so much to distract from the practice, beginning with maneuvering a yoga mat bag in and out of the subway, busy registration, crowded dressing rooms, lines for the bathroom, cell phones ringing, students in class who may be disruptive, or students arriving late and interrupting the teacher. Even the teacher’s voice and instructions draw the student away from the breath, from an inner focus to an outward focus.
To practice yoga to draw our energy inward, we begin by limiting what draws our energy outward. We choose an environment or time of day that is free from stimulation. This is not a yoga selfie kind of practice. It is an exploration of the self, what yoga calls our true nature, our vast consciousness, or pure awareness. The characteristics of the five senses are to move outward, to connect to sights, tastes, experiences, sounds, and smells. These are likened to five horses that run wild taking charge of the chariot and leading it out of control. After a few years of dedicated yoga practice, the charioteer gains some mastery over these horses, and so the senses come under the control of the driver. Then, it seems, we can watch the cravings or desires rise and we can choose our next step. We can take it or leave it.
The yoga traditions use many tools for cultivating an inner journey by engaging the senses, but in subtle and supportive ways. These include music, incense, bells, mala beads, flowers, a flame, chanting, mantras, mudras, images, and rituals, as well as time in nature especially along a river, in a forest, or in the mountains.
We can choose an inner journey. And in truth, we must.
Of course, go to class and take workshops, continue to study with amazing learned teachers. But at the same time, create a weekly schedule for home practice. Turn off TV’s and phones, and put laptops and to-do lists out of sight. You can play some calming music, light incense, and begin by reading a paragraph from a book on yoga or a devotional poem. And then simply take a series of gentle and calming poses that you have learned in classes and craft your own asana sequence. Or begin sitting, supported comfortably on a cushion, and follow the movement of your breath with your mind’s eye.
Create a small altar with an image of nature or the form of God that is dear to you and gently gaze on it, letting the image fill your mind so that even when you close your eyes, the image remains. This is a time to shift from the yoga of doing, or activity, to a quality of non-doing, as though you were walking in nature and observing the beauty. Observe the practices and the breath in this same way. Be surprised, fascinated, and engaged. If you are bored or if your mind wanders, re-engage with the chosen practice. Set a timer, and start with a goal that brings easy success. Try ten minutes the first week. And perhaps fifteen minutes a few weeks later. To fail at a goal is one of the leading causes of stress. To fail again and again exhausts the nervous system. Success in goals brings joy and inspires continued practice. And in bursts of beauty and growing steadily over time, inward practices reveal what we would otherwise never know.
In your next home practice, you can begin with these words from one of India’s great yogis:
“Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.”