Over the years I’ve heard many yoga teachers and students say that they don’t practice alone at home.
The reasons are varied, but they often express a fear that they won’t be able to create a successful, complete practice on their own. I’ve often heard people say things like, “I would get distracted. I wouldn’t bring myself to a sweat. I wouldn’t know what to practice. I wouldn’t exert myself if no one was watching me.”
It’s true that one great benefit of practice with a group and teacher is the way it lifts us, supports us, and motivates us to rise to the challenge of sticking with the discomfort of practice (which is inevitable in transformational work). The group and the teacher help us to not give up when it gets difficult (like in long holds or particularly sensational stretches) and complete the practice with integrity.
How many people would actually stay in a long hold in a challenging asana and breathe into the discomfort for several (dozen) breaths? While teaching, I have asked a room full of practitioners in dhanurasana taking their tenth slow ujayii breath, “Who would stay this long at home?” And the room laughs and then groans.
When it gets hard is when the yoga happens. The difficult moments when we want to bail are the critical moments of practice. Often the mind wants to give up far before the body needs to (and knowing when we really need to stop or adjust requires the razor sharp discrimination of the yogi.) The moments we want to give up are those when we make contact with our deepest resistance and fear, thereby also making contact with our inherent courage and ability to persevere.
Wouldn’t it be empowering to engage in a process of cultivating that discipline, that tapas, in solitude?
In Yoga Journal’s article Path to Happiness: 10 pillars of wisdom from the Yoga Sutra lead the way to true freedom, renowned yoga teachers Charlotte Bell and Stephen Cope share some words about tapas.
Bell says, “Tapas is the willingness to do the work, which means developing discipline, enthusiasm, and a burning desire to learn.”
Cope says, “Holding a posture is tapas. You are restraining yourself from moving and are watching what happens. In this way, you build the capacity to tolerate being with strong sensation, and you get to answer the question: What is my real limit? And you develop the skill of witnessing, which is one of the most important skills of classical yoga.”
I remember taking class at the Iyengar Institute in NYC many years ago, and the teacher said to the class of students in sirsasana, “How would you adjust your headstand right now if Guruji [B.K.S Iyengar] walked in the room? How much would you activate your legs, stabilize your shoulders and calm your drishti? Why not do all that for yourself? Treat your own awareness of yourself as you would treat Guruji’s awareness of you.”
Of course going to class and studying with excellent teachers is important, for instance to be present for a wonderful comment like that (which has changed my headstand, and practice, forever). Sometimes a teacher’s presence and offering in class gives us invaluable guidance. However, in recent years, several experiences have led me to focus more on solitude practice. Attending classes and learning from teachers became more infrequent and in a way, more potent.
Each class I took at the Iyengar Institute with senior teachers left me feeling saturated with new ideas, tools, and inspiration for practice. I would take one class and the information was so rich that I felt like I could explore those principles and ideas, both in my body and mind, for weeks and months and perhaps years to come. Often I felt that in order to make the most of this mind-expanding material, I needed to go home and work with all of that information at my own pace, to make close personal contact with what I had learned without any other voices around.
Feeling exhausted was also a catalyst for my practice transforming primarily into one of solitude. As I moved into a demanding professional phase of my life which consisted of an intense schedule of giving Structural Integration bodywork all day long, I found that the kind of yoga practice I needed had shifted. I was too tired to muscle through vigorous classes that left me feeling more fatigued. I needed more restorative practice and more constructive relaxation. A voice inside me guided me to practice at home and do what would balance out my system.
Feeling over-stimulated by the chaos and intensity of New York City was another catalyst for my practice turning more towards solitude. Of course yoga practice can help make a person feel more resilient and less thrown off by the noise and fast pace of Manhattan streets and subways. At the same time, my yoga practice heightened my sensitivity and illuminated my deep desire for silence and simplicity. Suddenly a practice in my quiet apartment without any commute or exposure to unnecessary marketing seemed more and more appealing.
Solitude practice isn’t and has never been about rejecting the importance of a teacher. In fact, devotion to a teacher and solitude practice go hand in hand.
My husband Eric is deeply involved in a guru-disciple relationship in the realm of Indian Classical Music. He and his guru of over 10 years, a bansuri master who lives in a village near Kolkata in West Bengal, together embody the traditional system of Indian learning and lineage (which is strikingly similar in both Indian music and non-Westernized yoga in India): the passing down of nuanced wisdom can only be transmitted orally in an intimate setting. The profound surrender of the disciple to his teacher is absolutely required and is just as important as the student’s promise to work diligently on their own.
Eric learns some amount of material from his Guruji and then he is expected to spend large numbers of hours wrestling with, exploring and mastering that material, no matter how tedious or challenging, on his own. This is when he begins to embody the material that his teacher offers and fully absorb it in his own musicianship. Only after he has done a significant amount of work in his riyaz (the word Indian musicians use for solitude music practice), will he return to his Guruji for more feedback and more material.
Of course things are different in the West. The standards for being a yoga teacher are questionable, resulting in a lot of teaching and classes going on that don’t honor the yoga tradition in either content or spirit. This lack of integrity in teaching has done some damage to the reputation of yoga as a tradition, at times leaving the public with a misguided and misinformed idea of what yoga is, was, and could be. My solitude practice was a temporary refuge from some of this, as much as it was a choice to engage in a more traditional way of soaking in valuable wisdom from the teachers I most respected. I decided to immerse myself in the richness of those principles in my own yogic riyaz.
I’m sure that I also missed out in those years that I chose my apartment over a yoga studio: there were brilliant classes that I wasn’t present for and feedback that I never got. I didn’t get an ego boost from being one of the few students in class who could balance in the center of the room in any inversion. As the years past, I went from being largely “known” to “unknown” by both teachers and students, thereby losing some “status” in the community. Countless new teachers and studios popped up that I had zero familiarity with. At social events if the topic of yoga came up, people would ask me “Where do you practice?” and I would reply, “at home,” followed all too often by weird smirks or confused looks.
At times I felt isolated and even alienated and I longed for the sangha. But something told me to continue with the journey of solitude practice: there was more for me to learn there. So I went to class quite infrequently, dropped into a kirtan or group meditation only once in awhile, and practiced at home every day. The layers peeled off me.
Any layer of wanting to be “seen” while practicing peeled away. Only “I” was seeing “myself.” The utter simplicity of this was golden. The layer of wanting to have some kind of “status” in the yoga social scene peeled away and was no longer relevant. That was golden too, because it is a trap that many of us fall into, and we need to be very honest with ourselves to admit that. The layer of strain required to get myself to do a practice that did not feel right for me peeled away, and as I practiced in a way that matched my energetic anatomy, a nourishment and rejuvenation began to emerge from deep inside.
I dove deeper into yogic texts and the translations that brilliant scholars put so much time into creating. I went right to the source for my information, and benefited from having fewer filters over the material of the tradition.
In the midst of my solitude years I heard about a popular local yoga teacher’s new weekly event consisting of yoga with live music, art decorating the walls and video art projected on the walls as well. One could argue that yoga is about pratyahara, turning the senses inwards, rather than over-stimulating the senses to create a super-imposed bliss. I love music, visual art and video art. In my experience, practice is the time to look, listen and feel inside, and also cleanse the palate of extraneous external stimuli to become available for clearer perception in life in general.
Music with yoga can be pleasing and can support the journey inwards; I feel lucky to often practice to the sounds of Eric’s bansuri riyaz in the next room. But there is a rare and special bliss that can arise from deep inside that needs a lot of space to reveal itself. We are missing out if we forget about this. Is it ok to just accept a sensory stimulation party as yoga (beautiful and harmonious as it may be), without even considering that creating these pre-determined external environments is not really at the heart of the practice (and may even interfere)?
It is traditional for a yogi to practice alone. It is also traditional to have a sangha. I realized that going to the sangha without ever practicing alone is like belonging to a book club and going to meetings without reading the books.
Recently following a long solitude practice, I got right up after meditation and went to my laptop and wrote this article. It poured out of me unexpectedly, as an authentic discovery of all that I really have learned and now want to share.
Here is a guide that I put together for igniting and maintaining a safe and meaningful solitude practice.
Seven pre-requisites for safety and establishing context.
1. Get to know some foundational principles and techniques of yoga asana. Solitude practice is usually not for total beginners. There are many valid foundations for asana practice: some involve more muscular activation, some involve consciousness in the energy body. Learning the basic techniques from a coherent lineage and tethering to those principles will be an important foundation for solitude practice.
2. Get to know your constitution and honor it. Without awareness of personal patterns and imbalances, asana can do more damage than good. Learn about where your imbalances are (and we all have them!)—maybe you tend to be tighter in your right waist or weaker in your left leg or have restricted movement in your right shoulder. Find a teacher who will help you practice poses in a way that will open what’s tight and strengthen what’s weak. Consider what kind of practice would best compliment and enhance your life: perhaps you need restorative practices, more meditation or pranayama, or more vigorous full body engagement, or some combination. Learn to become deeply attuned to yourself and your needs. This is a passion of mine that led me to create a guide to body patterns and asana; I invite you to check out my decompression videos.
3. Be honest. Practice what you know, or at least what you know enough to practice safely and with integrity. Hang your ego outside the door of the practice room (this is a valuable practice in itself). This isn’t the time to try inversions or arm balances that you have never done before. Immerse yourself in techniques that you have some familiarity with, no matter how few or how simple.
4. Commit in the here and now. Set a timer, or note a time frame in your mind. Choose a realistic commitment—otherwise you will set yourself up for failure. Decide that you will stay in the practice space for that amount of time, even if it you start to feel bored, restless or distracted. When those obstacles to practice arise, you can lean into the power of your commitment to yourself to stay. Practice child’s pose or savasana or tadasana and be with what arises.
5. Ritualize your practice. Extend your commitment to permeate your life, even by say ten minutes a day or three times a week. Even five minutes counts and is better than nothing! Allow yourself to develop a consistent beginning, middle and end to your practice that feels natural and right to you. This will become your personal, private ritual that will take on its own meaning and special place in your life.
6. Prepare the space. Honor the ritual of your practice by taking care of the space you inhabit while practicing. It might be the same space each time, it might not. This could be as simple as scanning the space with your eyes and sending your consciousness into the space, recognizing it as, even if only temporarily, a sacred practice space. Even this simple acknowledgement is preparatory. You can take this further by collecting useful yoga props, decorating with images of teachers, using music and incense and cleaning the space ritually.
7. Be flexible (and I don’t mean in your hamstrings.) Get creative with your practice instead of rigid. Be willing to modify and adapt your practice so that you can go with the flow of your life. Choosing your regimented practice over social events and other life events that come up is a sign of discipline but it can go too far. Try doing a shorter practice with no props if you are spending the day at a friend’s house. Or do a practice in the park in the grass with sneakers on if you don’t have time to go home and do your whole routine. Don’t be too precious about the where and when and how long each and every time. You can even do kapalabati in the car or sit in meditation on the subway. If you broke your wrist, modify your practice to honor the injury. Inviting this flexibility into the ritualization of your solitude practice will free you and your life in a profound way.
Seven suggested methods and starting points.
1. Retain, integrate, and explore what you have learned from your teachers. Think about a focal point, physical or philosophical, that made an impact on you in the class where you first heard it. Take the time to examine that theme and wrestle with it on your own. Do the poses or apply the techniques that are relevant to that theme and see how your own intelligence and experience can help you integrate that piece of wisdom.
2. Create a class plan. Have some poses in mind that excite you or that you want to work on (remember that sometimes the poses we dread are the most are the ones we need.) Write down the plan, using your knowledge and experience to create a safe sequence (remember to warm up and cool down) and then stick to it. Make up one pose that is totally original to keep the humor and creativity there (and to honor that the yoga tradition is still alive and changing, in all of us!)
3. Practice to cross-train for your life. Check in with how you are feeling and what you life has been like recently, in the past 24 hours, past week and past few months. What will balance out your body, both physically and energetically? If you spend all day in flexion, aim for extension in practice. If you are living in your head and your body is not fully awake all day, a vigorous practice might be replenishing. If your job is physically taxing and you are exhausted, a relaxation practice could be right. Or some combination, of course—the right combination for you, which will take time to develop.
4. Attend to specific needs and imbalances. This takes cross-training for your life to the next level. Before employing this application of yoga, you need to start the process of developing an awareness of your own body’s constitutional tendencies (as in prerequisite #2.) Practice asana with the specific intention to work on a muscular imbalance in the body (we all have them, even if nothing “hurts”.) Is one area particularly tight or weak? This targeted, focused work requires training and some knowledge of nuanced ways of activating in the body. Learning these skills is very rewarding: this kind of practice is powerful for cultivating optimal alignment and body mechanics, which can be profoundly liberating for the body, bringing ease and comfort to all physical activities.
5. Practice with a video. This is different than the other methods of solitude practice, because there is another “voice” present, guiding and directing. It may be less intimidating for some people and can be a wonderful way to “break in” to solitude practice. With a video you can receive instruction simultaneous to experiencing solitude practice and get in a rhythm of rolling out your mat at home.
6. Let inspiration be your guide. Embrace a natural connection you feel to a quote from a yoga master, a passage from a text, a yogic theme or an image that speaks to you; use these sources of inspiration as the foundation for your practice, informing your focal points and practice choices. It might be existential or ancient or contemporary or therapeutic. Relate that theme with a certain quality of practice or poses. Keep a journal about your experiences and connections you make to thread together what inspires you and what you are practicing.
7. Surrender to total improvisation. Prerequisite–for safety, know how to warm up and how to unwind and make sure that knowledge is deeply ingrained in you as a practitioner. Follow the energy body and go with your flow. Be open to spontaneous pathways of movement, breath and consciousness, whether traditional or personal.
Seven benefits to solitude practice.
1. Get what you need most. If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that often the teacher’s class plan doesn’t really fit our needs in that moment. If we practice what we need, we will get what we need. Many of us have limited time to practice yoga in our busy lives; we might as well make the most of that time by practicing in a way that is potent and appropriate, for ourselves. When practice becomes personalized and on many levels we are becoming more balanced, the result is an emergence and replenishment of source energy inside of us which is the seed of liberation. This is more valuable than learning how to do any fancy pose or being “known” in the yoga world. If you are grounded by this principle of practicing what you need, then no matter what happens to you (injury, new job, new schedule), you will still practice.
2 Enjoy the insight. In the absence of other voices, and in the absence of another person’s intelligence field (as enriching as it may be), we open up the space for the layers of our own intelligence to show up and illuminate our experience. If we listen, and become deeply attuned to the process, even in the midst of boredom and frustration, we can make contact with our capacity for deep insight and even communication with divinity, the all-pervasive source of intelligence and love.
3. Dive deeper into self-intimacy. Deeply listening for insight about life, existence and yoga is inevitably intertwined with insight about the self. Solitude practice will take you deeper into understanding your body, your pain, your emotions, your mental patterns, your destiny. These are all things we learn about studying yoga in any context, but in solitude practice the path of self-intimacy is magnified and expedited. In a world saturated with ideas and vibrations, it is invaluable to take the time to employ the tools of yoga and study ourselves. Might be a good idea to keep a journal.
4. Cultivate tapas. This is a gem of solitude practice: internally generated motivation, enthusiasm and discipline, moment to moment. The support comes from deep inside yourself. Turning inwards for support and empowerment is an infinite metaphor for living life; might as well start with yoga.
5. Be your own guru. If your beloved yoga teacher walked into the room, how would you change what you were doing right then? Do that for yourself! Feel like this pose is out of your range today? Stop yourself instead of relying on someone else to tell you that it’s dangerous. Be your own teacher. Then you will experience yourself as the guru and as the divine guiding light that you are. Don’t just think about this concept; live it, in practice.
6. Create autonomy. When grounded by a solitude practice not dependent on a class, you create autonomy and independence from any other person or institution. Your practice is now portable and always accessible to you. One of the dangers of “yoga as business” is that yoga studios sometimes tell us that we need more of their classes and workshops and events in order to be true yogis. It is wonderful to be part of an enriching community and to participate in classes, but the foundation needs to be one of empowerment and not dependency.
7. Offer it back to your community. When coming from a place of a rich solitude practice, you bring all of that confidence, experience and depth to the community.
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Editor: Malin Bergman
Photography (all images except the top photo) by Lana Bernberg.