Start Where You Are
The amount of ancient literature available on yoga is staggering enough. Add to it innumerable commentaries, and it quickly becomes overwhelming to someone just starting out. Each tradition or style has its own take on what constitutes proper practice and some of them can be quite inflexible when it comes to adapting traditional precepts to the modern age. So where does someone new to yoga start?
Start where you are! And keep it simple. Begin with some exercises (asana), deep breathing (pranayama) and relaxation. As you progress, incorporate meditation (dhyana) into your practices. Each time you feel ready or inspired to dive a little deeper, do it! Relax, you have literally an eternity, and allow yourself the adventure of discovery! As your awareness naturally expands your practice will naturally refine itself. Trust the process!
As you encounter techniques and ideas that are helpful to you, integrate them into your life and practice. If they cease to be effective, drop them and don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal. No effort in yoga is wasted, the results are simply proportional to the quality and quantity of energy invested. Remember, the practices we undertake should transform our lives for the better and help us to become happier, healthier and more loving human-beings. If your sincere, you’ll know what is helpful and what isn’t.
Our Sixth Sense, Is Our Common Sense
Most modern books on yoga often dedicate a paragraph, a page, or even an entire chapter to cautions and considerations for beginning with postures, breathwork or meditation. Various authors give various reasons why you should be super careful and find a teacher. It is usually in the form of “without the “super-vision” of a teacher, yoga practices can be dangerous”. Of all the reasons why, though, the one they often neglect to mention is that they need students in order to earn a living as a yoga teacher. So to suggest that yoga can be learned with a book or DVD, on your own with a sincere intention would be totally out of the question. Well guess what? You can learn yoga on your own. Seriously, it isn’t even that hard.
I know that it is possible to learn the essentials of yoga practice on your own because that is precisely how I began my own practice 20 years ago. By the time I began attending classes, I was already practicing hundreds of postures, breathing exercises, meditating, chanting and singing, even researching Sanskrit! As a matter of fact, with the exception of a handful of classes taught by a handful of teachers, most of the classes I attended weren’t much more than a space to practice some postures with other interested yogis and yoginis. Don’t misunderstand me, practicing yoga together with others is fun. The point is simply that, if for whatever reason, you can’t attend classes (too expensive, too shy, time constraints, family, work whatever), that you don’t use that as an escape or excuse not to practice.
So how are you supposed to know whether you are doing a particular posture or technique correctly? Common sense. You can explore almost any technique if you go slow, use common sense and be honest with yourself about how it feels. If it feels good it is probably is. If the pose or technique causes tension and pain, it isn’t right. Simply back off or change the pose.
Whether you’re learning to get into that pretzel pose you saw on an advertisement in a magazine, mastering the breath of fire without hyperventilating or being able to meditate in Lotus posture, try to understand where you have to be in your practice to achieve that. The following sections contain some basic tips to approaching poses, breathwork and meditation when learning on your own.
Tips For Beginners Learning Asana On Their Own
Let’s start with asana! If you are trying to learn a posture, ask yourself which muscles need to be strong and which ones need to be long to do the pose. Next, ask your self which other poses, movements, or stretches (even if the technique comes from a discipline outside the repertoire of yoga) will help you to achieve the pose you’re learning. Then, slowly work toward achieving the pose by focussing on related postures that strengthen what needs to be strengthened and lengthen what needs to be lengthened.
For example, if you want to get your legs behind your head in a variation of Durvasana. There is no way around it…you are gonna have to activate your booty chakra! You’ll would need to focus on gaining flexibility in all the muscles surrounding your hips. You never want to create any imbalances so make sure you address the front, inner, outer and back of the thighs equally. While working your way up to the pose, never push yourself more than is comfortable. There is no prize for who can learn the most postures in the shortest amount of time. The mistake of turning a healthy determination into an impatient “force my way to it” type of ambition always results in injury (a torn or strained muscle). And injury, in the end, will make achieving the posture take even longer because you have to figure in the amount of time it takes to recover from your stupidity and arrogance. I did that a lot when I started out. It was often my ego wanting the high of attention, reverence, or affection…..just one more inch and I’ve…..I am so cool….almost there……snap and OUCH! So take it easy and be willing to enjoy gaining physical health slowly.
Tips For Beginning And Learning Pranayama On Your Own
Pranayama, which encompasses the various breathing exercises common to many yoga “styles”, is also relatively easy to learn on your own if you take it slow. Start out by playing with the proposed technique incorporating several breaks (it should never be exhausting). Once you feel more comfortable with the breathing you can begin with a few rounds and increase your intensity and duration gradually over time. The measure of progress should be by feeling. Be reasonable, if it doesn’t feel right, stop. If you feel like you are stuck at an impasse, then go take a class (for fun) and ask the teacher about it afterwards. If they don’t know how to advise you, find somebody who does or let it go. These techniques are simply a means to explore your body, your breath and your mind. The individual techniques, themselves, aren’t important. It is how and why you practice them and how present you are when you practice them.
Let’s take the example of a six breath per minute, deep breathing cycle (the average person takes closer to 16 breaths per minute). How do you start? Slow. If you haven’t noticed this is a mantra throughout my posts. Start slowly with deep, even and relaxed breathing without counting rounds or duration. This will allow you to get a feel for how you actually breath and give you the chance to adjust your breath according to how it feels in the body. Once you become accustomed to breathing “slower than normal for you”, begin counting the breaths and playing with the numbers until you get the 5/5 or 4/6 rhythm of 10 second breaths comfortably. Soon you won’t even need to count anymore. Once you can accomplish a single round of the desired rhythm, length and depth, you can start to work on duration. Start where you can and add time in small increments each week. In yoga you only get hurt when you aren’t paying attention to what you doing.
Quick Word About Meditation
Meditation is a simple subject, but its a tricky one. If I were to give a student advice about how starting meditation as an absolute beginner, I would suggest simply learning to sit absolutely still for longer and longer periods of time. Seriously, just pretend you are a statue, keep your eyes open if it helps you stay awake, and see if you can work up to sitting for an hour without moving…..it isn’t easy. This will teach you to sit still regardless of physical or mental distractions and discomforts. Once the body is quieter (and the mind is quieter because our little high maintenance inner drama queen has finally chilled out) try to sit with eyes closed, watching what your mind and how it talks endlessly to itself about anything. Let your thoughts do whatever they’re doing, coming and going, you just watch. Don’t get involved in any particular thought just stay with your simple innate sense of being here, sitting in a body, present. Once you are able to sit consistently, with eyes closed, alert, a little calm distance between you and your thoughts, sensations and emotions, the real work of meditation is much easier. So try to keep it simple. Be present. Aware of your body, mind and emotions but uninvolved.