Yoga can be beneficial even if one were to attend a single class per week. However, it produces the best results when performed on a daily basis. Not everyone can afford a class that often, though, so practicing at home becomes a necessity. Moreover, doing Yoga on your own allows you the freedom to follow your own pace and explore your body (and mind) in different ways than you would in a class setting.
Judith Lasater wrote an article for Yoga Journal on building one’s home practice, and I think it’s an excellent resource for anyone interested in the matter, but I’d like to build on some of the points mentioned there and add a few of my own.
When planning your Yoga sessions, start from a general perspective and then move to the specifics. What I mean by that is that you should first plan a macro-cycle of sessions that is in itself balanced. This macro-cycle should contain several practices that may be performed in the space of a week, 10 days, a fortnight, etc. Sure, you could do nothing but balanced, self-contained sessions, but sometimes it helps to focus on a single group of muscles (e.g. hips, core) or poses at a time (e.g. backbends, twists). You just need to make sure that overall, you work through all pose/muscle groups during your macro-cycle.
A longer (month-long) macro-cycle may also include days when you need to perform special yoga sequences. For instance, perhaps you go a little batty when the moon is full and you need to schedule a session to counterbalance those feelings, or even provide you with a contained environment where you can explore them; women may have a favorite soothing practice that helps with menstrual cramps or PMS; a restorative session every week or so to recharge your batteries would also not go amiss.
I would like to take this opportunity to add that your body would probably thank you if you were to incorporate Yin Yoga to your macro-cycle. Since it’s my favorite style, I may be biased, but you don’t really have anything to lose by replacing a couple of traditional (Yang) Yoga sessions per week with Yin Yoga. The two styles really do balance each other out, with Yang focusing on muscular strength and flexibility, and Yin on connective tissue suppleness and general mobility. Due to its quiet, meditative nature, it can also double as restorative Yoga (although they are definitely NOT one and the same).
So, once you’ve scheduled when you’ll be doing what, it’s time to plan your micro-cycles, i.e. the sequences themselves. You’ll need to take into account several factors: 1) your ability, 2) available time, space, and tools, 3) any weaknesses you want to focus on.
Your ability will often be dependent on what you’ve been taught at class, since several poses are best learned with a teacher; it’d be best you don’t try, for instance, to learn headstand without supervision. Slowly build a “menu” of poses you can do, which you can then mix and match into a private session.
Where can you practice at home? Do you have a room you can use, or are you confined to a hallway? Consider how that space will affect your practice, and select poses accordingly. I’m assuming you already own the essentials (a mat, a belt, and a couple of blocks), but if you plan to focus on a style that requires additional props, e.g. bolsters, you may need to get those tools (buy ready-made or improvise), or skip poses that need them altogether. Also, when can you practice? An early-morning practice may be best for dynamic flows to energize the body and mind, while sequences that will help you wind down may be more appropriate for a late-evening session, so choose wisely. Additionally, how much time do you have available?
In direct relation to that last question, I’d like to point out that there are two elements that should form part of every one of your home sessions: breath work and corpse pose. Doing breath work at the beginning of your practice helps focus the mind to what you’re about to do – think of it as a mental switch of sorts. Beginners may simply sit for a few minutes counting the breath, while more advanced yogis may do specific pranayama. Follow with the core part of your practice (the asanas), then finish in Corpse – consider it a “consolidating” pose that will help your body assimilate the benefits of your Yoga practice. Even if you only have 10 minutes to spare for Yoga, do 2-3 minutes of breath work in the beginning and stay 2-3 minutes in Corpse at the end; even though this will cut your time for asanas down to only 4-6 minutes, I strongly believe it is worth it.
Ideally, you should also allow time for meditation at the end of your practice, but I realize that is not always possible. Still, you may find that on a particularly hectic day, when you’re tempted to skip Yoga altogether, spending 5-10 minutes in meditation may be enough to center you and help you through the tough spots.
Finally, assess your physical weaknesses and work on them. If you sit in a chair all day, it would be best to include in your sessions poses that target the hamstrings, lower back, and hip flexors. Do you have old injuries to deal with? Don’t shy away from working on restoring range of motion (best to have a teacher or specialist help with your specific needs). Are you working your way to an advanced pose? Ask your teacher to help you assess your limitations and address them through simpler poses (e.g. you may decide to practice shoulderstand and down-dog to build core and wrist strength in preparation for handstand).
One last thing: although scheduling is a great tool to help you on your path, you may need to cut a planned session short (or, conversely, draw it out) or ditch it altogether for one reason or another; be prepared to be fluid in your programming. Alternatively, if you find that planned sessions don’t suit you (perhaps you are highly attuned to your body and manage to find balance when left on your own), why not try out a free-form, intuitive approach and see how it works for you? Either way, I wish you well on your journey.