Category Archives: Yoga & Beyond

Building a Yoga Home Practice

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.

Yoga Challenge Week 4 Wrap-Up

This particular journey is almost over, and I must admit I’ve learned a lot during the past four weeks.

Firstly, it gave me the chance to explore what I want (and what I don’t want) to do with this blog. Reporting my progress in this challenge on a daily basis kept me motivated and accountable, but that wasn’t always what I wanted to write about. Now that the challenge is almost over, I hope I’ll be able to focus more on specific issues that catch my fancy. It may lead to posting less often, but I believe the content will ultimately be more meaningful.

Secondly, I managed to get a feel for how my body responds to muscular stimuli. So far, I’ve figured out that two strength workouts per week are all my body can handle at this point; that my muscles are practically begging for a combination of foam-rolling, trigger point therapy, and restorative yoga after hard workouts; that I can cut back my Yin Yoga practice to a couple of times per week and still reap all the benefits; that I enjoy conventional/Yang Yoga just as much as I do Yin Yoga.

Where do I go from here? Well, one thing I’d like to incorporate to my fitness routine – and I’m pretty liberal with that label – is cardio. I don’t really care about burning calories or increasing my VO2max (even though my cardiovascular conditioning is abysmal), but I do feel the need to move my body more often through walking, cycling, dancing, even more vigorous flow Yoga practices – not to mention that with Spring right around the corner, I think I’ll enjoy getting outside and basking in the sunshine.

PS. For my practice today I followed Ken Nelson’s Yin Yoga CD. I’d go as far as to call it “hardcore” Yin since this 75-minute practice goes through only four poses and still manages to target all the body parts I’m used to dealing with in Yin Yoga. A nice feature is that in each of the four pose tracks instructions for alternative poses are given – e.g. you may choose to do Butterfly, Dragonfly (Straddle) or Frog – so that, ultimately, the practitioner has nine poses to choose from and can vary the sequence based on ability or needs. Nine poses may seem too few, but remember that, variations notwithstanding, Yin Yoga revolves around a mere two dozen poses.

Compared to Erin Fleming’s Yin Yoga CD, I can’t say I like one more that the other. Erin’s class goes through more poses, and puts more emphasis on forward folds, while Ken’s class is more balanced and involves longer holds. Both teachers are pleasant to listen to and the background music in both CDs is mild. Each class is taught in a distinct way, but both are equally good. In the end, if I want to do a led Yin Yoga class, I’ll pick between the two based on the mood of the moment.

108-Breath Mandala Yoga Sequence

This is a sequence I’ve created on my own, though I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s thought about it – after all, there’s no such thing as an original idea 😉
It’s a short sequence, rather meditative in nature, inspired by the malas used in meditation, made of 108 beads (109 if you want to be finicky).
Here’s how I practice it: I string together 12 poses, and stay in each pose for 9 breaths (12*9=108). I use the first inhale to move into each pose and the last (ninth) exhale to move out of it. Once the mandala is finished, I repeat on the other side if I’ve used any unilateral poses.
The sequence is highly customizable. You can pick any poses you like, provided you can comfortably stay in each pose for the allotted time (struggling with a pose is not very conducive towards staying in a meditative state), and it takes you no more than one full breath to flow from one pose to the next.
The reason I came up with this sequence is that I wanted to combine yoga and meditation in a seamless package, instead of practicing one after the other. I usually meditate at the end of my asana practice, but don’t always have the time to do so, even though I consider meditation one of the more important aspects of yoga. In addition, I’ve long gravitated towards the more “physical” styles of meditation (ecstatic dance, t’ai chi), so I thought to try something similar with yoga.
Of course, asana practice is already meditative, or at least it should be. However, we often lose focus when practicing. If the pose is easy, the mind may wander; if it’s challenging, the mind may ramble as the body struggles. I find that counting the breath keeps the mental chatter to a minimum, and helps me stay in the moment. This is, in essence, a moving meditation.
One thing I really like about this technique is that one mandala takes about 5 minutes to complete, or 10′ if I need to do two mandalas to cover both sides, and I could probably keep repeating for half an hour, while it would have been near impossible to sit in meditation for that long.
Here’s an example sequence (focus on feeling grounded while still reaching up and out – a feeling of spreading your wings, if you will):
– Mountain
– Chair
– Tree
– Warrior I
– Pyramid
– Triangle
– Side Angle
– Warrior II
– Exalted Warrior
– Down Dog
– Cobra
– Child’s Pose
(Repeat on the other side.)
As you can see, I picked some of the most basic poses, opting for simplicity. Still, don’t hesitate to use advanced poses if they’re within your abilities and you believe they’d enhance your meditation.
Some variations to consider:
1) You can make the mandala even more meditative by staying longer in fewer poses, or turn it into a sweatier flow practice by staying in more poses for fewer breaths. Just make sure you spend an equal number of breaths in every pose and that the mandala lasts 108 breaths.
2) The primary focus is always on the breath, but you could create a mantra to repeat (either in your head or out loud) each time you enter a pose or even focus on a feeling you wish to explore. This could set a theme for your meditation, and you might choose specific poses that support that theme or seek out elements in poses that could provide a different point of view (exploring stability in balance poses, for instance, or compassion through the protectiveness of forward bends).
Would appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

Yoga Challenge Days 26-27

I spent yesterday doing housework, and although I count that as a workout, I don’t find it an exciting enough subject to blog about.
As for today, after several days of rain (we don’t really get a lot of those), the sun finally decided to put in an appearance, so a walk around the neighborhood for some much-needed vitamin D was in order.
I was still a bit sore from my strength training earlier in the week, especially in the glutes and adductors, but a few minutes spent foam rolling helped. I also put together a quick Yin Yoga sequence to loosen up those same areas:
– 15′ in Straddle (left, right, middle, 5 minutes each)
– 5′ per side in Square, followed by Windshield Wipers
– 5′ in Caterpillar
Finish with a few minutes in Reclined Twists and then Shavasana.

Yoga Challenge Day 25

Today’s workout was purely restorative. I felt pretty whipped and had to take out the big guns (hint: tennis balls!) to get my muscles to loosen up.

I started out with a few rounds of Moon Salutations to get the blood pumping but still keep things relaxed. It’s a really great practice that focuses on side-to-side movement, complementing nicely the back-and-forth movement of Sun Salutations.

I continued with foam rolling, focusing particularly on the adductors – I did side lunges for the first time yesterday, and, believe me, I felt it.

Finally, I had to resort to trigger point therapy, aka tennis ball massage! I was first introduced to this technique in Mark Verstegen’s Core Performance for Women, and was surprised at how effective it is. However, the sensations it produces are so intense as to be near intolerable. So, it’s not a tool I use all that often. When I do, I follow a track from Shiva Rea’s Drops of Nectar CD that offers massage instructions for the glutes and T-spine; I find her soothing voice helps me bear the ordeal long enough to achieve tension release. For those of you interested in the technique, I managed to locate a video describing the process for those exact points:

Yoga Challenge Day 24

It’s been quite a couple of days. I had a strength workout planned for yesterday, but didn’t get to it until late in the evening. Big mistake. Afterwards, I was too exhausted to even bother posting about it, but more importantly, I was too hyped to fall asleep easily. It was the most intense workout I’ve done so far, not to mention the longest, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it left me floored.

So far, my strength workouts have been manageable. Even when the exercises were too much, the workouts were short, and that balanced things out. Now that I’ve advanced past the introductory phase of the Body By You program, though, the duration of the workout is doubled: warm-up sets are added, and more main sets are performed. In addition, new exercises are introduced, and my muscles have to work in ways they’re not used to. I used to take breaks only after completing a full circuit of exercises, but now I need to pause after each and every set to catch my breath. In a way, this is great, because I get to do strength and cardio training in a single workout. I’m not sure if this is the “proper” way to go about it, but for the moment, it works for me.

Anyway, after that grueling workout, I really needed Yoga. I like to use Sage Rountree’s podcast for post-workout recovery, and generally appreciate her Yoga for Athletes approach when it comes to complementing my strength training. Although each podcast is self-contained, some are focused on specific areas of the body, which makes them great for working kinks out. Also, I love the fact that each podcast is on average 10 minutes long, so I can string several segments together for a well-rounded practice. Here’s what I chose:

  • Wall Stretches – This was a great little segment to start my cool-down and loosen up both upper and lower body before moving into deeper stretches.
  • Shoulder Stretches – With my right shoulder still not up to par (I’ve noticed it tends to buckle slightly under pressure compared to the left one), this routine is as essential to me as my physio.
  • IT Band Express – Despite the title, this podcast stretches the entire lower body.

Gomukhasana is featured in the last two podcasts, but I approach it differently in each, doing only the arms in the first, then doing only the legs (Square instead of Shoelace for me) in the second.

After finishing the strength part of the workout, I ached everywhere. The above Yoga routine helped deal with all that, but I still felt hyped – that exhausted-but-can’t-seem-to-relax feeling that kept me up half the night. In retrospect, I think spending a few minutes in restorative poses might have helped.

Yoga Challenge Day 23

Since yesterday’s practice, I knew I needed to fit in some recovery and mobility work to “fix” my hips and shoulders before moving on. Luckily, Kelly Starrett had two shoulder mobility WODs in line (this and this) that helped immensely. I didn’t have a bar and had to get creative, but with a little help managed to give my shoulders a really nice stretch. Finished that session off with a few minutes’ worth of Garudasana arms.

I dealt with the hips in the afternoon. I used the following Yin sequence to work mostly on external hip rotation, going progressively deeper:

  • Start out in Easy Square (simple cross-legged position) for 3 minutes, then go into Full Square (aka Firelog) for another 3 minutes. Make sure the calves are stacked, the feet flexed, and use a block and/or blanket to support the knees as needed.
  • Do some Windshield Wipers to loosen up, then repeat on the other side.
  • Switch focus for a bit to the hip flexor by going into Baby Dragon for 2 minutes.
  • “Flap” the bent leg a few times before settling into Winged Dragon for another 2 minutes.
  • Bring the knee back to a Baby Dragon position before sliding the foot of the front leg towards the opposite hip to come into Swan. Keep the foot flexed, get comfortable, and drape the upper body over the bent leg in Sleeping Swan for 3 minutes.
  • I like to come into Crocodile (plank on elbows) as a counterpose. Repeat Dragons and Swan on the other side.
  • To finish up, do some Reclining Twists for a couple of minutes per side, and then relax in Shavasana for 5 minutes or so.

A short sequence (didn’t take more than 40 minutes), but enough to put a smile on my face 🙂