How to practice by yourself.
This post is a response to questions from AY:A2 practitioners who are leaving Ann Arbor for the holidays in 2013. Anyone else is welcome to make use of it, with the caveat that the content is inspired by students I work with directly in this particular place and time.
1. Boundaries help.
Create a tight container. In the words of Iyengar teacher Paul Cabanis, the mind loves to be bound. Give yourself 90% of the time you think you need, and 90% of the space you think you need. Use these constraints to press your energy into a more concentrated stream.
Now, do not faff around. You don’t have the time and you don’t have the space. If you’re noticing the dry skin on your toes, you still have too much time and too much space. Also, do abhyanga later.
Ask companions or family to respect the bounded time-space of your practice. More on this below.
2. Create ritual.
Part of my work is structuring experience so that participants will enter into acute yet spacious states of consciousness, and so that experiences will take on clear meaning that registers deeply with the nervous system.
Most teachers like to keep this a secret, but there are certain vinyasas – ways of putting things together – that help generate transformational space-time. Here’s a good one for self practice, taken from the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism and articulated recently by a wonderful writer, my friend Susan Piver. The effect of this particular vinyasa is to create a ritual or sacred space-time around a certain activity.
(A) Make offerings. (B) Ask for blessings. (C) Dedicate the merit.
For (A), I suggest just offering your self. Your mental state, your body, your resistance, your striving, your excitement, your badassery, your whatever. Offer this self – give it away as fuel for your practice fire – in the ritual space of the mat.
Then (B) say the opening mantra. This is a thanks and a request for support from the whole lineage of teachers’ teachers’ teachers. You name-check Patanjali and tip your hat to your whole community of practice. Let them all bless you.
Finally (C), say the closing mantra. It concludes with the statement may all beings in all worlds be blessed followed by a benediction for peace within you, in your environment, and in the forces that act on you. So, the effects of the practice are not for the small ego-self. Dedicate the ease in your body, the relaxed mental state, the openness of the heart, the balance in the breath… to any one or any thing that is not the acquisitive self. Give it to your immediate companions this day, or maybe to the strangers or animals around you everywhere, or—if you are a real Jedi knight—give it to the assholes in your life. (One might want to take advantage of the assholes now, because they may soon neutralize or disappear.)
3. Start early.
Start your practice before you start your practice. When do you need to start? The night before? How about right now, two weeks in advance? See those practices. Feel them. Be thankful for them now, already.
Future suffering can be eliminated. Future wellbeing can be cultivated. Karma is just the law of cause and effect. Thoughts are causal forces.
If you haven’t tried morning practice after little to no dinner the night before, self-practice may be the time. For 2 in 3 practitioners, scaling back on dinner will make you sleep better and wake up more energized with much stronger bandhas. (For some, however, you will find that a substantial dinner is exactly what you need for strong practice the next morning. Depends on your constitution.)
As for putting practice off until after breakfast, or after errands, or after a nice talk with family, no. I do not suggest giving yourself this out. Instead, get up a little early, brush your teeth, and then brush your brain. Do not make practice the main event of the day. The mind will be even weirder if you wait until afternoon, especially during holidays. This is a morning practice.
Build a mat stash. This holiday, take the cheap-o mat you used the first month of practice (before you invested in a long term mat) and leave it in the attic at your family’s house. Next year, it’ll be waiting for you.
Otherwise, get a little manduka travel mat. If you’re flying, you can fold it in a square and put it at the bottom of your carry-on. Or count your mat-bag as your personal item.
Take some tealights and maybe a couple of other ritual objects. (Personally, I like rocks.) Once the candle flame is lit, it represents your awareness. Guard your awareness.
Initiate movement with breath. That’s it. Do not allow your limbs to move unless the breath is there a microsecond beforehand. This technique is huge. If it’s the ONLY thing on this list you do, you’ll be fine.
The one concern I have about you practicing alone is that you’ll teach yourself to breathe incorrectly (including the potential loss of bandha). Students breathing wrong in self-practice is one of the four things I worry about in this life. (The others are fracking, factory farms, and Coca-Cola). So please have compassion. Don’t join the ranks of fracking and Coke. Breathe correctly.
Let your companions know you’re teaching yourself to do something that is very important to you. Most likely they’ll support this in a way you can feel on the mat. Not only will companions respect your boundaries – they’ll give energy to your practice simply through their love and respect of what you’re doing. The energy from loving relationships is VERY real and it shows up strongly on the mat.
One way to garner the respect and support of loved ones is to be low maintenance. DO NOT MAKE YOUR PRACTICE THE MAIN EVENT OF THE DAY. Get it done, and don’t ruminate or talk about it. People care about the effects of our practice, not our thoughts about it.
When I left academia, I feared that my romantic partner since 1998 (who is now a Sociology professor) would find me boring if I lost touch with the cutting edge of intellectual life. But he told me that my relationship with the yoga displayed far more integrity than my relationship with my research (as an academic, I got hung up in cleverness and in sophomoric applications of my hyper-analytical mind, and was easily distracted by shiny informational objects). Rob actually liked the devotion and discipline the practice brought out in me over time.
My guess: your loved ones really can relate with your highest self, and on some level they admire your intention to practice. On some level, they want you to be grounded and loving and healthy and awake. I suggest relating with your practice in a sort of humble way, that minimizes self-obsessed dramas and brings a sense of the sacred to your side of your relationships. Ironically, the more genuine and modest you are about personal practice, the more energy you’re likely to get for it from the people in your life.
Not recommended: performing your practice. Don’t do it for a crowd. Don’t record it for the internet. Yes, performing it will give you all kinds of energy and focus. That’s how attention works – performers take energy from people watching us. (If this doesn’t make sense, try thinking of daily life as an energy awareness classroom for a while. Notice what sorts of activities give or take energy, and the different qualities energy takes on. Once this makes some sense, consider these energy economies from the point of view of your personal ethics.) Here’s the issue: is there an egoic by-product of doing your so-called self-inquiry as a performance piece? Please factor that one into the equation in deciding whether mainlining the attention of others is worth it for you in the long term.
Possible life raft. It may save you a few times if you’re drowning on the mat.
I used music for the first few self-practices after I landed in Michigan in 2010, and somehow it created a cushion around the intense grief over leaving my community and home in Los Angeles. It got me through the very difficult phase of establishing a new habit, in the presence of a hardcore delusion-fest (i.e., self-pity and longing for another situation).
If you use music, know that it will likely push parts of your real experience deeper into unconsciousness. The more variable the music, and the more words it has, the more it will push you around. So choose something with an energy you really want to match with your nervous system, and keep the lyrics to a minimum.
If you rely on music for the long term, some deeper long-term transformations may get buffered out. Obviously, you can do gymnastic yoga all day long while listening to music, and you will progress in the physical practice and also achieve some nicely adrenalized mental states. That is not the method.
That said, if this is a music sort of a day, so it is. Let the assistance do its work of shifting your mind-body state. Don’t fight it or regret it. Go with the flow.
Over time, you’ll generate the flow just by stepping on the mat.
Yes, you will.
Blessings, love and respect to you this holiday. It’s your practice and you know exactly what to do.