Freedom through discipline

What follows are some practical suggestions if you are looking to either start practicing yoga or push past a plateau in your practice.

  • Practice at least 3 days a week.  If  you want to get better at performing yoga postures, you have to practice regularly.  Ideally, every day, but for most of us, this may not be possible or even desirable.  The minimum standard is 3 days a week, in other words, every other day.  This gives you enough time to recover between sessions, but not so long as to diminish any physical or mental gains from the practice.   Focus on basic postures, such as standing postures and Sun Salutations, first.  Once your foundation is set, the intermediate and advanced postures becoming more accessible.
  • Learn a set sequence.  I recommend that you start with an Iyengar or Ashtanga Vinyasa class.  These styles of yoga are particularly known for set sequences taught in a progressive manner.  These classes have a clear beginning, middle and end.  It will give you a structure to learn and play with.  Both styles of classes have also persisted, which indicates some level of robustness a la Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  It will keep you humble, especially if you want to become a yoga teacher, because you will appreciate how the people who brought these sequences to the West constructed them.  Once you’ve really learned a sequence, then you can start playing with variations or creating your own sequences because you will have a template to work with.  Hatha yoga (literally translated as “the yoga of binding opposites”) is about discipline through freedom, not freedom from discipline.
  • Study with a teacher in a yoga studio.  If at all possible, study with a live teacher in a real yoga studio.  Why?  You will get in-person feedback.  You will have a living example (or not!) of what the effects of yoga practice are, and you can grow in your personal practice. (I’ve learned that you learn as much from bad teachers as from good ones).  Most importantly, you will support a local small business, in an industry where many of the studio owners are struggling to make ends meet (see point #4).
  • Stay open-minded but commit to “one practice, one teacher, one studio” at some point in your journey.  Try several studios.  Try different styles and different teachers. Figure out what time works best for your schedule and for your natural body rhythms, so you can stay consistent (point #1). By all means, be liberal in your first few months of practicing.  Give yourself license to stretch around.  But at some point, you have to stop rumspringa and settle down.  I know, I know – committing (to something or someone) can be scary.  With the emergence of sharing businesses and multiple-access services like ClassPass, it seems that nobody wants to commit anymore to one practice, one teacher, one studio. The single greatest benefit from committing to “one practice, one teacher, one studio” is establishing stability (sthira, to use the term from the Yoga Sutra) in your practice so you can focus on  your inward growth, which is the whole point of practicing yoga in the first place.   Just because you commit to one practice, or one teacher, or one studio (or all three or any combination) doesn’t mean you will stay there for the rest of your life.  Studios close, practices have to change to suit your body and your lifestyle, and teachers move to other cities.
  • Above all else, stay connected to your roots.  It can be tempting to follow every new thing that attracts us.  To forget about where we come from.  To forget our spiritual and cultural roots.  To struggle and strain to “hit” a handstand or “strike a pose.”  To want to start anywhere except where we are.  The danger in discounting your roots (in every sense) is that the shadows from your past will lie in wait for you while you think you are making progress.  When  you are at your most vulnerable is when the shadows come out and harass you.  Remember Janus – the Roman god of beginnings, gates, and transitions. He has two faces, one oriented to the past, one oriented to the future.  As you explore any new paths, remember where you come from, even as you seek out someplace new.