Yoga at Home Supports the Deeper Intentions of Yoga
Yoga’s all over the place these days. On TV, in the movies, on the Internet. Studios abound in every city with an array of classes, from the more traditional to creative fusions. It’s become so common, it helped inspire a new fashion trend, athleti-leisure. Now we can wear yoga pants just about anywhere without raising a brow!
I’m all for this mass participation in, and appreciation for, yoga. I find the innovative fusion classes inspiring, fun, and a great way to bring more and more people to the yoga experience. But I can’t help thinking, with all this buzz, it might be easy to lose sight of the deeper intentions yoga was originally designed for.
In this article, I’d like to revisit those deeper intentions. And, explore how a personal yoga practice at home can support these goals. If you’ve been wanting to dive into yoga and take your practice to the next level, this guide can help you.
But, before we get into the specifics of developing your home practice, let’s acknowledge the undeniable benefits a yoga class can provide.
The Benefits of Yoga Class Instruction
Learning from a skilled yoga instructor is invaluable to your yoga practice. A good teacher can show you the fundamentals of the asanas, from proper form to little tweaks that can help you get the most from each pose. They can help prevent injury by assessing your unique limitations and offering modifications. They can teach you the benefits of each posture and sequence them effectively to reach specific goals. With their guidance, you can more safely progress from beginner to advanced poses. And, of course, they can inspire you with their insights and encouragement.
A class offers something else you can’t get when doing yoga at home. That is, time spent with a community of other practitioners. And this is important. Not only do we learn from instructors, we learn from each other. We get encouragement and inspiration from each other as well. Plus, the air in a good yoga class has a sublime quality to it. It vibrates with the energy of everyone there. All focusing together on the movements, the breath, the moment.
And, let’s not forget how nice it is to have someone else orchestrating the session, calling-out the poses. You don’t have to think much about it. Doing yoga at home, you’re the one who has to create and remember the sequence.
So, to be clear, I’m not suggesting you give up your classes and do all your yoga at home. However, a home yoga practice has its own benefits. And, they’re important ones. Practicing yoga alone, at home, is particularly suited for deepening the meditative dimensions of your practice.
Why Practice Yoga at Home?
Let’s start with the practical reasons a home yoga practice can benefit you. It’s time-flexible. Meaning, you don’t have to be somewhere at a certain time to do it. Whenever there’s an opening in your schedule, you can give yourself the gift of yoga.
It also offers flexibility with regards to postures. You’re in the driver seat. If you’ve got parts of your body that need more attention than others, you can focus wherever you want. You can add more poses to work with that body part or spend more time in preferred postures. Or, maybe you need extra heart openers one day, more grounding another. You get to customize your practice to meet your specific needs. And in doing this, you support a growing self-awareness, an attentiveness to your own body-mind-spirit system.
The Deeper Introspection
Practicing yoga at home can facilitate the deeper introspection that is yoga’s ultimate goal. While the communal energy of a class is contagious and stimulating, the quiet solitude of a home practice supports your turning-inward in a powerful way. The focus is entirely on you and what’s happening in your own body-mind-spirit system.
Any inclination there might be to compete or compare yourself to others is removed. The only way to measure your expression of a pose is to sense it through your body. With that inward focus, you can feel the nuances of every part of your body engaged in each posture.
As you progress through your sequence, with little outer stimulation, your awareness naturally turns deeper and deeper within. This primes you for the meditative portion of your practice at the end.
The Last 5 Limbs of Yoga
The ultimate goal of yoga is to connect deeply with our higher self. (Atman, soul, spirit…however you prefer to call it.) It’s a process of refining our bodies and minds, so we can enter into a pure, meditative awareness. All the trappings that keep us from connecting to our higher self must fall away before we can enter this state.
The 8 limbs of yoga offer steps we can take to progressively remove these obstacles. Although asana is only one of these steps, classes often revolve mainly around the physical postures. And there’s good reason for this.
Yoga classes are time-confined. Because of this, the focus tends to be on asana instruction, where teachers can typically offer the most benefit. That’s because asanas happen outwardly. They can be observed, guided, and corrected more easily than the inward happenings of meditation.
A home yoga practice, on the other hand, offers the perfect opportunity to focus on the five limbs that come after asana.
We’ll look at how to incorporate these limbs into your home yoga practice in a bit. But first, let’s review how each one can guide you on your path toward yoga’s ultimate goal.
Yoga classes often include some form of pranayama (breath control) practice. Typically, this is either at the beginning or the end. In Ashtanga, it’s carried all the way through via Ujjayi breath. However, pranayama isn’t often tied to the practice of meditation in classes, or at least not to an extended meditation.
Breath control can be a very effective way to quiet the mind and prepare it for meditation. Deep, slow, steady breath stimulates the vagus nerve, which naturally quiets the mind. A focus on the breath, which is required to control it, also quiets the mind. By tying your mind’s attention to the act of counting or otherwise controlling your breath, you’re effectively tethering your mind. Kind of like lassoing a bucking bronco.
The postures you practice balance your body’s energy and prepare your body for extended, seated meditation. This takes care of the physical obstacle to meditation. A prolonged pranayama practice, at the close of your asana sequence, begins to remove the obstacle of your busy mind.
Pratyahara, or sensory withdrawal, is the next step. This involves turning your awareness more deeply inward. Gradually, you disconnect your senses from outward stimulation, so you can explore your inner terrain.
Because you’ve settled and prepared your body through asana, and you’ve quieted your mind with breath practices, you’re better able to tune-out external sensory stimulation. You’re drawing back from the outer, physical experience into the inner, mental & spiritual experience. While sensory events may occur around you, your attention isn’t easily snagged by them.
I like to think of pratyahara as wrapping myself up in a little cocoon. It removes the obstacle of distraction.
The Last 3 Limbs: Dharana, Dhyana, & Samadhi
These final three limbs of yoga are the whole point of the preceding five. All the others are intended to prepare us for this final stage. These three, combined, constitute meditation’s pure awareness. They flow from one into the other as concentration deepens, and the mind’s chatter dissipates.
Dharana is concentration. It’s a concerted effort to focus on a single point. That can be the breath, a mantra, or an object. During this phase, the mind may still chatter, resisting a singular point of focus. Regardless, we continually redirect it to the single point.
Dhyana is meditation, the stage when the mind settles into the singular focus. It’s a higher level of concentration than dharana. At this stage, all awareness is tied to the breath, the mantra, or the object.
Samadhi, the final stage, is considered to be enlightenment. It’s the point when the mental construct of the breath, the mantra, or the object as being breath, mantra, or object falls away. All that is left is pure awareness. In this way, the mind or ego (the part of us that naturally tends to label and form opinions about anything and everything) falls away. We become immersed instead in our higher self, our spiritual essence.
Developing a Home Yoga Practice
A home practice is well-suited for diving into the deeper, meditative intentions of your yoga practice. It’s better suited for developing the last limbs of the yoga system than most classes. But how do you go about establishing a home practice that can carry you through all the limbs?
If you haven’t already read some of the fundamental books on yoga, this might be a good place to start. Here are some suggestions:
- Light on Yoga by b.k.s. Iyengar
- Integral Yoga Hatha by Swami Satchidananda
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda
Reading is a form of yoga, specifically Jnana Yoga, which is the path of wisdom and knowledge. These books can offer insight and a more solid grounding in the yoga system. From its basic premises to the techniques and skills used to achieve its goals. This includes the first two limbs, Yama and Niyama, which cover more lifestyle-related guidance.
A Home Yoga Space
Creating a space in your home to practice yoga can be as simple or as extravagant as you want it to be. If you have a room to dedicate to it, great. Set it up in a way that supports your inward exploration. If not, that’s fine too. All you need is a space big enough to lay out your mat. You can keep your supplies in a closet or a box in the corner, pulling them out when you need them.
The key is finding somewhere in your home where you can access quiet, uninterrupted you-time. Ideally, choose a space that’s clear of clutter, which can subconsciously make your mind feel cluttered. You can make a sign to hang on the door if you need to, letting everyone know you’re in session. Leave your phone in another room or turn it off.
You’ll need your mat, of course. You may also want something to sit on while you meditate to lift your hips a little higher than your knees. That can be a meditation cushion or one or two folded blankets. Depending on your chosen focal point for meditation, you may also want a mala to mark your mantras or a candle or other object to gaze at.
Supporting Sensory Withdrawal
The question often comes up, should yoga be practiced with or without music? While I appreciate yoga with some good spiritually-inspired music, practicing in silence supports sensory withdrawal the best. Without the sounds of music, your awareness turns more easily inward. Not only do you feel the sensations of your breath, but you hear the sounds of your breath too. This helps you follow your breath with your attention.
By doing your asanas in silence, you’re preparing yourself for the focus on pratyahara that will come as you move into the meditative portion of your home yoga practice.
Creating an Asana Sequence
As mentioned previously, one of the benefits of doing yoga at home is you can design your posture sequence in whatever way feels most supportive of your needs. However, it’s a good idea to choose postures you’re already familiar with to make sure you know how to do them properly. You can ask your yoga instructor to help you develop a sequence that meets you where you’re at in your practice if you need guidance.
A few things to keep in mind when creating your sequence:
Begin with some gentle stretches to warm up your muscles.
Include seated, standing, and balance postures for a well-rounded session.
Incorporate all six movements of the spine: Flexion (forward folds), Extension (back bends), Lateral (side stretches right & left), Rotation (twists right & left)
Include inversions (any pose that places your head below your heart). Inversions help to clear your mind and make it more alert, which supports meditation. (Avoid inversions if you have unregulated high blood pressure, detached retina, or glaucoma.)
Most importantly, listen to your body. You can add or remove postures as needed, based on whatever’s happening in your body at the time of your practice.
It can be helpful to practice with one sequence of postures frequently. You get used to it and don’t have to devote much thought to remembering or deciding what posture comes next. This allows your awareness to focus on your breath, following it as you would in meditation.
I have two main flows I use as the go-to frameworks for my yoga sequences. Because I know them by heart, I can focus on my breath and the little nuances of what’s happening in my body rather than thinking about what comes next. I add-in postures here and there to change it up or address specific needs.
Once you’ve spent some time relaxing and absorbing all the benefits of your practice in savasana, it’s time to focus on the last five limbs of yoga. Move into a seated position on your mat or your meditation cushion. You can sit in lotus or easy pose. It’s up to you.
Start with a breathing practice. There are a number of pranayama techniques to choose from, some of which are more advanced than others. The following options are effective and easy for just about anyone to work with:
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Place your pointer and middle fingers on your forehead, between your eyebrows. Use your thumb to close your right nostril and breathe in through your left nostril. Release your thumb. Use your ring finger to close your left nostril and breathe out through your right nostril. Breathe in through your right nostril, and then use your thumb again to close your right nostril. Release your left nostril and breathe out through it.
That completes one full cycle. In through the left, out through the right. In through the right, out through the left.
This breath practice calms your mind while also clearing it. It creates balance between the left and right hemispheres of your brain and rejuvenates your nervous system. All of this supports you in entering into a meditative state. But keep in mind, this pranayama can be used anytime to calm you down and reduce stress or anxiety too.
Ideally, you want to complete 15-20 cycles.
3-Part Deep Breathing
With this technique, you’re focusing on breathing deeply, expanding and contracting your breath completely. As you inhale, envision yourself expanding the breath into your abdomen, your rib cage, and then your upper chest. As you exhale, envision the opposite, emptying your upper chest, your rib cage, and then your abdomen. Engage your abdomen at the end to completely empty your lungs of your breath.
This deep breathing technique flushes your system with oxygen. And, because it slows down your breathing process, it also calms your body and your mind.
There are various counts that can be recommended for pranayama practices. The counts measure the lengths of your inhale and exhale. The intention is to support full breathing and to slow down the breath, which in turn calms the mind. As you develop in your practice, pauses after the inhale and exhale are added, giving you the opportunity to sit in the still spaces between breaths. These pauses support further quieting of your mind.
A simple way to start working with breath counting is to focus on breathing in and out to the same count. For example, breathing in to the count of eight and breathing out to the count of eight. Once you feel comfortable with that, you can add a little pause after your inhale. In addition to slowing down your breath, counting helps your mind stay focused on your breath.
Withdrawing the Senses
The process of withdrawing your senses has been supported throughout your asana sequence and on into your pranayama practice. As you begin to transition into your meditation practice, you’ll continue to withdraw your senses by holding awareness of your breath’s movement in and out. Fold awareness deeper and deeper inward, so that what’s happening within you becomes the whole focus of your attention. What’s happening around you fades into the background.
Your Meditation Practice
At this point, you have prepared yourself for meditation. Your body is balanced and capable of sitting for an extended period of time. Your mind is quiet and yet still alert. You’ve established an inward focus. It’s time to enter concentration on your chosen object. That can be your breath. It can be a mantra you repeat inwardly to yourself. Or, it can be an actual object.
If you’re focusing on your breath, notice its subtle sensations in your nostrils. Also, listen to its soft sounds. If you’re working with a mantra, you might start by synching the repetition of your mantra with the rhythm of your breath. Eventually, the repetition will take on its own rhythm. If you’re working with an object, be sure to choose a neutral object. Something that won’t likely stir up emotions within you. Keep a soft gaze on the object, simply observing its nature.
Whichever focus you choose to work with, keep in mind its only purpose is to help you tether your mind and enter into a deeper state of concentration. Your mind may try to form opinions, draw correlations, or tell you stories about your breath, your mantra, or your object. When you notice your mind engaging in this sort of activity, draw it back to the task at hand. That is, noticing your breath, repeating your mantra, or observing your object. Nothing else.
Keep this concentration steady, and over time, you will find your meditation deepening. Becoming steadier and more consistent. You’ll pass from dharana to dhyana to samadhi as your mind’s ability to concentrate grows.
One last note. For those of you who find it extra difficult to meditate due to a very active mind, working with a mantra can be especially effective. Giving your mind something to do, which is repeating the mantra, can greatly aid you in your efforts to train it to be still. It’s doing something, which keeps it happy. But it’s doing the same thing over and over, which prevents it from wandering all over the place, the opposite of concentration.
How Long to Meditate
Meditation is a very personal thing. That’s what makes it challenging to teach. It’s all happening within you. No one outside of you knows what’s really happening for you while you meditate. Other than what you may describe to them, and even that’s limited by words.
How long you meditate depends on you: How much time do you have to devote to the practice? What amount of time can your body tolerate the sitting? Also, how long does it take for you to pass through the stages of concentration? This will certainly vary from person to person.
It’s important to remember meditation is a process. Training our minds to resist distractions, both internal and external, so we can enter into a pure awareness happens over time and with repeated effort. It’s highly unlikely you will reach samadhi early-on in your practice. And it’s also not likely you’ll reach it every time you try, even after you’ve experienced it before. But that doesn’t matter. Every effort made contributes to the overall process of refinement.
Expectations Can Be an Obstacle
There was a period in my life when I used a basic mantra to aid me in getting past blocks I was having in my meditation practice. The mantra was, No expectation, no fear. I realized the expectation that came from seeking a particular meditation experience was hindering me. The fear of letting go to the emptiness that comes once all mental construct is removed was also getting in the way. This mantra ended up being a very effective technique for me.
But the point is, holding onto expectations about what our meditation practice is supposed to be can keep us from experiencing what it is in that moment. Our expectation becomes just another obstacle we have to let go of.
A personal, at-home yoga practice might just be the piece of the puzzle you’ve been missing. The one that can reveal the full spectrum of gifts yoga has to offer you. It’s the journey of inner exploration and deep meditation that removes the obstacles blocking our connection to our higher self. And ultimately, that’s a journey we each must take on our own.
I hope this guide supports you in some way on your journey. May your practice bring you clarity, joy, and enlightenment!
For a quick, pick-me-up guided meditation to supplement your practice, check out my Smiling Meditation.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.