Twelve essential tips for learning yoga at home
Learning yoga at any time can feel daunting, and especially if you are learning at home. These 12 tips will help you to prepare so that you can feel confident to start practicing yoga at home.
1. Breathe Easy and Naturally
"One often sees students holding their breath while performing a difficult pose. This is counter-productive and fundamentally wrong because it blocks the lovely movement, while the expansion of the lungs in connection with the spine is in action." - Vanda Scaravelli, Awakening The Spine
Get your breathing right and everything else will fall into place. As pioneering yogini Vanda Scaravelli points out in her book "Awakening The Spine", yoga students often hold their breath yet the vital 'prana' (the life force energy that supports, energizes, and heals your body) is carried on the breath. For your yoga to be effective you need your breath!
So how should you breathe? In an article for "Women's Health" magazine, Andrew Taber gives this simple yet wise advice for all beginners (not just women):
"A quick lesson on breathing: Inhale and exhale through your nose during the entire workout, keeping a smooth, controlled rhythm. Your breaths should last slightly longer than each component of a yoga pose."
Tip: breathe as easily and naturally as possible. Don't worry if you can't do long breaths at first. Inhale and exhale as you need to, and your breath will naturally deepen as your practice grows.
2. Prepare Thoroughly
To ensure your practice goes smoothly and safely, prepare by informing yourself about what is involved, what challenges you can expect, and how you may overcome them.
This clear and simple article on WikiHow covers the basic steps of how to "Do Yoga At Home" very thoroughly. Don't be deceived by it's simplicity, it is written by numerous well-qualified contributors and is actually an excellent foundation for anyone considering practicing yoga at home. Keep it handy as you start practicing!
They suggest you prepare by:
- visiting a class
- watching beginner videos
- doing online research
- being aware of challenges
- setting goals for your practice
- gathering the equipment you'll need
- planning how often you want to practice
- making time for yourself
- choosing a comfortable space to practice, and
- 'sequencing' - choosing and putting together your planned sequence of poses
Tip: Be organized as you gather your information. You'll realize there is a lot 'out there' so have some way to either make notes or bookmark your favorites, because you'll want to refer to them often, especially at the beginning. In particular you'll want to watch favorite YouTube videos over and over until you know the pose well, so make sure you save them somewhere!
3. Sequencing (choosing your sequence of poses)
I didn't know anything about sequencing when I first started and chances are as a beginner you probably won't either. This is where it really helps to follow a prescribed sequence in a beginner video.
A good yoga sequence usually begins with warm ups: sun salutations for example, followed by a combination of forward bends, backbends, 'inversions' (some version of being upside down - like a head or shoulder stand, or downward facing dog), and twists (not necessarily in that order). Not to forget the all-important savasana (corpse pose).
Savasana is extremely important because yoga is actually not so much a system of stretching as it is a system of stretching, constricting and then relaxing. It is in the relaxation that your circulation returns to normal and your blood flows back into parts of your body that you'd long forgotten about. It is in Savasana that healing happens.
Tip: Don't skip Savasana.
4. Watch Beginner Videos
Never before has so much great information been so freely available. Thank you to the kind and generous yoga teachers who share their wisdom and knowledge with us through platforms such as YouTube. One thing I've noticed about advanced yoga practitioners though, is that they sometimes forget what it feels like to be an absolute beginner. Some 'beginners' videos are actually quite advanced and don't take into account people whose levels of fitness are very poor to begin with.
In contrast Adriene Mishler's "Yoga For Complete Beginners - 20 Minute Home Yoga Workout" has received over 4.5 million hits on YouTube, and it's no surprise why. It is a very gentle and relatively easy sequence and, with Adriene's clear and simple instruction, beginners at most fitness levels should be able to follow along with no problem. If you are of average fitness and have never tried yoga before, this could be a great starting point for you.
Watch Adriene's 20 minute Home Yoga Workout for beginners:
If you find that your movement is too limited for Adriene's video, or you can't get down to the floor for whatever reason, you might consider a gentle chair yoga.
Sherry Zak Morris leads a weekly chair yoga class for seniors, which is also suitable for people who have arthritis, obesity or other limiting medical conditions. Her YouTube video "Actively Aging with Energizing Chair Yoga" is 33 minutes long and should suit most fitness levels.
Watch a full Chair Yoga workout with Sherry Zak Morris:
A word of caution about YouTube videos for learning: anyone can post a YouTube video. So it pays to do a little background checking before following a routine to make sure you are practicing a genuine form of yoga, and practicing in the correct way so you don't injure yourself.
You can also check that the teacher is a qualified yoga teacher (for example, for each of the above videos you can go to the teachers website, see what other classes they offer and which yoga studios they are affiliated with).
In addition to YouTube you can find various online video tutorials from qualified teachers. Here are some examples:
Yoga tutorials at DoYogaWithMe.com
Yoga classes at Udemy.com
Yoga classes at GaiamTV
Tip: Watch the videos on your TV, or have your tablet, smartphone or computer within reach so you can pause often, especially at first! You may want to pause, rewind and repeat over and over so you can really get clear on the instruction.
5. Include Poses That Cultivate Strength and Flexibility
In the beginning your biggest challenges will be a lack of strength to be able to hold poses for any amount of time, and a lack of flexibility to bend and/or stretch into a pose. All of this comes with time and patience, but you can speed things up a little by focusing specifically on poses that will build your strength and flexibility in the beginning.
The editors at FITNESS magazine propose the following twelve poses for building strength and flexibility:
- mountain pose
- downward facing dog
- warrior II
- tree pose
- bridge pose
- triangle pose
- seated twist
- pigeon pose
- crow pose
- child's pose
Read the full article and see pictures at http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/workout/yoga/poses/beginner-yoga-poses/?page=1
Most yoga routines that have been designed for beginners by a qualified teacher will include some of these poses.
6. Create Space
Choose a clean, clear, quiet, comfortable space for your yoga practice where you have room to stretch in all directions (when both standing and lying down), and where there are few (or preferably no) distractions.
If possible use the same space every day, whether you have a designated yoga room in your home, or just a room that you can use on a regular basis. The reason for this is because the space you practice in begins to be 'conditioned' by your intentions, and you'll find it easier with time to settle into your quiet space inside, and your yoga practice.
If you do have room to create your own designated yoga space there is lots of help online to get you started. Here are just a couple of great articles to give you some ideas:
A Room of One's OM: Creating Space For Your Practice by Sherise Dorf at Yoga Journal
Creating a Low-Budget Home Yoga Studio by Steve Graham at Care2.com
In addition to your physical space, you'll want to create space in your day if your yoga practice is going to actually happen. It's different for everyone but sometimes early morning can be a good time to give you an infusion of joy and energy to propel you through your day. Others prefer an early evening workout (before dinner) to refresh and rejuvenate you, after a busy work day. Once again keeping to the same time every day can support you in settling into the practice. Your mind will soon learn that this is 'quiet time' and you'll find it easier to remain quiet inside than at other times of the day.
With practice you'll discover which time works best for you, but it is important that you clear the space in your schedule and make time for you, if a regular yoga practice is going to get off your 'wish list' and become a living reality.
7. Choose Your Equipment
If the room you practice in has a thick carpet, that may be all you need, but bear in mind that over time (with sweating) your carpet can begin to smell (yuk)! So although you don't always need one to begin with, you might decide to invest in a quality yoga mat. A good yoga mat should ideally be non-slip, and if you have any problems with your knees you might find an extra thick mat to be a blessed relief (just sharing a little personal experience here)!
Yoga Mat and Towel
For a long time I practiced on a thick rug that I just rolled out of the way during the day, which was fine for a while but when I started doing Bikram Yoga the profuse sweating prompted me to invest in a non-slip yoga mat by Fitness We Trust and a Susama yoga towel. I purchased the 6mm mat with thick 'memory' foam, which my knees love although making footprints in the mat has now become one of my favorite practice distractions!
To support you in some poses you may want to use props like blocks, or a yoga belt. You need to be cautious in their use - props are meant as a gentle support and should never be used to 'force' your body into a position before it is ready. Your training video or teacher will tell you how best to use these. The only prop I use is a Dragonfly yoga belt to help flex my leg in preparation for standing bow pulling pose. There is a lot of support out there, and it is easier than ever to connect with people. If you are unsure how to use a particular prop don't hesitate to send an email to a yoga instructor, or connect through social media, and ask for clarification.
Tip: Wash your yoga mat in warm soapy water before use. Sometimes your non-slip mat will feel slippy when new. After a wash to remove any manufacturing and/or shipping residue it will feel truly non-slip.
8. Get Into a Routine.
Once something becomes part of your routine it becomes easy, like brushing your teeth. Whether you practice once a week, several times a week or every day, making your yoga practice part of your regular routine will make it much easier for you to keep going.
Tip: Don't think - just do it (hmm... where have I heard that before).
9. Practice Regularly
The benefits of yoga are cumulative which means you'll see the most progress and reap the greatest rewards if you practice consistently. Whether that be weekly or daily, it is consistency that builds momentum and gets results.
10. Prevent Injury by Listening to Your Body
Warm Up First
There are some practical things you can do to prevent injury, namely always practice in a warm room and (just like any exercise) always warm up first. This ensures your muscles are warm, relaxed, and more flexible. Always practice on an empty stomach and never have a heavy meal just before your yoga practice (opinions vary between allowing 1-3 hours after eating before yoga).
Understand What You Are Doing... and Why
Make sure that you have studied and understood the requirements of each pose by attending a class, reading books and watching beginner videos. It is much easier to pay attention and monitor yourself if you know what you are supposed to be doing, and what the purpose of each pose is. After watching a pose tutorial video (and before you begin a routine), make sure you watch any supporting videos and read books that tell you exactly what each pose in your routine is supposed to achieve, and how you should be doing it, based on your level of fitness.
What sets yoga aside apart from exercise, is that real yoga is the art of listening to yourself. It is not about 'doing' poses, but more about listening to your body and mind. Aside from the practical considerations above, your best insurance against injury (and your only guarantee) is... you. Or to be more accurate, your awareness. If your mind wanders that is when you are most likely to injure yourself, by not paying attention. You must stay alert, aware and attentive to your body's needs at all times throughout your practice.
Don't Push Yourself
"Don't push it don't force it, let it happen naturally. It will surely happen if it is meant to be!" - Leon Haywood
You are the expert on you and your body. Never push yourself. No matter how experienced a yoga teacher is, no matter if they have a lifetime of experience, they do not know your body better than you. Someone who learned yoga at age 4 and has stayed above average fitness their whole life, is never going to know what it feels like to be a beginner aged 40 plus, with weak muscles weighing over 300 pounds. Never be pushed into going farther than you feel comfortable.
You are your own best judge. You, and only you, can call the shots as to how deep you can go into a pose, how long to hold a pose, and how long to rest in between poses. Why? Because only you know how you feel.
Be Discerning: Is This Normal Stretching or Injury Pain?
Cultivating greater degrees of sensitivity, awareness and discernment is something that happens over time in your yoga practice. You will get better at listening to your body the more you practice. This can be one of the greatest benefits of practicing yoga at home. Because you don't have the distractions of a yoga class, it is easier to pay attention to you and notice subtle variations in how you feel.
With time you will develop the very important skill of discernment: knowing the difference between the normal degree of discomfort that can come with a 'good stretch', and knowing when to pull back because your body is hurting in a way that indicates an injury could be imminent. This is a skill that only comes with time, experience, and attentiveness. If in doubt always err on the side of caution.
Take as long as you need going into a pose. Keep paying attention. Notice how you feel and slowly, slowly, come out of a pose. Don't 'collapse', 'fall', or jump out of a pose too quickly or you could easily pop a muscle or ligament. It is important to take your time and remain fully focused throughout each stage of a pose, and throughout your whole sequence.
Be At Peace
Real yoga works with your body - not against it. Your body is not your enemy. Yoga is a path of gentleness and beauty, not violence. Look to some of the older yogi's and yogini's as role models to aspire to. Look at their gentleness and beauty. That arises from within. It can't be imposed from the outside.
Watch this 2-minute video about Tao Porchon-Lynch who has been named Guinness World Records' oldest yoga teacher:
Progress comes with time, gentleness, and patience. As a beginner it can be tough watching more experienced yogis twist like a pretzel when you can hardly raise your arms in the air, but all results happen in good time. It is worth waiting for. Patience is your best friend in yoga.
Tip: check in on yourself regularly to make sure you are fully present and aware. If your mind is wandering bring your attention back to your breath.
11. Get a Yoga Buddy.
One of the upsides about practicing yoga at home is that you can be alone. You can enjoy solitude and your busy, everyday, monkey-mind can settle into silence faster. One of the downsides about practicing at home is that you can miss out on making friends, and a sense of community and shared purpose.
In a physical yoga studio you would meet other people at your own level. Hang out. Share experiences and pass on tips.
At home this can be missing but there are ways that you can re-create this for yourself by:
- joining an online community
- going to a local class once or twice a month just to check in and stay in touch
- partnering with a friend who also practices yoga at home so you can be yoga buddies and share experiences
- join our online home yoga studio and connect with a community of people practicing yoga at home
Having this kind of support for yourself, where you can learn from others, share experiences and get tips can be a lifeline for your practice.
12. Love Yoga - Love Yourself
The bottom line is that if you really want to have a successful home yoga practice (and by 'successful' I mean that you continue to practice for the rest of your life, as a lifestyle) then it has to be an enjoyable experience! The more you make this enjoyable and beneficial the more you will want to continue.
At first you will be focused on thinking a lot as you learn poses, and check if you are doing them correctly. This means your mind will be busy. You will also definitely feel the workout in your body, if you haven't developed your core strength yet. So you may feel tired too.
Once through this initial stage, as you are more confident in the postures, your mind and body will begin to relax. This is when you can allow your awareness to focus on the energy flowing through your body. Most exercise uses up your energy. When done correctly, yoga actually gives you more energy. As your practice develops your energy channels open, and you can feel more energy flowing into your body as you practice.
The more you keep your attention on this energy, the more it flows and grows. You may often feel more energy at the end of a yoga session than you had at the beginning. You may even notice how much your body loves how this energy feels.
Practicing home yoga is an act of love. Pretty soon your body will look forward to it's daily dose of loving care and attention, from you. When you imbue your practice with the energy of love, you reduce the risk of injury, and increase the healing benefits of yoga.
That might seem a lot of information (and it is) but take it one step at a time and it will all come together.
Enjoy practicing yoga at home and above all, be kind to your body and mind!