How to Have Your Own Practice During Yoga Class

How to Have Your Own Practice During Yoga Class

If you’re engaged in a (somewhat) daily sadhana, or practice of yoga, there are generally two ways to get that fix. One is to explore the limitless and often daunting territory of your home practice, the other is to find your way to a local yoga class. While the former ensures that you’ll be able to do all the yoga you want, just the way you want, for as long as you’d like, sometimes it can be very nice to leave the creative sequencing up to a professional: someone who spends their time assessing the finer subtleties of various asana, mantra, and other yogic practices and works to cultivate a space in which they can share these with you.

Join Brittany’s Celebration Super Session at Savannah Yoga Center on December 28th from 6:00pm to 7:30pm

While yoga should at times be practiced alone, there are endless and profound benefits to coming to class. Being a part of the satsang, or community of yogis, can have uplifting benefits as you find yourself surrounded by people who are seeking similar goals of joy and contentment. Having a trained teacher who can give you personalized feedback, hands-on assists, and insight into your practice is invaluable. In fact, it is the common thread amongst nearly every great yogi recorded in history: they had a guru, someone to help them decipher the light through the darkness. From their teacher they learned a practice, however the story usually starts when they begin to make the practice their own, take responsibility for it, cultivate it, and ultimately become responsible for and cultivate themselves.

For someone who has a consistent and earnest practice, opportunities for growth and transformation are limitless. It is often in the classroom where one’s dedication to yoga and its practice begins. But for even the most blissful and dedicated student, there seem to be these days where your teachers have made a class soley around every single asana you can’t stand! Whether you’re tired and don’t feel up for lengthy inversions, or you’re full and ill at the thought of peacock pose, or your wrist is killing you from writing endless exams and now endless variations of bakasana is the last thing on your mind. So, in these places, you’re once again faced with two options: Grit through it, or make it your own practice. If you don’t want to practice headstand because you don’t enjoy inversions, today might be the day to kick your feet up for a few breaths anyway. Practicing poses you don’t positively, absolutely love is like eating the brussell sprouts of your practice. Yes, they’re bitter, but they’re so nutritious and good for you. Who knows, you may even learn to cook a little better with them and, a few drops of balsamic vinegar later, they’re one of your favorite treats.

Once the practice turns from discomfort to pain, however, then it’s time to grab hold of the reigns. Even the most qualified and gifted yoga teacher does not live inside your body. While they sequence to the best of their knowledge and ability, it doesn’t mean that every class, even ones taught by your favorite teachers, will be the practice for you in that moment. So now that you’ve decided to take total ownership of your practice, there is yet another crossroads: to modify or abstain completely. Modifying is finding a variation of the pose that suits you better, whether you need more or less. Keeping your hands anchored on the earth in boat pose and dropping a knee in your lunge. Taking the bind in extended side angle and maybe sneaking in a bird of paradise. Choosing to take pigeon’s pose supine instead of it’s more traditional, gravity-weight-bearing expression.

In this there is another benefit in going to class. Most teachers have a full tool belt of modifications, alternate poses, and tiny tips that can turn the volume up from 10 to 11. If you’re in a class and you come to a pose that is not quite enough or way too much, waving down your teacher to get some feedback on what to do is not only welcomed but encouraged. If it’s in the heat of the moment and a little difficult to gather your thoughts when you realize your heel is mysteriously near your ear, file it away and reach out to the instructor after class. Chances are they’ll be overjoyed about sharing any information and tricks they have. Modification can also come if a sequence begins to feel physically uncomfortable. For example, there is a popular sequence that many teachers and students enjoy, in which you inhale and open up to an open-hip three legged downward facing dog, then exhale into revolved triangle. Physically, it is a major action in the hips that can be clarifying and releasing for many in their practice. Additionally, it looks quite graceful and fits in nicely at the beginning and end of a class. Yet, the action of moving from an open-hip posture to a revolved hip is too much for me and always tends to come out feeling deeply discomforting in my pelvis and femur sockets. This is totally common. Even in my own classes there are poses and sequences that some of my regular students enjoy and others greatly dislike. In the case of my dancing dog, I usually modify by not completely opening my hip, keeping my down dog split more neutral for more comfort in the revolved hip pose. Modifications come in all shapes and sizes, with or without props, for more or less intensity. Even still, in some moments, that portion of a practice may not be for you, in which case, just don’t practice that pose!

It’s not failure or giving up to let go of attempting an asana or sequence; quite the opposite in fact. By listening to the messages being sent in your body, cultivating that awareness and knowing when to listen to your instinct to align yourself to a practice that answers your innermost call, and choosing your breath over frustration, disappointment, and injury, you’re allowing your practice to become your own every single time. A teacher of mine once recounted the experience of an advanced workshop he went to in the mountains of Italy. The guest teacher, of world renown, was highly anticipated by my teacher who had been during this time practicing entire days in a style of yoga that emphasized opening the body slowly and mindfully so that true and lasting potential could be realized. So, when the guest instructor called eka pada raja kapotasana as the first pose of the sequence, my teacher promptly went into child’s pose… and remained there for the entire two hour workshop. Rather than forcing his muscles against his own logic, he took charge of his practice and realized this was a wakeup call for rest. It is poignant to note, though, that rather than loosing himself in his own, entirely different, practice, he chose to remain restful and receptive so as to still be able to listen and experience the teachings. While it is considered rude and potentially hazardous to go off on a completely different yoga tangent during class, because then why seek instruction in the first place if you’re not willing to be a part of it, no truly empathetic teacher would be offended if you decided to sit out a sequence or two. Fortunately for you, they will understand that the practice is much more than just physical asana, and practicing aparigraha, or non-grasping, and satya, truthfulness, as well as ahimsa, non-harming, can have tremendous more benefits than tweaking your shoulder in another chaturanga.

With all this being said, sometimes taking charge of your practice means letting go. Get emotional, silly, feel free to let your personality shine. Even if the class is packed, just for this moment, it’s all about you. Acknowledge that difficult poses make you feel one way, poses that come easily make you feel another, and notice the fluctuations in your state of being, dive deep and practice, not perform, whenever you roll out your mat. Worried someone is looking at you? Consider where your dristi should be. Settle your gaze, and turn inwards. So, the day when your favorite teacher finally teaches a class with all your favorite poses you’ll be ready, not just to move, but to breathe and make that practice your own.

One of those days

Ever had one of those days?

Ever have one of those days? One of those days where you’re mopey, got a case of the grumps, a woe-is-me, tear water tea day, one of the Holly Golightly-coined mean reds? Lots of self-pity with a splash of fear? We all do, and they’re the quickest way to ruin a day, fall down the rabbit hole of self-absorption (“meeeeeeee”), and likely not do your relationships any favors either. (Hang on, the nun part’s coming.)

Yesterday I felt myself teetering dangerously close to shifting a perfectly good Saturday into a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day that even Alexander would be proud of. And then: a flash. A flash of the self-awareness that yoga has heightened for me, a reminder that I can shop my thoughts. And shopping, well, that I can do.

I started a mental list of action items to, as an old personal trainer used to say, get my mind right. Top of the list? Help someone else. Wade my way out of whine and wallowing and into support of someone who needed it even more than me. Did I mention this “someone else” was a Scotch-drinking Catholic nun? Stay with me here.

To be fair, this is not your ordinary nun. A dear family friend, she has faith as strong as steel. She also lives in the real world and can hang with the best of us sinners without judgment and with a wicked sense of humor. She laughs, she drinks, she swears, she gets it: real life.

She’s also unfortunately been getting treatment for cancer this year. I know. I was crushed. You’d never know from her high spirits and work ethic that she’s a little more tired than usual, low on appetite and achy and sore sometimes. She’s one of those who looks illness in the eye and dares it to fight. A true font of wisdom and warmth, I knew she could use a helping hand, and that I could use a heart-to-heart. So I sent her a text, offered to bring some snacks and wine over (she was good on the Scotch stash), and headed her way. Together we’d turn whine into, well, wine.

Having recently moved, she had plenty of boxes for me to work on and small projects around the house, but not before we had a chat. And a glass of wine. And talked a little more. And poured another. Three hours went by. Bottoms up. Finally her phone rang and I was able to put sheets on her bed, hang up some pictures and set up her desk while she chatted all things Church and where to go for pizza with the Monsignor (Screaming Mimi’s if you must know) by phone. I got a little labor in and we both got a lot of love. A soul infusion, I call it.

The effects of my visit were wonderful for both of us: empty boxes, full hearts, the renewal that comes with a visit with a good friend. The perspective we both derived from sharing our struggles with another. Just like that, my mind chatter and negative self-talk had been ousted by positivity, hope and happiness. Her conversation changed from diagnoses and treatment plans to decorating the new house and dining. Yoga enabled me to see it coming — that looming black cloud o’ counteractive self-talk — and when I did, I lifted myself right on out and brought someone else up with me.

As I write, I wonder if feeling better is an entirely selfish motivation; if remembering the adage “it could always be worse” is enough to change a mindset. My conclusion is this: does it matter who took whose hand first, if the outcome is that we’re holding hands and feeling lighter of heart and stronger in spirit? I don’t think so.

Have you taken someone’s hand to help them heal, only to find yourself healing too? I’d love to hear from you. Or you can just join us next time for (another) bottle of whine wine.

About the Author

Elizabeth RowanElizabeth has lived, practiced and studied yoga in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Completing a Master’s degree in art history at Sotheby’s London, Elizabeth most recently worked as a founding member of a leading U.S. arts organization’s Hong Kong branch. Juggling yoga pants and PR, kombucha and conference calls, pranayama and passport control, Elizabeth turned to yoga for stress management and work-life balance, and found a calling in teaching and sharing her practice with others. Elizabeth firmly believes that even a little bit of yoga infused into the least zen of lifestyles can do a lot of good.
Trained in Hong Kong by the Andiappan family of Chennai, India, Elizabeth is also a certified prenatal and children’s yoga instructor. Elizabeth currently teaches both private and group vinyasa, prenatal and children’s yoga, leads yoga retreats around the world, and writes for the Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen and The Burn.

After spending the last several years working, practicing and teaching yoga throughout Asia, Elizabeth currently lives in Savannah, Georgia—and continues to search for the Sanskrit equivalent of “y’all.”

Connect with Elizabeth on TwitterFacebook or her website

Part III: Pseudo-Philosophical Rant

Part III: Pseudo-Philosophical Rant

I have a dumb idea about yoga that I made up all by myself and would like to share with you. See I think our bodies are instruments—like something between a hammer and a guitar—and these instruments, these tools, have both practical and playful applications that we can integrate through effort, allowing our bodies to become art and an eloquent means for getting things done simultaneously. And in doing that we have a chance of communicating with what is oldest and best in us, in all of us. I think that’s what movement is, and I’m not sure it matters what type of movement a person selects for this communion, but I like yoga. I use to like running, now yoga. The irony isn’t lost on me, that now, a year later, completely healed and able to run painlessly as much as I could ever want, I just don’t want to. Yoga changed me, inside and out. Maybe for you it’s different but that’s been my experience here at the SYC.

I’d like to take just another moment to say that there are at least 2 dozen beautiful women and more than a few men (who I will not call beautiful, for we must remain men together in this yogic life) who went out of their way to help, guide and encourage me over the past year—you know who you are, and deserve better thanks than this simple nod at the end of a tiresomely long blog … but thank you anyway! This is what happened to me, the pivotal event of my 35th year on this planet, in this body. My newborn yoga life. Below you’ll likely find a comment section, and if you either relate to or wildly disagree with any of the above I’d love to hear what you have to say. Thank you so much, patient reader, for putting up with my rampant self indulgence, and I look forward to sharing a little space with you on the mat.


Part II: Intimidation vs. Invigoration

Part I: Welcome

Part II: Intimidation vs. Invigoration

Part II: Intimidation vs. Invigoration

Child's Pose | Balasana

And so it was, June first of last year, I put my money down and got to it. My first class at the SYC was Gentle Flow with Kate Marvel-Lewis, a selection I made based off pure ignorance. I had no context for comparing one class to the next, but knew quickly that the word ‘gentle’ did not intimidate me half so much as say ‘Dynamic,’ ‘Ashtanga,’ or even ‘Lotus’. Turns out it was a wise selection, and the class was true to its name. Kate led us with great detail and confidence through a measured sequence that—even though I had never, not once in my entire life, willfully put myself into the vast majority of these postures—I found easy enough to follow. My fellow students seemed to vary greatly in proficiency, though, I’ll testify now without any self-deprecating tactics, that I was easily and very obviously the weakest. I want to be clear about this because I think it’s important: everything I did hurt! EVERYTHING! Nothing did not hurt. Kate instructed us numerous times throughout to pull back at any sign of serious discomfort, even stating clearly at one point, “This should not hurt”… but I couldn’t obey. I had never moved in anyway like that before and felt compelled to seek out these new pangs. Child’s Pose hurt—I’m not exaggerating! Child’s pose: the rest posture for when other postures prove too challenging, hurt me! No further evidence was required on my part, though superficially I appeared to be in at least serviceable condition, beneath the surface I was just shy of totally disabled. Compared to me, Robocop moved like a dancer! So the jury was done with it—open and shut—I needed yoga.

Charlie Bucket’s grandparents

Charlie Bucket’s grandparents

Over the next several weeks I hit a class almost everyday: Vinyasa Flow classes with the aforementioned Betsy Powers, Restorative with Bryan Thomas, Yin with Kate, even found my way into a Dynamic Flow class with Kat Jones. And I’ve never had a bad class, not one in a full year now of regular attendance. I was shocked by how quickly my body seemed to take to the practice, and though I was very much jealous and intimidated by the beautiful people who seemed to move about me with such grace and ease in their sequences; I was alternately encouraged by their loving kindness towards me—their unconditional acceptance of this fledgling man-child with the mobility of Charlie Bucket’s grandparents. I’ll further confess that I often cried about this in my leisure time—the physical practice aside, I was woefully unprepared for the free exchange of warmth and gratitude that often followed a hard practice. So I’d leave to pace up and down Bull St. and chain-smoke while inconspicuously sobbing. I did this, for real, a grown ass man—maybe sometimes (maybe!) I even still do.

But my real epiphany came one Tuesday evening in late July or early August, my first Ashtanga class. I remember it clearly, Betsy and Kelley Boyd—the center’s matriarch—were readying themselves beside me; their preparatory war faces and perfectly straight backs signaling that I’d be fighting well above my weight class. I had no idea what ‘Ashtanga’ was or meant, only that it sounded vaguely like a Klingon word and would therefore almost certainly require something nameless and extreme that I was in no way capable of mustering. About two weeks earlier I made a similar but opposite judgement call on Kelley’s Lotus Flow class, thinking flowers aren’t scary, therefore Lotus Flow shouldn’t be either—you can probably guess how that worked out for me… it was fun, but no sensible person would ever use the word easy in describing it. So with that counter intuitive experience under my belt I talked myself into Ashtanga. I thought, I’m going about this whole thing backwards, maybe Ashtanga is sanskrit for Happy Good Time Yoga? Probably it is!!! Anyway, you couldn’t’ve been more wrong about that whole Lotus blossom thing… just go, coward! And that’s how I talk to myself, a lot of bullying. I’m sure it isn’t very healthy.

Lisa Seago teaches Ashtanga (Led Primary) at the SYC every Tuesday, and I would love to go into great finger-pointing detail about the borderline criminal contortions she put me through that night; but this is already getting long—perhaps another blog, another night. Suffice to say: it was easily the most challenging hour and a half of athletic activity that I had ever endured (but please also keep in mind I was still a complete beginner), and also one of the most quietly life changing events of my life. It was the singular moment that I ceased being intimidated by this yoga culture I had stumbled into, and became invigorated by it. My silly judgements and groundless anxieties fell away, as if by magic; somewhere between Janu Sirsasana A and Marichyasana D that old hard shell of self doubt was stripped from me. The two months of awkwardness and fear of never fitting in, that I carried into that pastel-blue room like a cross, just fell off of me; and now, so heavy and useless, I couldn’t pick it up again if i tried. I experienced… well… openness, true openness… maybe for the first time in my adult life. And as much as part of me hated Ashtanga that first time—and I did hate it! A real, earnest, from the marrow kind of hate—I knew that I needed it. A terrible knot inside of me was coming loose, and I wanted to see what my chest would feel like without that deep suture, so I returned to find out, and am still returning.

Part III: Pseudo-Philosophical Rant

Part I: Welcome

Part I: Welcome

Part I: Intimidation vs. Invigoration

Joseph BaslerHello, and welcome to the inaugural blog post for the Savannah Yoga Center! I, Joseph Basler, devoted check-in clerk and stumble bum yoga student, will be your guest writer—charged with general introductions and miscellaneous musings in the hope of garnering a thoughtful and energetic dialog between us here at Team SYC and our never sufficiently praised yoga community at large. A task I am more than a little honored to undertake—and, somewhat shocked at its serendipitous timing—for it was just a hair under a year ago+ today that I started my journey down the yogic path right here at SYC. Which brings me neatly to my topic of choice: seeing as I’m little more than an infant in my practice and utterly lacking the requisite credentials and experience (to say nothing of confidence) to hazard any sort of serious discussion on yoga’s finer points, I thought instead I’d write a little bit about what I’d gotten into this past year, and what this place has come to mean to me throughout that transformation. After all, “I” am a topic I can write on with virtually unlimited authority!

So to begin, it was last May and I was working in the kitchen at the Sentient Bean when I happened across a flyer outside the bathroom. It read: Summer Special: 3 months unlimited yoga $199 (The very same special we’re currently offering this year [shameless plug]). And I looked at it in quiet, almost embarrassed contemplation for some time. See, back then I was a dogeared, lifelong runner and devoted gym rat who’d sampled every trendy training program to find the high gloss of the fitness magazine covers over—oh, I don’t know—the last 20 years or so; but at 35, the last two decades of charging headlong into many a dubious athletic conditioning program had left me feeling more than a little rough around the edges (and by edges I mean joints, like, pretty much everywhere my body bent). So there I was, blocking the entrance to a very busy bathroom in a very busy restaurant, contemplating yoga. Geeeezus, Yoga!

Yoga was for ladies with beads in their hair, raggedy-ass, tie-dyed pirate shirts and provocative skin-tight slacks. I was decidedly not of that ilk. At the time I looked more like Shrek than say, Barbara Eden a la “I dream of Jeannie”, and an ogre can’t just walk off the street into a clique like that, it just shouldn’t be done. Yet there I stood, still thinking, thinking. While I knew next to nothing about yoga proper, I was aware of some of its bolder recuperative claims, and being desperate to get my body functioning again, as well as by chance having near 200 dollars in extra folding money… Well, life is full of tough choices. One thing I knew for certain: pridefulness and my all-around unkind attitude toward neo-hippies would in no way heal my ceaselessly complaining ankles, hips and shoulders… but yoga might. Hell, if I believed the hype, yoga was nothing short of a miracle cure for any ill one might take the time to name. Me? I just wanted to run again without pain. Whatever other stuff was on the table I’d be happy to sample too, but give me a moderately fast 5k without pride-obliterating foot pain and I’d consider the time and money well spent.

So I got to asking questions. I asked Katie Freshman and Betsy Powers, two yoga teachers at the SYC who I knew a little bit from around town, their thoughts on my joining up and what I could expect; and they answered all my noob questions with great enthusiasm and encouragement. As we spoke, I carefully searched their faces for subtle, sly hints of deceit and mockery at my new unlikely interest, and found none; but I’d been lied to by beautiful young women before, and knew enough to remain cautious. So after much hemming and hawing, many intrepid interviews and some less-than rigorous research (thanks Google), I decided to put my prejudice aside and give yoga a shot. Check out PART II: Intimidation vs. Invigoration…