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.
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.