Bring It Back Home
One of the most rewarding steps we can make in advancing our yoga practice is to establish a self-directed practice at home. I've done plenty of yoga DVDs (thank you, Jillian Michaels) and streamed countless classes from popular yoga sites, but it wasn't until I began my RYT-200 training a few years ago that I felt armed with enough knowledge to properly structure a full 1-hour+ practice.
Some people don't realize the amount of thought that actually goes into a class. It's not just a bunch of asanas thrown together (unless you have a horribly uninformed and/or uninterested teacher), but poses that are thoughtfully linked to create a beautiful dance of sorts. While it's not recommended that you lead a class of students without any prior training, there are a few ways you can build confidence in cultivating your own home practice.
1. Know Your Structure
Once we have an understanding of the basic structure of a class, we will feel more comfortable with the placement of the poses we select. If you're practicing outside the heat of a traditional studio, it's very important that you first warm the body through movement before any sort of stretching to avoid injury. Begin with fluid movements, using a 1-to-1 breath-to-movement ratio to warm up the body. Once the body is sufficiently warmed (roughly 1/3 of your practice, if you remain active), move on to holding the poses to build strength and increase heat within the muscle. During this static practice, we hold each pose for 3-5 breaths, again for about another 1/3 of your practice. After exhausting the muscle we are ready for active elongation, or stretching. Hold each pose for 10 breaths, releasing tension throughout the body and surrendering to the poses. And finally, I always recommend finishing your class with Savasana - allowing at least 3-5 minutes for uninterrupted rest.
2. Keep It Safe
In addition to correct class structure, proper alignment is another key to keeping your body safe on the mat. We mostly want to focus on aligning the joints and keeping all muscles active in every pose. Whenever a knee is bent in a standing pose (Warrior II, for example) make sure the knee doesn't exceed the ankle, and the toes are pointing in the same direction as the knee. When our hands are on the mat, the shoulders should be stacked directly above the wrists, with the fingers spread wide, pressing into all four corners of the palm (the exception to this rule is Down Dog, where our shoulders are behind the wrist.) Prior to any flexion, extension, or twisting of the spine, be sure to pull up through the crown of the head first, lengthening the spine and creating space for movement between each vertebrae. Finally, we want to keep the core active by drawing the belly button in towards the spine, shortening the distance between the hip bones and the rib cage. Activating the core protects the lower back and brings more awareness and stability to each movement.
3. Make a Connection
Now that we know how to keep our bodies safe, it's time to structure the class. While it's a good idea to have some basic poses in mind, I would recommend refraining from planning your entire practice out on a piece of paper for two reasons:
1. You are more likely to become distracted and unfocused if you feel the need to constantly refer back to a piece of paper. If for some reason you "miss" a planned pose, the negative mental chatter may begin, which of course defeats the entire purpose of our practice.
2. A practice planned prior to moving the body is one that is disconnected from the body. If we sit down and plot our practice out on a piece of paper, and half way through that practice realize it's too hard or easy, or - even worse - hurts, we run the risk of injury or jumping off the mat altogether. Have an idea of what poses you'd like to try, but make sure you connect with your body, listen to what it really wants, and provide it. Creating a mind/body connection is one of the most important components of a strong practice.