Maintaining a regular yoga practice can be challenging in the best of times, and when the holidays come to call it can feel downright impossible. With family visiting, year-end work deadlines, kids out of school, financial demands, extra errands and social obligations, practice can lose its priority in our lives. We know practice is useful – at the very least it helps mitigate stress – but we may not see it as essential.
Let’s be honest: it’s not that hard to be consistent with practice when it’s convenient and our schedule supports it. That’s an important part of our development because we experience the benefits of consistent practice firsthand. But, as practitioners, when external circumstances don’t support our efforts, we must turn to conviction and inner fortitude. This can be an uncomfortable and confrontational process, but an essential one. Stepping willingly out of convenience and comfort is a choice Patanjali calls tapas.
Tapas represents a purifying energy, an energy that is necessary for meaningful change. It’s that grip you feel when you need to apologize, or the discipline of setting an early alarm to meditate. It’s a young parent’s physical exhaustion from frequent nighttime feedings or an older parent’s emotional turmoil when holding boundaries with a teenager. The pain associated with tapas is productive because it turns all experiences in life into fodder for spiritual growth. We not only accept the inevitable tribulations of life, we volunteer for them by putting ourselves in uncomfortable positions. And it’s that thinking that purifies the system over time. So we practice even when it isn’t pleasant.
There have been times when I’ve struggled to prioritize my practice. But when I do, I’ve never told myself afterward, “Gosh, I wish I hadn’t practiced yoga.” Through many years of trial and error, a few techniques have helped me develop the discipline required for a consistent, fruitful practice.
Compassion, Not Complacency
Start where you are. If you have a houseful of young children, aging parents, illness in the family, a major remodel or lots of travel on the agenda, this may not be the time to tackle complex poses and lengthy sequences. Expecting profound growth now is self-sabotage and it will set you back, because it allows the mind to justify doing nothing. Go for consistency and regularity of sessions over duration: fifteen minutes every day is more valuable than 90 minutes once a week. And literally any practice at all is better than nothing.
That being said, we must be vigilant about not sliding into complacency. So much of yoga’s cultural message is that it will make you happy, kind and peaceful that we become unable to discern between what feels good emotionally and what is actually in our best interest. So take a hard look at yourself, your mind and your personal excuse patterns (we all have them). Is it really necessary to make hand-drizzled chocolate truffles for your child’s teacher, or could you write a note of appreciation instead? Nobody fills up your life with stuff except you, so be willing to accept responsibility and cut something out if yoga is really important. God is not going to descend from the sky and offer you an extra hour each day. You get 24 of them just like everyone else so be selective.
Would you run a business meeting with no agenda? Host a dinner party for 12 people without planning the menu? Of course not! Practice time will not materialize unless you take steps to make it happen. Look at your calendar at the beginning of each week and create realistic practice slots. Then, make a commitment not to let anything interfere with them. Pretend it’s a doctor visit or a therapy appointment, and if you cancel at the last minute you give $150 to charity.
If you live with other people, they will be affected by your activities and priorities. Take time to explain what you are planning, why it’s important to you, when you would like to be left alone and what they can do to help. Some people will honor your commitment and support you; others will not. In either case, don’t let someone else’s feelings impact your commitment because that creates another escape route for the mind. Be clear about your plan and set a boundary around your time and energy.
Don’t Waste Time
Before the session, create a realistic list of poses and movements you can practice throughout the week. Combine them in a way that makes sense to you and then do them. Be unconcerned about not having a seamless sequence, perfect alignment, or deeply philosophical themes and don’t worry about hurting yourself. Without the atmosphere of a class setting, it is unlikely that you will move forcefully enough to cause injury. Rather than watching videos or podcasts, check in with a living teacher for specific ideas. If you have the gumption and willingness to practice at home, you probably have plenty of material to work with and can do so intelligently.
Once you’ve made the commitment and established time to practice, set a timer (not on your phone), get on your mat and start moving. Passive poses like child’s pose may slow you down before you even start. If you stand up, your mind will be alert and your breathing clear. Do small joint movements or other things you know. Repetition of postures or movements can help you settle the mind and re-pattern the breath. Challenge yourself to do something you don’t like in each session so as not to reinforce psychological dependence on pleasant experiences. Remember, if you only do things you’re already good at, nothing is going to change.
Stick to your allotted time, even if you want to continue. Remember, we are cultivating discipline and moving away from the whims of the mind. When the mind says you don’t have time, note the time it takes to drive to the studio, park your car, stash your stuff, place your mat, take one class, chat with your friends and then drive home. That’s three, 30-minute home sessions, at minimum.
Even the most enthusiastic plans will go awry. Before you start scheduling your sessions, take a few minutes to articulate why you practice in the first place. It may be stress relief, physical exercise or spiritual homecoming. It doesn’t matter what it is but it does matter that it is. Without a larger purpose, there will be nothing to hold the commitment in place when we face boredom, resistance or exhaustion. Having purpose strengthens our discipline muscle until yoga becomes a natural extension of who we are and how we think.
The purpose of your practice may shift over the years, and it is important to restate your commitment in new terms as it does. I first embarked on the journey of yoga because I was captivated by the physical demands of the practice – I wanted to improve. Later, I was inspired by the poise and steadiness of my teacher, something I wanted to experience. As the practice sunk in more deeply, I was forced to confront certain lifestyle habits and thinking patterns which had become obstacles to growth, and the purpose shifted to self-reflection.
These days, my purpose is not becoming stronger or more flexible, or decompressing from stress. I don’t practice to become a better parent or improve my teaching skills, because good teaching grows out of strong practice, not the other way around. Sacrosanct or not, I don’t even practice to become a more compassionate or loving person, although these things often happen as a result. I practice because yoga is the most reliable and unfettered route to inner freedom I have found.
Whatever your purpose, acknowledge it and let it motivate you to get on your mat. I promise you won’t regret it.
My heartfelt wishes for peace and growth in this holiday season.
With great respect and love,