A few years ago I unearthed an old school notebook I'd kept in the mid-1980s. Within its dusty pink cover, buried in its pages, I uncovered a list of yoga poses I used to practice at home. I remember setting aside about an hour, usually on a Sunday evening, and working my way through such dubiously noted poses as “trikaswami” (I think I must have meant “trikonasana”) and “swan” (probably a variation of cobra). When I rediscovered this record of my early yoga practice I had by then qualified as a yoga teacher – which was one of my aspirations at the time of the notebook. What struck me in retrospect was how randomly I had sequenced my asanas, with frequent transitions from sitting to standing and back again. I mentioned this to Shiva Rea during a teaching intensive I took with her once, and she smiled and said, “But you know what? You probably really loved your practice!” And you know what? I did.
One of the reasons I had a home yoga practice at all was that I had started to attend a free weekly yoga class at my college, and the teacher impressed upon us the importance of self sufficiency and practicing on our own in addition to the class. She even suggested a designated amount of time we should aim to hold each asana – I think it was either one minute or two, this being before the rise of “vinyasa flow”! Home yoga served me well as it cost nothing – always a bonus as a young college student – and there were barely a handful of yoga centres in London to be found.
Self practice with distance guidance from a teacher is nothing new. In his book “Yoga Body” Mark Singleton documents how the technologies of visual reproduction, printing and photography, helped to democratize hatha yoga in the first four decades of the 20th century. Among the early yoga asana self-help manuals were Yogi Ghamande's 1905 publication, “Yogasopana Purvacatuska,” in which the author even provided his address so that students could write to him with any questions. Sri Yogendra, a Bombay-based guru, was another major advocate of the demystification of yoga, offering do-it-yourself manuals such as “Hatha Yoga Simplified” in 1928. By the 1970s we had Richard Hittleman's “Yoga for Health” and Lilias Folan's “Yoga and You” on our televisions. Yoga videos gave away to DVDs, then MP3s, now apps. Of course, we can let go of the teacher all together and do our own thing, although as my early notebooks show, some initial guidance and experience can be useful!
Today there are hundreds of yoga venues and classes available in London and I now even teach at some of them. But oddly things seem to have come full circle with regards to my personal practice, as I've grown less inclined to attend group classes and more drawn to rolling out my mat at home again. For me the advantages of this approach are not to be ignored.
The first elephant in the room is money. Along with the rising price of a class there can be the additional cost of transportation or parking, and maybe you splash out on a fancy juice in the cafe afterwards. But people need to make a living and it's good for the economy to put in as well as take out, so let's move on.
There's the time. It takes time to get to and from the studio, check in and get changed, which when added on to a 90 minute yoga class can end up taking up about 3 hours of your day. That may or may not be the most efficient use of your energy. There are occasions when getting into class at a popular studio can be about as calming as checking in at the airport at the height of the summer holidays. Plus at home you don't have to stand in line for the bathroom or continually apologize for stepping on somebody's towel. You can practice the yoga you need at the time you have available. And although setting your own yoga times can be a double edged sword, it's one that helps with self discipline. When you haven't paid for the class in advance and don't have to meet up with anyone else, it can take a good deal of mental strength to show up rather than procrastinate!
Similarly, home practice challenges and strengthens our ability to focus, our work ethic and often our patience. Having trouble with that hip opening posture again? The fridge, computer and phone are right there and there's nobody watching. And when I get knocked out of a pose for the umpteenth time by my playful son, I have to remind myself that shouting at a loving, trusting five-year-old child is not very mindful.
You do need space to practice at home, but just enough for your mat. Creating a space might also create the opportunity to de-clutter or tidy up. (Oh, and a word of advice – if you do inversions at the wall, don't knock down any framed pictures. As yoga injuries go, it's an odd one, but I am speaking from experience on that one). If the weather's right, you might be able to take your mat outside into your garden or a local park and enjoy the best yoga venue in world, the open air.
I am glad my local studios are thriving. I still love to learn from other teachers and I don't think I've ever been to a class where I didn't hear something new or draw inspiration. Now when I do attend a group class I experience it as a treat and not a chore. Like going on a great vacation, it can be rejuvenating, enlightening, transformative and can thoroughly refresh our perspective. But it's always good to be home.
By Laura Denham-Jones
Laura Denham-Jones is a London-based yoga teacher. She originally trained in San Francisco with Larry Schultz and has taken numerous other trainings and yoga intensives with teachers such as Shiva Rea, Dharma Mittra, David Swenson, Tias Little, Pattabhi Jois, Baron Baptiste, Beryl Bender Birch, and Judith Lasater. Aside from teaching a dynamic style of yoga class, she is a keen runner and also teaches yoga for sports as well as Pilates. Laura has contributed to several newspapers and magazines and created yoga sequences for three books about yoga, running and triathlon. When she's not teaching yoga she's at home being a regular city dweller, catching up with friends, (and laundry), and being a mum! www.lauradenhamjones.com
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