Individualized yoga is an entirely different animal than what is typically offered here in the United States. I want to emphasize different, because I don’t mean that it is superior to any other approach to yoga. What I do believe is that it is the most effective method of practice if you wish to impact all aspects of your life. What I discuss below, of course, is simply my opinion based on my own experience as a teacher and as a student. It’s what works for me in my own practice and in my business. If what I discuss doesn’t resonate with you, then that’s perfectly fine. Self guided practice isn’t for everyone at every phase of life. You must connect to what brings you the most peace and the most joy, plain and simple. Would I like to facilitate that connection? Of course I would! It is my intention to spend my time making the most positive impact that I am able, but that only happens when I connect with the people who will benefit from what I have to share. I’m good with not being everyone’s cup of tea.
More often than not, when someone chooses to practice yoga, they attend group classes at a studio. These classes are guided by a teacher and the students practice a sequence of postures (āsana-s) in unison as narrated by the teacher. There are probably soft lights on, music might be playing, perhaps there is some small offering of meditation, inspiration, or intention, but in general most of the practice consists of a range of physical postures. This is not unlike a group exercise class offered at a gym. It’s what we have come to expect when yoga is offered, and since yoga studios want to stay in business, and teachers need to earn a living, they give the people what they want. This model has the potential to be problematic because what we want/what we excel easily at is not necessarily what is best for us.
For example, early on in my yoga practice, I was very attracted to teachers and classes that emphasized flexibility. I am naturally flexible and when I was pushed further and praised for my progress, I felt like I was really getting a lot out of my classes. In my case, this was not necessarily a good thing. I have a chronic illness that affects my connective tissues, it’s the reason I am flexible without having to work at it. I was unaware of this condition until very recently, and now I know that pushing myself beyond the typical range of motion of a human skeleton, even though I am capable of it, is very, very bad for me. It wasn’t the fault of my early teachers, they couldn’t have known about my condition, I didn’t even know about it myself.
What I know now is that it is more beneficial for me to focus on strength and stability when engaging in physical activity. There are no more fancy tricks in my āsana practice, no arm balances, hardly even a downward facing dog. There is a lot of sitting. Do I miss the fun stuff? Yes, I do a little, but letting that piece of my practice go was where the work truly began for me. As a student, I didn’t have to work hard to become flexible and perform the fancy tricks, what I had to work hard at was developing the self awareness and discipline to know my practice is meant to serve me, not to impress others. From the outside, my daily practice looks very dull, but I promise you that it is very shiny and sparkly from my perspective. I think it’s safe to say that it is rare for a person to naturally have the self awareness and discipline to choose group classes objectively, to seek out what will serve them best even if it looks boring on the surface. This is why developing a long term relationship with a teacher is very useful, the teacher can provide an objective, outside perspective.
I don’t want to cast a negative light on group classes, I teach them myself, but selectively, because I believe they have their place and I respect their limitations. It’s a lovely thing to experience the energy of a group gathered together in a shared purpose, to breathe and move as one. Group classes feel a bit like ceremony to me in that way. It’s also enriching to explore the styles of different teachers, to learn from their points of view, and quite frankly, group classes are fun! Especially if you are healthy and uninjured, they are a great place to explore your boundaries and try new things in a safe and playful environment. All of these things are valuable, but group classes must be very general, because it’s not possible to meet every individual’s needs in a group setting, and general practice yields general results. This can lead to students seeking something more, a way to deepen their practice.
There is such a strong emphasis on the physical in western yoga culture, “deepening” often refers to becoming stronger and more flexible in order to perform difficult/complex postures. This is perpetuated by the all-pervasive image that is associated with yoga: a tall, slender, ultra feminine white woman clad in luxury spandex, performing an extreme example of a yoga posture with a beautiful, outdoor backdrop. Take a moment to do a google image search for yoga, and I would estimate that at least 80% of what turns up is exactly what I just described. I could go into greater detail of why this is problematic, but that’s an entirely different subject that deserves its own discussion. Suffice it to say that this image alienates a massive portion of the population, leading them to believe that yoga is solely physical, and that one must be young or at least in great shape to practice it. I would like to say for the record that that could not be further from the truth. Yoga can and is meant to be adapted to everyone, that’s what makes it such a brilliant practice. No matter what your physical or mental circumstances, yoga is available to you.
It is my opinion that no one has ever learned any life altering truth by twisting themselves into an intricate shape, standing on their head, or anything of that nature. In my experience, lightbulb moments come when you become quiet enough to listen to your inner voice. A regular yoga practice, when done with careful attention, helps to set the stage for this inner voice to come front and center. Moreover, regular practice allows the practitioner to feel what it is like to exist in a state of greater ease and peace. The more time you spend in this state, the easier it is to arrive there with less effort, and the more available it becomes to you in your life in general, not just in your practice. Being in this state is what allows you to discern between your inner voice and the mind’s usual chatter, noticing that it has a different quality. When you can tap into this voice and allow it to be your guide in life, trusting what it has to say, that is when true transformation can take place.
The key ingredients necessary for creating the space for this type of practice are quiet and attention. This is where outwardly guided practice (group classes, video/audio classes, etc.) and self guided practice diverge. Outwardly guided practice by its very nature requires you to split your attention. You are asked to simultaneously be aware of your body, breathing, and the teacher’s instructions, not to mention the added layers of potential distraction from music, lights, watching other people, etc. There’s no two ways about it: if you are actively listening to someone speak instructions, your full attention cannot be on your own process. It’s impossible. Self guided practice eliminates this division of attention. It creates a space where you can be fully present with your breathing, movement, thoughts, and feelings. When you are fully present, you are able to more effectively navigate your own waters, and as stated earlier tune in to your inner bank of knowledge.
To that end, I teach individualized yoga almost exclusively. I don’t discourage any student from participating in outwardly guided practice, but I do ask that the daily self guided practice we have worked on together takes priority. Working closely with a teacher one on one requires a bit of surrender from both parties. The student must be willing and open to do as the teacher suggests, knowing that the teacher is providing the tools they believe will be most useful. The teacher must acknowledge the individuality of each student to provide them precisely what they need. As Śri T. Krishnamacharya so eloquently put it:
Teach what is inside you, not as it applies to you, but as it applies to the other.
As we work together, my students and I establish a powerful connection based on trust and communication. They trust that I can see things from a different perspective, that I might hear the subtext of what they talk to me about, I may notice patterns and habits in their movements, and many other small bits that make up the big picture. I can make recommendations to them in their practice intended to address imbalances I see that they may not be consciously aware of. They trust me to teach them what they need, not what they want.
The process of cultivating a self guided home practice is very different from attending a group class. When we first meet, there is a lot more talking than there is moving, and the first couple of practices I suggest for you might be deceptively simple. This is intentional. The idea is for you to be able to memorize your practice easily and establish doing it as a daily habit. On the whole, daily home practices are much, much shorter than a typical group class, which can last upwards of 90 minutes. Most of us don’t have enough of the resources of time and energy available to sustain 90 or 60 or even 30 minutes of practice, especially vigorous āsana practice, every single day. That said, over time of course the postures and breathing techniques can certainly evolve into something more complex, but that depends on many different factors, it’s all individually tailored after all. There is one thing that is true for everyone who engages individualized practice, no matter how long or complex it is: the cumulative effect of the practice, performed with full, careful attention every day is much more potent than only attending a longer group class sporadically.
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