The mirror of self-practice: yoga, plateaus, and guided classes
Updated: Nov 24, 2022
What does self-practice mean in the context of yoga?
It’s not simply about practising at home, otherwise practising following YouTube videos would be classified as such, when in fact that is still based on receiving instructions.
In this article, I provide a general overview of what self-practice is all about. And if your curiosity is piqued – or you’re already a practitioner – join me at my Guided Self-Practice classes at St. Margaret's House (Yoganest) every Sunday, 4-5:15pm, where I assist you with an entirely personalised one-to-one approach in the ongoing process of learning and practising sequences of postures combined with the breath.
My first practice was music. Having practised playing the piano daily for over ten years, I have known from a young age the value of consistently applying and refining a skill and how that affects the quality of my life. Just as learning to play an instrument requires consistent practice, learning to move with full awareness of your own body and in synchrony with your own breath, requires something different to simply attending a general group class at a studio. The latter certainly has its place, but for different purposes.
The broadest definition we can use when talking about yoga is that of a journey of self-discovery that starts with movement, i.e. with the body, and takes us through progressively deeper layers of self-enquiry. One of the reasons why asana (posture) practice improves our overall wellbeing is that it allows us to get more connected with ourselves, it reveals old habits and uncovers patterns of movement (and of thinking) that we have been stuck in for years without realising. In this way, the physical practice of yoga is a tool to release both physical and mental knots, and to gradually open up to a different way of being, to a wellbeing we didn’t know we had in us.
Even if you only recently started practising, you may have noticed this process unfolding already: perhaps you felt a sudden feeling of lightness after Savasana, or a sense of openness and expansion in the front body after practising a series of backbends – or maybe you noticed a sense of ease, or lack of restriction/fatigue when going about your daily activities. Sometimes the process of untying the knots can manifest through what we perceive to be a form of pain, like the wrist or shoulder ache some people experience after their first class. Usually this happens to people who spend a lot of time working at computers, using the mouse repetitively: inevitably, breaking certain constricting patterns while the body learns to open up in the postures can cause discomfort.
On the other hand, if you have had a regular practice for a few years, you may have noticed how the progressively deeper un-doing of your bodily knots has corresponded to an increasingly relaxed attitude displayed towards the events of your life: a less rigid or impulsive attitude, and a more fluid or calm one.
You may also have gone, or are going through, the ‘stasis’ stage, where the practice doesn’t seem to be progressing any more, not giving you that initial buzz, not giving you any insights, and generally not delivering the ‘wonders’ you experienced in the early days.
One of my most inspiring Ashtanga teachers, David Swenson, has described this process on multiple occasions:
“In the beginning, when we come to find yoga, we are excited: it’s new, it’s like ‘wow, I love this, it’s like some sort of a new relationship!’ […] And then, after a few months little things in the relationship start to bug you. When something is new you’re making a lot of progress, and you’re feeling better, and it’s very easy. Then you hit what i would call the ‘plateau’, this zone where nothing much is changing; and people can get discouraged during this but it’s honestly where the vast majority of our time will be spent as practitioners. There are points of big progress and then it’s sort of imperceptible. And we get frustrated on the plateau because we feel that nothing much is changing and we’re not getting better, and so on. So people get so frustrated that they get away from yoga. And then one day we wake up and have a realisation that ‘Wow, when I was on that plateau it felt really good, but it was so normal I forgot how good I felt’. So we start to practise again and get back on the plateau”*.
In other words, whichever stage you are in, new or seasoned practitioner, this yoga practice is a mirror reflecting back an image of your self, revealing old and unhelpful habits, default physical and mental behaviours, injuries, body imbalances, and much more.
Although attending led group classes (where the teacher instructs the entire group to go through the same sequence) are an important part of your growth as a practitioner, this format of practice is not the ideal environment to discover what you need to work on most: whether that is to increase body awareness, recover from injuries, or work on more advanced asanas.
Benefits of self-practice
With self-practice the conditions are set for you to take centre stage and learn something you didn’t know about your self: perhaps it’s the way you breathe, or the way you stand, or the way you move from standing on your feet to standing on your hands, and all that that entails.
When committing to maintaining a self-practice you commit to self-caring, i.e. to creating a space for yourself regardless of what is happening in your life.
Self-practice is a tool to help you clear the stresses of everyday life: it’s for the hygiene of the entire mindbody system (a bit like brushing your teeth is for the mouth), and in this sense truly holistic.
It allows you to develop body awareness in a way that led classes won’t: you can pause and take extra breaths in any posture you wish to see what is happening in the body; you can repeat the same postures several times, perhaps trying different options, to discover which ones work best for your body; it also allows you to stop and rest at any point on a day when you feel particularly tired; or to keep flowing on days when you feel more energised.
It’s only in a self-practice context that you can truly find your own pace.
You can measure your own progress by working on a sequence that you remember.
It is a self-fulfilling activity: you gain satisfaction by completing your practice and then getting on with your day: a sense of both freedom and responsibility accompany a regular self-practice.
It’s a way of being in control of your body.
Your own breath is your main guidance.
You can set an intention (e.g. you choose to focus more on backbends, or on doing more sun salutations, or on practising inversions, etc.) based solely on how you feel on that day.
You have the power to change the practice and adapt it to the needs of the day, in other words you have the power to make your practice sustainable.
You can have the longest Savasana ever.
Difficulties of self-practice
The benefits far outweigh the difficulties and the latter can be overcome by… more practice! The more you self-practise, the more you get to know your resistances, and how to overcome them. Plus, attending regular guided self-practice classes will give you tools to address these hindrances.
Not knowing what to practise. This is where learning a sequence or more than one helps. Working with an experienced teacher here is important as they will guide you through each posture and provide modifications you can work on at home.
Not having enough space at home. The only space you really need is one where you can lay down your mat. You can also find a corner in your local gym/health centre to lay down your mat and practise.
Not having enough time. You can practise for as little as 5 minutes to 2 hours. You will find the time when you realise what you’re missing if you don’t.
Not knowing how often to practise. When you are starting out on self-practice you can begin with 15 minutes once a week, plus attending your weekly guided self-practice class. Then you can increase to 20 minutes twice a week. Later on you can proceed on to 30 minutes three times a week, and so on. You should always consult with your teacher when you have doubts regarding this.
The guided self-practice classes are your chance to check in with your teacher and to bring your practice to a new level.
In my guided self-practice classes, I provide personalised assistance in postures you find difficult, or that you wish to explore in different ways.
I offer you new postures to work on when the time comes.
I provide modifications, alternatives and options, and show you new ways to use props in a particular posture or transition.
You learn to manage distractions as there will be other students in the room with you practising their own sequences and managing their own distractions: a huge part of the practice is to learn to focus.
You can ask me questions.
You have the opportunity to refine your alignment.
You receive my one-to-one attention.
You receive hands-on adjustments, if you find these useful.
You receive handouts and other learning material.
You are given ad hoc exercises that target particular issues like building strength or more flexibility in a specific joint.
My Guided Self-Practice classes are at Yoganest every Sunday, 4-5.15pm. Drop-in rates are as little as £8. Feel free to contact me directly if you have any questions and book online when you are ready.
Hope to see you on the mat very soon.
* This quote is taken from “Carrying On”, and interview with David Swenson on Talking Yoga podcast. To listen to the full interview: https://player.fm/series/talking-yoga/carrying-on-with-david-swenson