A number of students are in the early stages of their practice, and others are in a place of having some experience and wanting, after that experience, to go deeper. Both sets of students have been asking me about how to do that, specifically asking how often to practice and what kind of a 'daily practice' we need to have. It seems my answer is contradictory; on the one hand I want to say practice everyday, and on the other I want to say go gently.
Both have their center in the concept of commitment. The difference is in acknowledging limits, sheer truth of the physical nature of an asana practice, and the fact that most of us spend most of our lives pushing too hard already. It is easy to let a physical yoga practice become one more thing we ruthlessly drive ourselves with. I watch this happen with advanced students, quote unquote, all the time; when the effort becomes focused on advancing, insisting on pushing the body to it's limits, wondering how long it will take to start balancing on our hands, and believing since a yoga pose makes us feel good, than more, stronger, intense and physically exhausting practices must be a way to feeling even better. Feeling that unless we are sore and exhausted, afterward, there is no benefit.
I have a daily practice. I didn't always. There were periods of time where I was driven by three hours of workout in a hot studio, every day. There were other periods in which I went weeks without being able or willing to get to a yoga mat.
But what I have learned is this: my yoga practice causes something deep and alchemical to happen to my body that spills over into the rest of my day. It is important for me to do it daily. But what I mean by 'daily' is not hours and hours and hours of sweating until my body feels beaten into submission. A daily practice is as important to me as is brushing my teeth or putting on clothes; I know at this point that when I don't practice, I will feel off center and somehow brittle.
But a daily practice sometimes means this: stand tall, finding my feet under me and letting the spine find its full length, the shoulders open up, the head pull back in line with those shoulders. Arch to the left, to the right, back, and forward. Find downward facing dog. Come to my knees and go through cat cow. Twist, somehow. And try, try to find a meditative space for five minutes.
All in all, that is done in less than ten minutes. On bad days, I don't get to this until late in the afternoon. I know myself - and the practice - well enough to know I would rocket life altering changes in my lifestyle, mood, and energy if I did this immediately on waking up. But that simply isn't my reality right now.
So: back off. Do not harm yourself in your practice. But go deeper. Find something you can commit to and then commit.
As I said, early in my yoga practice I was doing two, sometimes three, Bikram classes a day. In all honesty I needed this. It was all I could do to keep myself together. And I had found something in yoga that was safe, strong, healing, that simply didn't exist anywhere else.
There came a point, though, where my body would refuse. I'd show up sick and my teachers would say rest, and I wouldn't. Or, suddenly, I would lose all desire to practice and stop for weeks at a time until the internal clutter and chaos became so loud I longed for the quiet drip drip drip of sweat and rhythmic movements of my breathing.
There came another point, that was very much a process, of my realizing what I was doing. I was bringing all of my ruthless addictive - and resulting procrastination/quitting - right into the practice. I was depending on the physical practice to hold my emotional self in control. I was relying on that physical practice because it seemed like the only thing I could control, rather than taking the lessons I learned there (my thoughts are not reality, I can accomplish things if I just show up, there is no perfection, outcome doesn't matter so much as effort does, accept where you are and stay there) and learning to live them. I was using asana to hide from real life.
There is no such thing, I think, as 'wrong' in yoga. I wasn't doing it wrong. I was learning where I was and what I needed. I was learning the truth, and that didn't happen one sudden instant but with some time. I would never have had those deep insights or willingness to even CONSIDER personal responsibility and change and making honest choices that would affect not just the moment but the whole quality of my 'life', from now till death, except I was practicing.
Once I had those revelations, and had them enough times to realize they weren't going to go away and I actually needed to change if I wanted to feel different, I stepped into a different level of yoga. Call it 'advanced' if you like. I realized that this stuff, this yoga, was about my life and my ethics and the way I ate, the relationships I had, the way I used time and money and acted when no one else was looking. To limit it to the physical practice was to cut off its transformation; to literally cut of my transformation. To resist and be stubborn.
And I began, instead, to see 'daily practice' as the cultivation of all eight branches of yoga, of the meditation and the breathing, of the ethics to self and to others. Yes, it must be physical. There are biochemical changes in the postures. But it is a mistake for me to see those changes only as coming after hours and hours, or to only think I 'benefit' when I am learning a new pose.
There is something biochemical happening in the first postures, repeated. Just like brushing your teeth.
A friend is an 'advanced' yogi, and has a hard practice every single day at the crack of dawn. The other morning we talked about our practices. I said that I had gone gently, slowly, and almost reverently through a few simple poses with long holds and then gone into my day. She got a funny look on her face, and said she's been feeling 'flat' and 'frustrated' in her practice. I can't back off, she said; I can't seem to believe that if I'm not 'advancing' I'm actually getting anything out of it. Why would I bother repeating the same things I've already done and already know? What's the good of practicing unless your getting better?
I sympathize. I've known that frustration, too. But I don't know that 'better' is a word I can use for what I need and practice. I don't know that one gets 'better' at prayer. Or if it's simply a thing that we must do to keep ourselves fully alive.
Going deeper, getting started, making a commitment.
Most of us know that a yoga practice makes us feel better. But in our linear, accomplishment, competitive brain we forget. We simply don't realize that for yoga to work AND GO ON WORKING, we have to keep doing it. It doesn't 'cure' illness or depression in one shot, or after six weeks, or fifteen years. It will change you. But only so long as you show up.
Developing the habit of showing up on the mat, 'stepping up to the plate', making and keeping commitment, even when you feel resistance or are just learning, makes you feel better about yourself. Just as much as the physical postures do. It changes your brain chemistry to make a commitment and follow through. It alters your world. When you willfully, consciously bring yourself to the yoga mat, especially on blah or inert days, you will feel marvelous after your practice. You will have created change.
Perhaps the best daily practice to have is to lay the mat out and stand on it for two minutes, every day if you can.
"There is nothing more satisfying than to acknowledge to yourself that you are working through your own resistance," says Patricia Walden. "Practicing at these times of inertia builds strength of character, confidence, self-esteem, willpower. You are building tapas (inner fire). As your practice becomes stronger and more stable, you become stronger and more stable. You take that off the mat with you. With every single moment on the mat, you are literally creating the power to break through old patterns and past conditioning.
But listen: many of us struggle with resistance, anxiety, or depression so hardwired that all this 'practice everyday' is going to be one more way to set yourself up for failure. Realize that there will be days rolling out the mat seems literally impossible, even if it's silly said out loud. There will be days when 'doing something good for yourself' revolts, more than inspires, you. Lethergy and self-sabotage can run so deep we will do anything other than practice.
This is the practice: accept, acknowledge, let go. Do the smallest thing you can think of, a thing so small it would be imperceptible to others. Sit up in bed. The next step may be inhaling deeply through your nose, holding that breath for a moment. The practice may be as simple as noticing how you feel.
That is a yoga practice, noticing.
Many days I've started there, inhaled. Like a 12 step, one day at a time kind of thing, I find that just that is enough. With just that one step, I might find I do, actually, have the energy to stretch my arms over head. Or take a walk. Or count my steps.
Or touch my hands to my heart.
That is a yoga practice. I recommend it, daily.