How often should we practise yoga?
For me, my yoga practice goes on for 24 hours a day. My aim is to live in harmony with myself, other people and life in general. Note that this is my “aim”. To aim to live without violence towards myself or others. To live in truth and contentment. To develop and understand myself so I know who I am and can make choices based on my truth, longings and what I believe in and want to aim for. To get to know myself. This is something I aspire to. Sometimes I’m there, sometimes not, but life and its quest goes on.
In yoga it’s just Avidya – not knowing who you are, to live in darkness – the root of all suffering. Hence it’s so important to really let the yoga practice become a quest to see ourselves and life as it really is, not as we think it should be.
When we practice asanas the breath and the different positions are our tools to reach deeper within ourselves and discover what stands in the way of being able to live fully. Fears of various kinds can be obstacles to do what we want and obstacles to be who we really are. Through our asana practice we discover and encounter these obstacles and with time we will be able to go through the obstacles we face on the yoga mat and especially in our lives.
Our mind becomes calmer and our self awareness deepens through our practice on the mat and, most importantly, in life. We train our physical body, stimulate our organs, increase the metabolism, our mental focus gets stronger and we get a deeper experience of the universal power we are all part of and which some call God. Others call it the inner power and some do not want to give it any name at all, or even acknowledge that dimension. This is a personal experience and for many people a private matter.
Traditional Mysore practice
When we are in Mysore we practice the traditional way – 6 days a week, except for full and black moon days, and during the first days of our menstruation. We travel to Mysore to practice, meet our teacher and immerse ourselves in the world of yoga. Practising 6 days a week is a deep commitment and usually our main focus whilst we’re in Mysore. We eat, sleep, socialise, almost everything, in relation to our morning practice.
In our usual daily life back home we might have a job, family, children or other commitments and responsibilities that take up time and energy in our lives. Perhaps a 6-day practice becomes a burden, an obstacle which we are burdened by or believe that we have to do. Our efforts on the yoga mat will be forced, or something we do mechanically because we believe that we must practice the asanas 6 days a week. Or we are living with guilt because it’s something we think we have to do – another requirement of life that can lead to stress. To stand on the mat once a week is better than none at all. Sometimes life affects us and there is neither strength nor desire to practice yoga. We might need other things in our life at that moment.
Yoga is within us
I think it’s important that each of us finds our own form with the number of times we practice per week, how much we do and when it is good for us. Sometimes it’s enough to sit on the mat and breathe, stretch or just rest. We do not need to practice all the positions we have learned every time we practice. To always remind ourselves that the most important practice in yoga is happening within us all the time and what we do on the mat is a training, a tool to live in yoga.
Yoga is a state of mind; not something we do, but something we are. What we practice is to live in the state of mind where there is harmony and contentment. A state where we know who we are and the choices we make are rooted in self knowledge and self awareness, away from fear, doubt or ignorance.
A deep commitment
To ask ourselves why we practice and stand on the mat is important and gives us a deeper sense of our practice. Practising yoga is a discipline that requires a tremendous amount from each person. To get up early every morning and roll out the mat, or practice after work, or when the children are asleep. We go through the sequence of movements, sometimes alone, sometimes at the yoga shala to practice with others. No matter where and when we practice our asanas, it requires a conviction and an intention. The limit is a fine line between staying in bed and falling asleep again, or skipping the practice after work and lounging on the couch. Sometimes it’s just what we need. We also need to rest. With time, we learn to recognise the signals and patterns and to know whether we need to rest or to practice.
During the 10 years I ran Yoga Shala Stockholm I usually practised before morning class or directly afterwards. I usually practised 6 days a week. When I left the yoga shala to teach in Sweden and around the world my routines changed and it has sometimes been difficult to stabilise a practice during travel. I usually try to get some time with myself on the mat wherever I am in the world. Today I also practice pranayama (breathing) that takes up to an hour each morning. I always try to combine my different practices so that they give me what I need and do not create stress.
I create an intention for my practice and decide the day before whether I’m going to practice or not. If I do not, I would rather go back to sleep, than thinking I might practice later. Later has a tendency to never happen. Sometimes it is so, and that’s ok. Try not to beat yourself up or be too harsh on yourself about your practice. It creates stress and a negative pattern of austerity and debt. Ahimsa – not to use violence, whether in thought, action or words to yourself or another – is an important concept to integrate itself. To embrace the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eight-folded path is the most important and highest form of yoga of them all.
Let joy and passion be a guide, as well as pain and anxiety. We can learn so much from listening inward and let even the difficulties be part of the practice. The practice of yoga is to heal oneself. Dare to listen inwardly. Let the pain – whether it be a sore knee or a broken heart – be with us and guide us to unbelievable experiences and we will be even richer in ourselves.
Adapting to change
At the beginning of my yoga practice, I practised a form of yoga with many backbends. I was nimble as a sapling. Young and ambitious. For the first time in my life I had found a place where my body felt positive and I got a lot of praise from my teacher and the others in my group. After a few years my back began to hurt and it became harder and harder to get out of bed in the mornings. One morning I wasn’t able to get up at all and had to go to hospital in an ambulance, where it turned out I had two herniated discs and my lower back was very worn and tired. The doctor forbid me to practice yoga again. Maybe I could start with Qi Gong, he suggested.
For me, yoga was already a life saver and something that had come to mean so much to me. Giving up was not an option. I rested for a while, then started again in India with yoga therapy. Small movements with much breathing taught me about pain and how healing would continue. Listen within to myself, rather than to praise and flattery, became an important life lesson, which also affected and changed other parts of my life. Today, many years later, I am completely healed and almost as agile, but above all so much richer in knowledge of myself. Today I thank the pain and the injuries; without this experience I would never have learned so much about myself.
Be your own teacher
Dare to listen within and find your own voice. Where is your limit? How often, when and what will your yoga practice look like? Do you know when to push through the pain and when to stop? Be your own teacher in whatever tradition you choose to practice and whoever you choose to practice with.
Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by fate and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents - Patti Smith