It used to be that I would only ever practice by taking a yoga class. Even after becoming a teacher. There was too much to learn so I’d take the pilgrimage to seasoned teachers’ classes to study. I scoured the city and its many studios for the best teachers. New York provided a thrilling cornucopia of them- amazing yogis (artists, really) from many different disciplines and sciences. We had everything Eddie Stern’s Astanga, Elena Brower’s Anusara, Sharon and David’s Jivamukti, Cyndi Lee’s Om Yoga…
True, I had a lot to learn so taking class was in order but I could not for the life of me get on my mat to self-practice. It wasn’t that I lacked discipline, I’d go to class (which takes a lot longer to get to), it was just that the thought of getting on my mat at home was extremely daunting. Left to my own devices, I had no idea what to do. In the back of my mind I would hear a tiny little Indian voice saying, “Neti, neti! How is this possible? You are a yoga teacher. Get it together, yogi!” (Insert head bob here)
In yoga school, the niyamas (proposals on how to treat ourselves)- the second limb of yoga- were briefly touched on. There wasn’t a lot of time in a 200 hour training to go deep into philosophy, they mostly were trying to give us the information. So when it came to the niyama ‘svadhyaya’ they told us it meant ‘self-study’ and I took it to mean that you study the ‘self’.
When you unpack the word a little bit better, ‘sva’ means ‘self’, but it also means ‘one’s own’ or ‘to own’ (this, is really beautiful). ‘Adhyaya’ means ‘lesson’ or ‘practice’. So of course, it means to study your ‘self’, to go into your depths, but the part I had completely overlooked is that of owning one’s practice. Learning from ones’ ‘self’. Accessing the ‘sat guru’, the inner teacher. Doing less and letting the form do you. Form as teacher.
I realized I had always viewed learning as something handed down by someone else. Learning on one’s own seemed like too much power and responsibility to give one’s self and there was great comfort in knowing that someone knew how to do it better.
My horse back riding coach once told me, “you should aspire to be the worst rider in your stable, that way you know there’s someone better to learn from.” What he said must have made an impression because when I reached a point where I was the best in my circle, I stopped riding. I grew desperate that I didn’t have a teacher I trusted. I was too young to know that at some point, you must become your own teacher.
Discovering this on my mat was even tougher. I was not exactly a natural mover. So I hadn’t yet given myself permission to move in a way that felt good or to move in any way I wanted. I had mistakenly looked at my mat as a way to get somewhere, which meant if I didn’t know where I was going, I failed. I treated my self-practice like a class and would give myself a specific amount of time and things to work on.
Then I started to realize that I needed more time, an open window and less boundaries. Fuck it. No boundaries. I needed an empty space- nirodha- to lose myself in. It was ok to step on my mat and explore, I didn’t have to have a clue as to what would happen. There didn’t have to be a plan. I could end up on a bolster for an hour and a half or working on something insanely specific. It didn’t matter, it was for me, it was the ultimate time to do what I wanted to. Things started to really change. It unearthed a huge joy and satisfaction while practicing, sometimes for looooooong periods of time. I would go “down the rabbit hole”. It felt meditative, and messy and oh so lovely. Even rebellious. I could really listen to what I needed. Sometimes something needed to be longer on one side, some things required repetition, sometimes I couldn’t remember what I did on the last side. Who cares! It was fun and felt free and easeful.
Most recently, this has been reinvented and amplified by practicing with friends. I’ve started to meet up with an assorted lot of yogi friends to self practice together. It’s been so cool that I even have a weekly date with one of my besties to practice. Sometimes it’s quiet and we get right to work, sometimes it’s rowdy. We stop, we start, we help each other get into stuff that’s hard, we play with different adjustments, we challenge each other and problem solve together, we fall, on our faces, sometimes on each other, we laugh, we sing- it’s the best. I’ve learned so much in the last few months from it. It’s felt very nourishing for my spirit and every time I walk out with a gigantic smile and sense of peace in my spirit. And it makes me feel super loved!
I’ve always adored taking class with a friend. What my friend Lindsay Ashmun calls “alone together”. But this has become my all time favorite.
Yogis- grab a friend this spring, go to the park or somewhere that has a bit of space, and practice. It will change your life and make your friendships sweeter and stronger. Happy spring lovers!!!!