For several years I taught a recurring, four week introduction to mindfulness course. Each week, I’d share a meditation technique, but the majority of the course was really about how to nurture the habit of meditating. You can’t intellectualize a yoga or meditation practice — it only works if you actually do it regularly.
For most of us, that means we need to learn to practice by ourselves at home. Going to class adds several extra steps to your routine that eventually become the reasons you skip class that day. With a home practice you can still take to your mat or cushion when you don’t feel like going anywhere, time is scarce, the weather is bad, you are nursing injuries or illness, or you just want to stay in your PJs.
I didn’t truly become a daily practitioner until I started studying with Sarah Powers, and this was after I’d been teaching yoga for several years. In all her workshops and retreats, Sarah methodically unpacks a framework for sadhana, spiritual practice. Sarah’s outline emphasizes those aspects of practice that remind us of why we practice and help to reinforce our resolve. They are the elements that transform a chore into a pleasure.
What really clicked for me were her instructions on what to do when you first sit down on your cushion or mat. For many people, this is the hardest part, the moment when we sit there and go, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do” and we give up. Framing your practice time with something simple and consistent takes the pressure off of being creative at a time when it’s more beneficial to be receptive.
Sarah’s teachings have a strong Buddhist lean, which is something that inspires me. But you don’t have to infuse your practice with Buddhist chanting to create a spiritual bookend that is meaningful for you.
1. Checking In
When you first sit down on your mat or cushion, take the time to get comfortable. A luxury of practicing at home is that you can sit anywhere, including on a chair. Make sure that you sit upright; an alert posture encourages an alert mind.
I call this little exercise the “check-in meditation” because that’s precisely what you do. Think of this as asking yourself, “how are you?” and then being patient as the answer slow arises. Try to go into this exercise without any expectation about what you are going to discover. This is about taking a snapshot of how you truly are right now.
Spend the first three minutes (don’t get too hung up on the exact time) paying attention to your body. Start by noticing the neutral sensations generated by how you are sitting: the surface you’re sitting on and how the position of your legs and arms feel. Then widen the view to include the obvious things: stiffness, achiness, etc. Be aware of the presence of pain, but also notice the areas of the body that are pain free. And then ask yourself, “what else is here?”
For the next three minutes, shift your attention to your mood. Think of this as checking your inner weather report. In Buddhist psychology, feelings are a bit different from emotions, which are thought of as products of the mind. Feelings are pre-cognitive. Try to notice them without labeling them or explaining them. Just feel them. You can always analyze them later.
Finally, spend the last three minutes (or so) noting your state of mind. Are your thoughts racing or poking along? Are they fixated on one topic or jumping around from thought to thought? Usually our mind operates on a continuum between these end points, and it can change quickly. Just take it all in with a measure of patience. Your mind is not the enemy.
The check-in meditation not only gives you insight into what kinds of things will be with you when you practice, but it also gives you clues as to what you might want to do with your practice time. This is another special feature of practicing on your own: you get to tailor your practice based on what you discover while checking in. For instance, I usually start my daily practice with meditation and then I do some yoga asana. But if I discover during the check-in that I’m really restless or agitated, I’ll practice asana first because I know it calms me down.
The check-in meditation is also a useful tool for understanding our behavior and motivations in daily life. In fact, this little meditation is a complete practice unto itself, and you can sneak it into your normal routine whenever you have a few minutes of down time. It’s enormously helpful to regularly tune into your inner environment, especially when interacting with other people. You’ll start to see patterns in how your mood affects your reactions to things, or how your behavior is affected by how much sleep you’ve had recently. Knowing yourself gives you the power to better attend to your needs and self-regulate. This is the essence of self care.
2. Intention Setting
Both yoga and Buddhist philosophies reference the importance of resolve when cultivating a spiritual practice. Your sankalpa, or intention, is like the wind in your the sail. It can inspire and motivate you to go to the mat even on those days when you try to talk yourself out of it. During your practice session, having an intention as a reference can help guide you to what to do next.
I have found it helpful to come up with a set statement that I repeat to myself each morning. I regard it as a my practice mission statement.
Write up your intention outside of your practice time so you have it ready when you take your seat. It can be as specific or as general as you like (you can always change it later), but make sure it is truly relevant to your aspirations. An intention might also include a recognition of the benefits you experience when you practice. This is especially helpful if you have trouble getting motivated.
Your sankalpa can take a couple of forms. Some suggest you create a statement in the affirmative as if your intention were already true. For instance, instead of saying, “Through my practice, I aspire to be peaceful and clear-headed” you would say, “I am peaceful and my mind is clear.” If you are looking for inspiration along these lines, my Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for his lovely practice statements, many of which can be framed as an intention.
Another option is to write a vow for yourself. The format might look like this: “I come to the mat in this moment to cultivate _____ because I know that _____ is/are a result of my dedicated practice.” The first blank is your aspiration and the second blank is where you include the benefits you receive.
Recite your affirmation or vow after you check-in and before you begin your meditation or asana practice. You can also add personalized rituals such as ringing a bell or reciting your favorite poem or prayer. These little touches help to make your practice time sweet and enjoyable, something to look forward to.
What comes next is dependent upon what you discover about yourself during the check-in meditation while also keeping true to your intentions. Most of the time, I meditate first because it’s more important for me to “get that in” than doing yoga asana every day. But not always. Beyond the bookends of my practice, I don’t have any rules about what I’m supposed to be doing.
Personal sadhana is not like going to a yoga class where there is usually a particular arc that a teacher follows. All that goes out the window when you practice at home and give yourself what you need. You don’t have to know a lot of poses to take care of yourself. Just get moving and see what happens.
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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