Home practice plays a singular role in anything we decide to do well.
When I lived as a poet and worked as a one-on-one writing guide, there’d come a point when I told my students they didn’t really need me anymore. And I was glad of that. They’d learned enough to serve as their own teachers.
The task at that point is to establish a steady home practice.
For a poet that means solitude and quiet, an awareness of one’s creative rhythms, a reading habit, participation in the broader poetry conversation (through submissions, attending public events, reviewing books) and discipline.
Discipline, along with dedication and devotion, are the three legs of any creative practitioner’s stool. When I was teaching myself–with the help of live mentors and books–how to live a creative life, I referred back to studying guitar for 10 years, from ages nine to 19.
Now that I live a yogi’s life, allocating the majority of my time to teaching and studying yoga, I see equivalents between music and yoga studies.
- the metronome ≈ breath
- chair and foot stool ≈ sticky mat
- guitar ≈ body
- score ≈ reference books
- tuning fork ≈ internal awareness
- capo ≈ blankets, yoga straps and blocks
- practice room ≈ practice room
There’s no magic number of hours, days, weeks or years that indicate when a person is ready to become her or his own teacher. I ask my yoga students to commit to eight weeks of study, whether they are brand-new to the practice or established in it.
Some feel complete after eight weeks, wanting no more than a few poses and a breath technique to keep them comfortable and clear-headed in daily life.
Others study with me for years, circling through the recursive process of learning where we acquire information, practice it and refine our expression of it.
My own home practice these days relies on a deep listening born from decades of poetry and yoga study.
Sometimes I picture in my mind’s eye the teachers who have gifted me with awareness tools and catch phrases that echo in my ears.
Books and articles are teachers. Living now in the small town of Harpers Ferry, nature is my teacher, too. I study how birds move, scootching my own shoulders around in imitation. I’m curious about the spring in the step of the deer bounding away. I’ll walk up a grassy hill in a park near my home to lie face-up to the sky and feel my way into the back body.
It’s as if the whole world is breathing when wind moves through tree branches.
Occasional workshops in DC and other points nearby with teachers I respect recharges my home practice. The effect of receiving new insights at a satisfying workshop is like cleaning windows: The house hasn’t changed, but light seems brighter.
In excerpts from this interview on home practice and a teacher’s responsibilities, yoga doyenne Judith Hanson Lasater also draws a comparison with music. Her words apply to pursuing and teaching any art.
To me, an experienced practitioner is one who has his or her own home practice and only comes to class as a way to refine or get fresh info or be inspired. But increasingly, people don’t have a home practice, they go to a lot of different yoga teachers, depending on what is convenient and nearby, just to get the workout. So they are not incorporating what they learned in class on their own mat at home, and from there understanding and filtering what works best for them.
To be an intermediate or more advanced student, you need to have a home practice almost every day of the week. A beginner is someone, no matter how proficient, who just comes once a week or twice a week to a class and hasn’t incorporated it into their own home practice. So I have a much longer term view of this as a serious practice.
You can make an analogy to playing a musical instrument. When you have your lesson, that’s not your practice, that’s your lesson. The work is when you leave your lesson, you go home. And the next day, what do you do the next day? Do you practice what you learned? Do you try the new techniques? Do you make the corrections that were suggested? Do you pay attention? That’s when you really learn, when you make it your own. And that only comes from a willingness to commit to your home practice.
So an important part of the student-teacher relationship is about understanding the interpersonal dynamics and understanding who you’re teaching. You’re not teaching a class. You’re teaching a human being. And understanding how to speak to them with their language, how to touch them with respect after asking permission, and how to use your touch and your words to encourage them to grow at their own speed, those are key skills of a yoga teacher.
So it’s not about pushing students physically. It’s about reflecting back to students where they’re holding on mentally, and encourage them to let go of some of those mental limitations that may or may not have a physical expression—if and when they feel ready. It’s more important to me that we help people understand that they’re prisoners of their thoughts, not of their hamstrings.
Many wise teachers have told us that we are the prisoners of our thoughts, and to help people live a full, rich, and happy life, free from the mercy of your thoughts and beliefs—that, to me, is our job as teachers. The way I actually say this to the teachers I train is, “The job of a yoga teacher is to reflect back the inherent radiance and inner goodness of each person.” And of course, the only way you can do that is to find it in yourself.
That’s what we’re really doing on the mat. That doesn’t have anything to do with dog pose. Dog pose is fun. Dog pose is a technique that slows us down. It’s like a speed bump that slows us down so we can become aware of how we’re holding, how we’re resisting, how we’re breathing. And those skills, those skills which come from the residue of awareness, are life skills that we can carry with us everywhere, until our whole world becomes our yoga mat, every moment becomes an asana. Because every moment, we’re aware of what thoughts are ruling us, what position we’ve been holding too long, what misalignment in our back we’re maintaining, because we’re tense or we’re stressed. And that, to me, is what we as yoga teachers are about. And the asana is really not the yoga. It is the residue the asana leaves in our minds and bodies and hearts that is the yoga.
So if we teach from that perspective, we teach with kindness. We teach with respect. We teach with empathy. And when you have kindness, respect, and empathy, there’s another word for that which is compassion.
Read the full interview here.
Thank you, my students, for providing me with opportunities to teach you!
Thank you, readers, for your curiosity.