6 Tips for Maintaining a Balanced Yoga PracticeJun 23, 2022
These days I find my way to the mat but have no idea what to practice. I used to let my body or mood guide me, but my tendency is to return to the poses I love the most, and variety is missing from my practice… Lately, I find myself stepping onto the mat, turning inward for guidance and..... crickets.... Any suggestions on creating a balanced home practice when you are feeling uninspired, or not clear on what you need?
I love this question I recently received from a long-time student. For one thing, it illustrates to me that this person has already taken the first crucial step toward a balanced yoga practice—to start thinking about it!
It also touches on one of the pitfalls of always relying on your mood to determine what you practice. While being in touch with your inner wisdom is certainly always important in yoga practice, one thing I’ve learned in nearly three decades of practice is that letting my emotions guide me usually doesn’t make for a balanced and well-rounded practice.
In other words, if you are always only showing up on your mat and doing what you feel like, you’ll tend to return to the poses you love the most and skip over what you don’t.
I’ve structured my practice in so many ways over the years. Here are some tips and suggestions I’ve gleaned from my experience that might be helpful:
1. Structure your practice according to your needs. What do you want to get out of your postural practice? One way to ensure a balanced practice is to first identify what you want your practice to do for you and then choose poses and ways of practicing them that will help you meet those goals.
In Yoga for Healthy Aging, Nina Zolotow and Baxter Bell identify four main goals for postural practice that might help you to identify your needs: improving balance, strength, flexibility, and agility. You might also want to consider endurance, as well as rest and relaxation, as possible goals for your practice.
Your level of physical fitness, individual health considerations, and the other activities you do will all impact what a balanced practice looks like for you and therefore, what you choose to practice.
For example, if you have a medical condition, such as osteoarthritis or osteoporosis, you should tailor your practice to always include poses and practices to help your condition, though you can certainly mix it up by doing different poses for the condition on different days.
Likewise, if you have chronic stress, anxiety, or any other emotional considerations, you should always include some poses to help with those. Nina’s new book Yoga for Times of Change is an excellent guide to using yoga to address these issues.
Keep in mind that depending on your needs and the other things you do, you may not need yoga to do all of these things for you.
For example, if I play tennis, then I will want my practice to help me maintain flexibility, improve balance, and build strength, but I won’t need it so much for agility or endurance. Therefore, I might emphasize supine, seated, or standing poses that stretch the legs, standing balancing poses, prone backbends done dynamically to build core strength, and poses that require weight-bearing on the arms, like Downward-Facing dog and Plank pose to build upper body strength.
If I do cardio and weight training at the gym, then my practice doesn’t need to emphasize strength building or endurance. I might emphasize balance, agility, and flexibility to balance out the work I do at the gym or focus on more restful or restorative poses to recover from my workouts.
If yoga is my principal form of physical fitness, then I want to make sure my practice is addressing each of these goals over a period of time of around one or two months.
2. Structure your practice to focus on different areas of your body. Another option is to focus on different areas of your body on different days. For example, you could do an upper-body focused practice one day, and then a lower-body focus the next, then a core-focused practice, and then an all-around practice.
Again, the idea is that over time, you are practicing a well-rounded variety of poses that address your whole body, taking into consideration your individual needs and the other activities you do.. If I’m a runner, for example, I might emphasize flexibility on some days to balance out the effects of running. On other days, I might focus on strengthening, balance, and agility. If I am recovering from a shoulder injury, I will include some exercises that help support the healing process every time I practice. If I know core-strengthening work helps to keep my back pain at bay, I will do a few minutes of that in every practice.
3. Structure your practice according to classes of poses. For many years, I organized my home practice according to the Anusara Yoga Level 1 syllabus. I would move through the 100+ poses on the syllabus over the course of a month or two. Sometimes I would choose a class of poses to focus on for a week like standing poses, sun salutations, backbends, hip openers, spinal twists, forward bends, inversions, arm balances, and restoratives. Other times I would change the focus day to day. Having that list to work through helped to ensure that over the course of 1 or 2 months I was getting a well-rounded exposure to all the different classes of poses.
There are many yoga books out there that offer a well-rounded variety of poses to help structure your practice. Some books I’ve used for this purpose are Yoga the Iyengar Way, Yoga for Healthy Aging, Yoga Point + Process, Moving Toward Balance, and The Yoga Asana Index.
4. Vary the pace of your practice. Pacing is another way to balance your practice. For example, during the course a week or month you can plan on doing some more upbeat and dynamic practices on days when you have more energy, some slower-paced practices when you are ready to hold poses longer and go deeper, and some restful or restorative practices when you’re fatigued or stressed.
5. Bookend your practice with regular opening and concluding routines. I start and end my practice pretty much the same way every time. I always begin with a few minutes of supine stretches that I know feel great in my body, and I always end with some kind of supported, restful inversion or Savasana. In between, I do other things depending on the time I have available and my chosen focus for the day or week.
Having an opening routine is helpful because it gets you going, and you don’t have to think about what you are going to do when you first come to your mat. Having a closing routine is helpful because it’s a chance to do some restful poses that can help you feel more balanced throughout the rest of your day.
6. Don’t be afraid of the P-word. Planning, that is. What all these tips have in common is that they take some forethought. While freeform, intuitively guided sessions definitely have their place (and can even be incorporated into your planning if you enjoy that approach), my experience is that giving some time and attention to what you practice is one of the most important ways you can take ownership of your yoga so it can really serve you in your life.
Lastly, remember that postural practice is only the tip of the iceberg of what yoga has to offer. So, as you think about your home practice, you might consider what other practices you’re drawn to, such as meditation, breathwork, or contemplative study, that might help to create a more balanced approach to yoga for you.