Is Independent Practice Essential in Yoga?

Feb 14, 2017

What is independent practice and is it really necessary?

I learned how to downhill ski in my early 20’s. I avoided it until then because I have a big fear of heights. But there I was, visiting a friend who was working in one of the most beautiful resort towns in the Swiss Alps and decided to go for it. I signed up for a one-week of Swiss ski school. Everyday, our group would follow our instructor down the mountain like little ducklings following their mother. I learned all the basics of managing the various types of ski lifts (one of my biggest fears), and navigating the beginner slopes, stopping, slowing down, making turns. I was in good hands and supported every step of the way in learning how to turn, control my speed, stop and get up when I fell down. By the end of the week I felt capable and ready to forge out on my own.

The safety of the group and the guidance of an instructor I trusted quickly gave way to insecurity and low-grade panic. I was on my own, with no one to rely on but myself. Those first runs on my own were terrifying - the chair lift, standing at the top of the mountain knowing there was only one way to get down. I repeated my teacher’s words to myself, even out loud sometimes, to help me and remind myself of what to do. I breathed deeply. I persevered. Over the next days I gradually began to feel more confident in my abilities, empowered to try new runs and evermore exhilirated by the challenge of the sport. I had made the practice of downhill skiing my own.

The teacher was necessary to guide me, but it wasn’t until I had to do it on my own that I came face to face with my fears and was able to overcome them. It was only then that I was able to say I had made the sport my own, and experienced the joy and satisfaction that comes with stepping into and taking ownership of a new skill.

It’s like this with yoga practice too. We need a skilled, sensitive teacher - someone who knows the technique and the terrain of yoga - to initiate and teach us. We need guidance and feedback from an experience set of eyes to direct our efforts. However, it is only in self-guided practice, what we do when no one else is telling us what to do, when we have only ourselves to rely on, that yoga becomes an intimate and powerful engagement with our bodies, minds and hearts.

This is why I believe independent practice is essential for every yoga student who wishes to evolve their practice and to make yoga part of their path of self-knowledge and self-discovery and self-growth.and their way of living.

I define independent practice as self-guided practice, what you do when no one else is watching or telling you what to do.

This means that in addition to everything we do with a teacher including classes, workshops, trainings, retreats whether online or in person, pre-recorded or live, we ALSO need to spend some time alone, on our mats, self-directing our practice. Here's my list of:

5 Reasons Why Independent Practice is Essential to Evolving Your Yoga

1.    It’s how we make the yoga our own. Independent practice is all about you. What we’re doing when we’re alone quickly brings us into a deeply personal engagement with ourselves. In independent practice we have the freedom to give ourselves space for whatever comes up with complete self-acceptance. In independent practice we also can be creative, playful, and exploratory. We take ownership of our practice and can tailor it to meet our needs on any given day. We can bring our questions, explore and try things out. In this way, we are able to discover what works for us and what doesn’t.

2.     It’s how you assimilate, clarify and solidify your learning. In self-guided practice you can go at your own pace, review and apply what you’ve learned from teachers. You can experiment with what you’ve been taught and more keenly observe the effects of what you do in class. In this way, you can determine if what you are doing in class is serving you and practice more of that. And, on your own you can much more easily discern what isn’t working for you. 

3.     Independent practice builds self-reliance. Like making your way down the mountain alone, self-guided yoga practice requires that you harness your willpower, your focus and sometimes also a great deal of courage. The reward is empowerment and self-reliance. By being able to practice on your own you’ll always be able to make your practice work for you, you become more resilient and able to adapt your practice to wherever you are and whatever else might be going on in your life.  

4.    Practicing on our own we learn how to listen to and trust ourselves. In the quiet space of solo practice we’re able to hear the voice of our inner wisdom and intuition, to get to know it, to follow it and forge a deeper more trusting relationship with it. We become more sensitive to our physical, emotional and mental and spiritual needs and can adapt our practice in response to those needs.

5.    Independent practice is a form of self-inquiry. Svadhyaya, self-study, is one of the fundamental and defining characteristics of yoga practice. When there’s nobody telling us what to do or how we should be feeling we create the space for an inner dialogue to take place. In this way, we can observe our direct experience of what we’re doing and learn from it. We become more aware of the effects of what we are doing. We can continually refine and deepen our inquiry to observe those effects more subtly. And, we become more self-aware through observing our tendencies and habits and also by experiencing our joy and delight.

Here's a 10-minute guided inquiry for you to discover how independent practice has already been an important part of your yoga.

Coming soon:  Practical Tips to Make Practice Really Happen and How to Structure Your Independent Practice


Saturday, February 18 2-4pm: Developing a Home Practice Workshop at Shri Yoga

Expand the benefits of your practice by bringing your yoga home. In this workshop you’ll receive all the tools you need to structure your practice including sequences, tips to get you on your mat and suggestions to troubleshoot common challenges.

Sunday, February 19 10-11:30am: Evolving Your Yoga, Longueuil, QC

Are you a yoga teacher or student interested in expanding the benefits of your yoga practice without necessarily doing more or working harder? Do you sense (or even know) that yoga can serve you in bigger ways and yet are unsure how to go about extracting the richness of the practice? Join us for this interactive, engaging and practical discussion with special guest and experienced yoga teacher Barrie Risman, about getting the most out of your yoga practice by:

  • Clarifying why you practice and the role yoga plays in your life
  •  Learning simple approaches to practice that will infinitely expand the benefits of how you practice and teach yoga.
  •  Understanding how to apply the basic wisdom of yoga to serve you in your life right now.
Read more from the Beyond Asana blog