Back in the 1960s, the word “yoga” may have conjured images of flower children and life on a hippie commune. These days, however, yoga is more for hipsters than hippies, and the practice has earned a place at the very center of mainstream fitness culture. Though yoga is a fundamentally noncompetitive activity, built on self-acceptance and an embrace of what the body is able to do in the present moment, that doesn’t mean that dedicated students can’t seek to improve their skills as budding yogis. As Los Angeles-based yoga instructor Sarah Hemphill maintains, any extra focus that students give to their practice outside their normal rotation of studio classes will “cultivate a deeper inner awareness that will help support stronger alignment, precision and opening.”
Yoga is built on a set of postures, or asanas, that, when done in combination, can enhance balance, flexibility and muscle tone and decrease stress and chronic pain. Taking the time to explore new asanas on your own or to fine-tune the ones you work with most often in your studio classes can lead to improved outcomes in your practice.
• Hemphill recommends setting aside 20 minutes per day to practice at home, focusing on one type of pose each day. For example, Mondays might be your day to work on standing poses, while Wednesdays might be devoted to hip openers. Within each category, choose four or five poses to hold for two minutes each, taking care to note where you are holding back and where you might be able to move deeper into the pose. Without your regular studio class to prescribe the order and length of each pose, you may discover that being your own teacher provides special insights into your body’s limits and possibilities.
• New adherents to yoga might be surprised by how sore they are the day after class — a testament to the degree to which those muscle fibers are recruited by the practice. Working on improving strength by lifting in the 6-to-10-rep range and improving balance by involving stability training (i.e., doing crunches, squats, push-ups or other exercises on anything from a Bosu ball or wobble board to an exercise ball) will help you make great strides in the studio. So will maintaining cardio fitness, so keep running, swimming or cycling.
Yoga is as much about breath work and mental focus as it is about the postures. To take your practice to the next level, try a combination of breathing exercises and meditation to complement the physical aspect.
• Pranayama, or breath work, is often incorporated into studio classes in tandem with the postures, but Hemphill encourages her students to work on it separately, as well. An easy place to start is with ujjayi pranayama, otherwise known as “Darth Vader breath.” Inhale and exhale through the nose while trying to hug the air slightly at the back of the throat. Inhale for four counts and exhale for four counts, pausing for a beat in between. Continue this cycle for two minutes. If four counts is initially too long (or short) for you, you can change the length to something that suits you — just be sure to inhale and exhale for the same number of counts.
• Meditation can be daunting to beginners, but Hemphill suggests the following methods to ease into the process. Find a quiet, distraction-free area of your home and sit on a folded blanket with your legs crossed. Try to act, as Hemphill says, as a “witness to your own mind,” observing the thoughts that arise but not attaching any particular value or significance to them. Set an initial goal of meditating for five minutes, and use a timer to avoid the temptation to look at a clock. Add five minutes every two weeks.