12 WAYS TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR YOGA PRACTICE
A yoga practice can take many forms, ranging from a weekly hot yoga class to daily Ashtanga sessions to five minutes of restorative poses in bed at night. But no matter what your practice looks like or where you’re at in your yoga journey, there are many little steps you can take to go deeper and get the most out of it, both on and off the mat.
1. TAKE YOUR PRACTICE BEYOND ASANA.
The physical postures (asana) that we know from Western yoga classes are just one part of yoga, which has traditionally been more about spirituality than exercise. In fact, asana was originally developed as a way to prepare the body for meditation, rather than as a practice in its own right.
Serious practitioners have a much more robust yoga practice than just physical movement. Studying and practicing other components of yoga – like meditation, breathwork (pranayama), chanting, and the yamas and niyamas – will introduce you to the vast world of yoga beyond asana. And understanding poses as they relate to the higher purpose of yoga will only enhance your physical practice.
2. READ THE YOGIC TEXTS.
Reading texts like The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, The Bhagavad Gita, and Hatha Yoga Pradipika teaches students about the origins of and philosophy behind yoga. Of course, these and other yogic texts are long and notoriously dense, but even reading excerpts and summaries will provide a useful introduction.
In the West today, many people practice yoga purely as a workout or a stretching routine without understanding where the practice came from. But for those who want to go deeper, studying texts like these to understand yoga’s history and philosophy is one of the most important things students can do.
3. PRACTICE AT HOME.
Though most yogis in the West get started by attending classes at their gym or studio, doing yoga on your own can take your practice to the next level. While teachers can be wonderful guides, a home practice is more personal and gives you the chance to go deeper inward. It also gives you the freedom to experiment with new things, spend longer in poses you love, and develop a practice that really works for you.
Students often feel intimidated by the idea of practicing at home, but you can start small and simple. Practice the most basic poses, focus on yin or restorative postures, repeat something you did in class, or even write down a sequence from a video so you can do it on your own. Practicing alone gets much easier as you go, and sometimes the hardest part is just getting started.
4. ATTEND SEMINARS AND WORKSHOPS.
At the same time, seeking out more ways to learn from your teachers is another way to deepen your practice. Instructors can only cover so much during regular drop-in classes, but many studios offer special workshops or seminars on certain types of poses (like inversions or twists) or other topics like meditation, breathwork, chanting, or philosophy.
For students who want to dive deeper into yoga, taking advantage of events like these is a good next step. They’re also a great way to meet and connect with other serious yoga students.
5. TRY DIFFERENT STYLES AND TEACHERS.
Similarly, taking classes in different styles of yoga and with different teachers can help you make the most of practicing yoga. Early on, you may encounter teachers you don’t click with or styles that don’t resonate with you, but if you keep looking, you’ll eventually find a setting that will help you grow in your practice.
Even if you already have a studio or instructor you love, trying out new styles and teachers can take you to the next level. Each style offers something a little different, and every teacher has a slightly different perspective. Exposing yourself to different approaches lets you take the best from each one and integrate it all into your own practice.
6. MOVE SLOWLY IN AND OUT OF YOUR PRACTICE.
In today’s age of busyness and connectivity, it’s easy to default to running into the studio at the last minute before class starts and checking your notifications before you’ve even rolled your mat back up. But whether you’re in a class or at home, easing in and out of your practice will help you get the most out of it.
At the very least, try to get on your mat a few minutes before class starts and use the time to get settled in. Afterwards, take some time to reflect, and make an effort to hold onto that post-yoga glow as long as possible (not getting back on your phone right away will help). Ideally, maybe you can even carve out time to sit down for a smoothie or tea or do some journaling before or after you practice.
7. STUDY UP ON THE POSES.
Each yoga pose has specific alignment that will help you prevent injury and get the maximum benefits from the pose. For example, you’ve probably heard teachers in class talk about making sure your knee is right over your ankle in warrior I and II or your hands are shoulder-distance apart in downward facing dog. But there are lots of little details and adjustments that can enhance your poses, and regular classes don’t allow enough time to cover all of them.
Fortunately, the Internet is full of resources that break down the major poses, explain their proper alignment, and give tips for setting them up. Taking some time to read up on different poses will teach you how to make sure you’re practicing them correctly, and supplement what you’ve learned in class. If you don’t normally practice in front of a mirror, it can also be useful to use a mirror (or even photos of yourself) every now and then to see what your alignment looks like in different poses.
8. NOTICE HOW YOU FEEL.
One of the wonderful things about yoga is that it offers an opportunity for practitioners to really notice the sensations in their body. But especially in fast-paced classes, it can be easy to mindlessly flow from one pose to another or get so caught up in the athletic aspect that you forget to notice how you truly feel.
So when you practice, try to remind yourself to really notice your breathing, your mental state, and sensations anywhere in the body, whether you’re in active or passive poses.
9. USE YOGA PROPS.
Some beginning yogis mistakenly believe that props are for people who can’t do the poses “right,” or that using them is a clear giveaway that you’re new. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and more experienced students know that props can significantly enhance many poses.
When your teacher offers an option for using props, give it a try, even if you think you don’t “need” it. You might find that it completely changes the sensation of the pose. And of course, don’t hesitate to use props in your home practice. If you don’t have your own, things like belts, pillows, throw blankets, large books, and rolled-up towels make good substitutes.
10. CHAT WITH YOUR TEACHER.
While many yogis are tempted to come to class, practice anonymously, and leave before anyone notices their sweaty face, getting to know your teacher can really make a difference in your practice. Learning more about their own yoga journey is almost always inspirational, and you can also get answers to specific questions you have about philosophy, poses, or other topics.
If your teacher knows you – and knows your background, limitations, and goals – they’ll be able to better serve you in class and support you in your yoga journey. Plus most teachers love having the chance to talk with their students, so don’t be shy.
11. ATTEND A RETREAT.
Maintaining a regular practice in the midst of a busy life is invaluable. But taking a few days or even a week to completely disconnect and immerse yourself in yoga is a truly unique experience. You’ll likely get to go deeper into topics like philosophy and meditation, learn details about alignment, and get more individual attention from teachers than is possible in other settings. Plus, most retreats foster a real sense of community, giving students a chance to build meaningful relationships with like-minded people.
Of course, financial constraints, family commitments, and limited vacation time prevent many people from being able to go on a retreat. But if you’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity, it’s a worthy investment in yourself and your yoga practice.
12. SET AN INTENTION.
You’ve probably had teachers talk about setting an intention at the beginning of class, and this might be one of the best and easiest ways to get more out of yoga each time you’re on the mat. Setting an intention at the beginning of your class or home practice gives you an internal focal point to return to throughout the practice and even later in the day.
Intentions can be a single word that represents your reason for practicing or a feeling you want to cultivate, like “relax,” “movement,” or “peace.” It could also be a simple phrase that encourages a feeling or behavior, like “I treat myself with respect,” “My heart is open,” or “I am grateful for where I am.” A more traditional mantra can also serve as an intention, such as “So Hum,” which roughly translates to “I am what I am.”
By Kosta Miachin
Kosta Miachin is the creator of VIKASA Yoga method – a unique, challenging and effective approach to yoga. He is also the founder of VIKASA Yoga Academy.