(This is week 4 of a 5-week series. Here are Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)
I need to preface this post by saying that I am in Chicago and it is the end of a 4-day, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. plus 2-hour bus ride each way seminar, which was awesome and totally worth it, but I flew here overnight and pretty much haven't slept since last Tuesday, so if anything I say makes no sense, feel free to heckle me in the comments or email me and ask for clarification, whatever your style.
This week is important because it's the week your practice starts to become a habit. This is also an easy week to slack off, so you have to ask yourself whether a daily home practice is something you actually want to integrate into your life after this 5-week introduction. Incidentally, I didn't call it a "5-week yoga challenge," even though more people will participate if you use that kind of language, because more people will also finish the 5 weeks and then think "I achieved my goal, now I'm done." I am not challenging you to do yoga for 5 weeks. I don't care whether each "week" section takes you a month. My goal is for you to start seeing a home yoga practice as something that is possible for you. Many people are intimidated by the beginning of a new habit, especially one that they associate with a classroom-with-expert-teacher type setting, and I want to help you to not feel about yoga the way you felt about fifth grade math class. Having a teacher to guide you is fantastic and important, but I want you to see your yoga practice as something fundamentally yours that a good teacher can help you work on and improve for yourself.
Okay, so this is the week when the amount of time you've been spending on yoga each day is most likely to be the amount of time that will "stick" and fit well into your daily life. If you've been doing 20 minutes a day, great. An hour, great. (5 minutes a day, you should probably keep building for a few more weeks. 3 hours a day means you're not starting a new habit, you're doing a challenge, and that's fine, but scale it back to something you can maintain.)
This is where week 4 gets fun. Now you know the amount of time you can reasonably spend on yoga every day. You see that it is possible for you to do yoga without a teacher giving you directions, whether you're writing your flows in advance or just winging it, and by now your body knows that you are trying to build something new. Now think of a pose that you want to do but think you'll never be able to do. My pose is handstand. It's possible for my body to do a handstand, even with my current (embarrassingly low) level of upper-body strength. I know this because I took an inversion workshop at the NW Yoga Conference in Seattle last year and Kathryn Budig (who is awesome even though she's famous) actually physically put me in a handstand, as in helped me get my feet up in the air and then held them there, and my arms supported me and I did not fall and die. However, as soon as I got home, my brain completely forgot that experience, and I haven't been able to even kick up into handstand against the wall one time since. I either don't make it all the way to the wall or I freak out and my arms collapse and I fall on my head. Not graceful.
Okay, so handstand has been my unicorn for years now, and I decided that this is my year. I'm going to do a handstand, and not just that, I'm going to press up, not kick (which requires more core strength and is less likely to give me a concussion). I've broken down the pose into 3 areas of weakness: upper body strength, arm balances (which are less about upper body strength and more about not falling on your face), and core strength. I'm working on those things, and practicing lead-in poses to handstand, like walking up the wall into an inverted L shape.
Your homework is to write down at least one unicorn pose, and then all the things you think are preventing you from doing it. If you are in awesome shape and the only thing preventing you from doing the pose is fear, come talk to me. If you think there are physical reasons you can't currently do the pose, write them down. Then write down lists of poses that will improve that area of your ability. The key here is to write down at least 3 areas to work on, otherwise you risk un-balancing your practice. The other key is not to work on your unicorn every day. You don't want to make your entire practice about doing one pose. Whether or not you actually ever end up doing that pose doesn't really matter, some poses aren't available to some people for structural reasons, and that's fine. Doing a handstand (or whatever) is not the point of yoga. The point of working on a unicorn is to stretch your practice. To get you to think bigger and further into the future so you're more likely to challenge yourself. You want your practice to grow, and giving yourself a goal to work on is a good way to motivate that, but even if you "catch" your unicorn, you're not done practicing. Then you just incorporate it into your practice and move on to something else.
This week, work on your unicorn 3 or 4 days, and keep doing what you've been doing the other days. Particularly focus on breath and meditation on the "non-unicorn" days. Notice if you feel more motivated to challenge yourself. If you do, it's working. If you don't, there's always next week.
(This is part 3 of a 5-week series. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.)
This week was a little more difficult for me, I skipped a couple of days. I find the second or third week of a new thing the most difficult, because the excitement of starting something new starts to wear off, but the habit is not yet formed. This is a critical week for keeping your practice going, and it’s easy to give up here. If you make it through 5 weeks and then stop, your body will expect you to practice. If your body expects it and you don’t do it, you’ll miss it, and you’ll at least want to continue, but if you give up in week 2 or 3 you won’t miss it and the new habit won’t stick.
For week 3, you should be building on your sun salutations. If you just did sun salutations during week 2, then use the flows from last week to increase your practice. If you’ve been doing more, that’s great! Keep going! Even if you’re only doing 15 or 20 minutes, try to build a flow that arcs through warm up, standing poses, stretches and floor poses.
For the next 2 weeks, we’ll focus on building sequences. You can use the mini-flows from last week as a framework if you need to. If you find yourself standing awkwardly on your mat in the middle of a practice, unsure where to go next, that’s normal. I still do that sometimes. The trick is to keep breathing and not start wandering around or give up. Stand in mountain pose, do a long downward dog, or rest in child’s pose and focus on your breath. The next pose will come to you, or not, but don’t let the flow just trail off into nothing, at least keep breathing.
If you feel like you always end up getting stuck in the middle, write down your sequence in advance. I’m not going to give you specific sequences this week because I think it’s important for your practice to come from you (that’s why it’s a home practice and not an online class), but I’ll give you a few building blocks to use.
For the warm up, I usually just do sun salutations and maybe a few cat-cows. Some people like to start with a gentler warm up, which could include arm/shoulder/neck rotations, cat-cows, forward folds, and seated spine flexion and extension, and then build up to sun salutations.
The standing poses are the heart of a flow, and this is probably where you should concentrate if you’re writing your flow in advance. Try to group them in a logical way, for example if your feet are hip-width apart (as in warrior one, high lunge / crescent pose, pyramid pose), flow into another pose that has similar alignment. Going from warrior 1 to triangle is awkward because the alignment is different so the transition is not easily linked to the breath. If you get stuck, use the breath as a guide. You should always move with your breath, and you should get from one pose to the next in one breath cycle. If you’re going from warrior 1 to triangle, use a transition pose like downward dog or mountain to “reset” your alignment.
Here are some good groupings:
..Warrior 1, warrior 3, standing split, crescent lunge, pyramid, reverse triangle
..Warrior 2, side angle, reverse warrior, triangle, half moon, wide-leg forward fold, humble warrior
..Standing forward fold, chair, warrior 3, squat, toe balance, standing split
..Mountain, tree, dancer, big toe hold, squat, crow, warrior 1, high or low lunge, pyramid
..Downward dog, warrior 1, high or low lunge, pigeon, scorpion dog, wild thing, child’s pose
You may notice in the mini-flows from last week that I wasn’t very creative with my transition from standing to seated. I pretty much always do a long squat as a transition because it’s so good for opening the hips, but there are many other transitions you can use. Downward dog into child’s pose, plank into lying prone (to prepare for locust, for example), downward dog into hands and knees, pigeon into cow-face pose... lots of options.
I find the transition between standing poses more important than the transition between standing and floor stretching, because that’s where slow, steady breathing is the most difficult to maintain.
So, homework for this week: focus on standing flows, move with your breath, and don’t give up!
Email me or comment if you have questions.
Setting yourself up for successful life changes
I am a New Years resolution breaker. Every year, I'm going to meditate 2 hours every day, cook organic three-course meals every night, get up at 5 a.m. to go running before work, and never have negative or judgmental thoughts about anyone ever again. I take the bus everywhere, so never having negative thoughts again lasts about an hour. The other ones last about 2 days.
The reason New Years resolutions are doomed to fail is that discipline is irrelevant. Thinking that keeping New Years resolutions is a matter of personal discipline only sets up a death spiral of stress and self-punishment that makes failure inevitable. Unless your resolution is to eat more cake, habit will always win over willpower. This sounds terrible, but is actually great, because it means that you can make positive changes in your life even if you don't have the discipline to keep New Years resolutions. Positive change is about forming new habits, which takes time. Making one huge change is exhausting. Changing one small habit at a time is much easier, and will lead to long-term support for a major change like a daily meditation practice or a strenuous exercise program.
The first step is to look at the reasons you aren't already doing whatever it is you want to do. The reason I don't get up at 5 a.m. to go running is that I go to bed at 11:30. If I make it a matter of discipline, I have to force myself out of bed on 5 hours of sleep to do something I hate. Eventually my body rebels and I pull a muscle or get sick. My lifestyle does not support getting up that early.
Make a list of all the habits that are standing in your way. Start with the most obvious and work backwards, so if you reverse the list you have a very loose kind of "butterfly sneezing in Antarctica causes a tsunami in Thailand" progression. My running list looks something like:
going to bed late, eating dinner too late, working on the computer at night, not getting enough done earlier in the day so I can relax at night, daytime schedule is disorganized, not eating lunch early enough to be hungry at a normal dinner time.
There are also emotional barriers (I hate running), but that is less important. I also hate flossing, but I do it every day anyway because there are no habits preventing it. Changing your habits will take time and involves many small pieces, so looking strategically at the steps is important.
Now that you have your list of habits, start with the last one. This is probably the first in the progression, and is often the easiest to change. It took a while to think of it, so it's not a huge part of your life. I don't try to eat lunch at 3:30, I just don't schedule myself time to eat during the day, so I eat whenever I get a break. This is a relatively easy problem to fix. For the first week, change that first thing. Changing the first habit supports changing the next: if I eat lunch at noon every day for a week, I'll start getting hungry earlier in the evening, making it easier to eat dinner earlier. Make a plan to change each small habit, working up to the biggest one.
My 6-week running plan looks like this:
week 1: eat lunch between noon and 1 every day
week 2: finish dinner by 6:30 every night
week 3: schedule time during the day to do computer work so I don't have to do it at night
week 4: go to bed by 9:30. Read in bed if you can't sleep that early, don't look at a screen.
week 5: get up 15 minutes earlier every day
week 6: get up another 15 minutes earlier
After 6 weeks, it won't be so miserable to get up early, because I've set up the day so that I can relax at night and go to sleep earlier. If I get up half an hour earlier, I'll have time for a short run. Once a habit is established, it is much easier to maintain.
It all looks easy on paper, of course actually doing it is more difficult. You have a much higher chance of success if each step is as small as possible. The 6-week plan isn't universal, I chose that number because that's how many habits I think are standing in the way of my goal. You might have more, or fewer, and that's fine. It might take 2 weeks for each step, you can plan it that way if you think it will have a better chance of sticking. It's better to take 2 months to make lasting change than try to get everything done in 2 weeks and not maintain it.
The most important thing to remember is to keep each small step small emotionally as well. Don't start the death spiral of failure because you slipped a few times in the first week. It's all fine, as long as you keep moving forward. If you get to the end of the first week and the first habit is impossible to change, take a few steps further back. Break that habit down into smaller pieces. Success will build on itself if the steps are small enough to manage.