Thursday, December 17, 2009

Making Time To Practice

Beginning and maintaining a personal practice of any kind, be it meditation, yoga, or any form of physical exercise, may seem difficult and daunting. Every year, Americans spend millions of dollars on equipment designed to flatten their tummies or increase the size of their biceps. Of course, a vast majority of these devices end up practically unused in the closet or garage.

Over the years that I have been teaching yoga, I have been astonished at how few of my students practice at home, despite my constant urgings to do so. Instead of going to all the trouble, time, and expense to get to a group class at a yoga studio, they could just throw out their mat, drop down on the floor, and get the same thing at home any time they wish.

In many ways, the home practice is a richer experience. Home practice cultivates discipline and self-empowerment. When you go to a group class, you might be comparing yourself to other students, or the teacher, in a subtle and insidious form of competition. All kinds of negative self-image judgments can arise from this. When you practice at home, you are the "best" yogi in the room! Most importantly, at home, by yourself, you are only hearing your own inner voice guiding your practice, not the drone of some teacher (like me).

I have often asked students why they find it so difficult to have a personal practice, and the two answers I receive most are, "I don't have time," and "I don't like to do it alone." I have extracted from these replies a common theme: "I don't like to spend time alone."

Cultivating a meditation practice may seem even more intimidating, since it is a practice that is completely about being with oneself and treating this experience with friendly curiosity. Here are some quick strategies that may help you to get your practice started, or to revive one that is on the rocks.

1. In cultivating any kind of practice, try to bring to your efforts wisdom, patience, and self-compassion. Don't push yourself beyond your abilities, whether you are doing yoga or meditation. Avoid the "boot camp" mentality of personal trainers (and many yoga teachers), and adopt instead an attitude of "wholehearted effort."

Consistency is the key. Try to do something every day. A ten-minute yoga practice of just a few simple stretches first thing in the morning can make a real difference in how the rest of your day goes. Likewise, just sitting and feeling the breath for ten or fifteen minutes can really ground you.

3. Use common sense regarding how long you practice. This is especially true if you, like most people, don't think you have time in your schedule to practice. When you are short on time, decrease the length of the practice, rather than skipping it altogether. As Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us, "[Our practice] needs to become part of your life, in the same way that eating or working is. We keep the practice alive by making time for being, for non-doing, no matter how much rearranging it takes."

4. Remember how good you'll feel afterwards. In all the years I have been practicing yoga and meditation, I have never regretted having taken the time to do my practice. When I am really resitant to going to the cushion or the mat, I remember that, when it's over, I will feel very good about myself in some way.

From Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn:
Just making the commitment to practice non-doing, to let go of striving, to be non-judgmental, slows down that time for you and nourishes the timeless in you. By devoting some time each day to slowing down time itself, for giving yourself time for just being, you are strengthening your ability to operate out of your being, in the present, during the rest of your day, when the pace of the outer and inner worlds may be much more relentless. This is why it is so important to organize your life around preserving some time each day for just being.

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