The practice of yoga has spread worldwide like wildfire in recent years. An estimated 20 million people practise yoga in the United States alone. Yoga is everywhere. Rarely a week goes when I do not see or hear something about yoga on radio and television commercials, in the newspaper, or in health magazines. And, in metropolitan areas like Washington, DC where I live, you can find yoga studios and yoga classes on virtually every street corner.
So, why teach yourself this ancient practice when yoga classes are ubiquitous? And, can you teach yourself yoga safely? I will address these two questions.
Self-taught yoga offers many benefits. For me, the most important ones are:
- Time savings and time flexibility: No transit time is required to go to a class and you can practise any time that suits your schedule [assuming that you don’t have interference or interruptions from family members or roommates].
- Low cost: Just a small investment in a book or two or DVD, a yoga mat, and comfortable clothing—that is all you need.
- Privacy and no classroom distractions [assuming you have a quiet, dedicated spot in your home for yoga]: No embarrassment or worries about not being able to keep up with the yoga teacher or person on the mat next to you.
- Customised practice: You can go at your own pace, holding or repeating poses to meet your body’s specific needs on any given day.
I have enjoyed these benefits for years and allow me to share with you what led me to teach myself yoga.
Back in 1970 [before DVDs, VHS videos, and the Internet], I was an uncoordinated, klutzy 15-year-old high school student. Because I was neither varsity nor junior varsity team material, I languished in gym classes, neglected by my high school’s athletic coaches. They saw no need for non-athletes like me to run laps around the field and stay in shape. Yet, I always had an innate interest in health and knew that exercise and physical movement were essential for staying healthy.
One day, my eye caught the cover of an issue of Philadelphia magazine on my mother’s dining room table. The cover photograph showed a man seated in the lotus pose. The accompanying feature article on yoga explained the practice’s Indian roots, its myriad health benefits, and growing popularity [which was nothing compared to now!].
"You can go at your own pace, holding or repeating poses to meet your body’s specific needs on any given day"
Intrigued, I began to research yoga and bought two yoga primers published in the late 1960s, Yoga, Youth, & Reincarnation by the late journalist Jess Stearn and Yoga for Beauty and Health by Eugene Rawls and Eve Diskin. By studying these two books [I still have dog-eared, yellowed copies of these on my yoga bookshelf], that provided thorough, step-by-step explanations, I created a daily, 20-30 minute home yoga practice that I continue to this day, 45 years later. And, you know what? I still feel 25 even though I am past 55.
Yes, you can be your own yoga teacher and nowadays your options to learn yoga seem endless—it is easy to find dozens of yoga books, yoga cable channels, countless DVDs, YouTube videos, podcasts, and smart phone apps.
However, you must use the right instructions! I define ‘right’ instructions as the kind geared to the complete beginner and that assume no prior knowledge of yoga. Whatever you buy—a book, DVD or video—try to make sure that it provides precise, step-by-step detailed instructions with comprehensive explanations of how to do a pose and the areas of the body that a pose targets and benefits. Too many yoga books, DVDs, YouTube videos, and apps in the marketplace are difficult to learn from because they are vague, poorly written, and too fast-paced. Two yoga DVDs I recommend for the beginner because they provide thorough explanations and are easier to follow are The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga by Deepak Chopra and David Simon and Yoga Basics by Mara M. Zimmerman.
But, are there any risks or dangers in teaching yourself?
Because of the pretzel poses often featured in the media, you may worry about yoga’s safety. You might wonder if you will throw out your back, pull a muscle or fracture a bone. Well, considering that reportedly thousands of yogis in the United States rush to emergency rooms every year because of yoga-related injuries, you cannot totally dismiss the potential risks.
However, in my not so humble opinion, I believe that yoga is not “inherently” dangerous as some people claim. Definitely no more than any other physical practice. Risks accompany any physical activity. Yet, I have practised yoga for 45 years without pulling a muscle, dislocating a knee or tearing a ligament.
To teach yourself yoga safely, follow these guidelines:
- Before you begin, assess your overall health and, if needed, get a check-up. If you have any physical constraints, weaknesses or past injuries, make sure you get a green light from your physician that it is safe for you to teach yourself yoga.
- Start with gentle, slow motion hatha yoga. This is the easiest and safest yoga to learn on your own. Slow motion hatha yoga emphasises graceful slow movements [as if you were watching a dream sequence in a movie] and holding poses for a set period of time. I practise a variety of about 20 classic, gentle hatha yoga poses. They may not be visually impressive, but they are effective in giving you an energising workout. I believe that the more advanced, strenuous and fast-paced forms of yoga, especially for uncoordinated people like me, are best learned in a small classroom or from experienced, private instructors rather than learning them on your own.
- Take baby steps. Build your yoga practice gradually. Start with no more than 5 – 10 minutes in total. Add five minutes a week until you have reached about 20 – 30 minutes or longer.
- Pause for 5 – 10 seconds between each pose. My first yoga books extolled the value of pausing between each poses to assimilate the energy that has been released by a given pose and to cultivate the serenity that yoga offers. I have also found that you become better attuned to your body when you pause between poses.
- Never tug, pull or strain any part of your body in order to ‘contort’ yourself into a certain pose. “No pain is all gain” in yoga. A few years ago I heard about a former colleague who joined a yoga class and was so determined to push his body into the tree pose that he jerked his knee up and tore a muscle. I have heard of numerous other people injuring themselves in classes. Yoga is not a contest. Allow your body to ease into poses—using the natural force of gravity to cause your body to stretch over time. This way, you won’t injure yourself learning yoga at home.
- Have someone observe you during your yoga practice, film yourself, or on occasion attend a beginner’s class and ask for feedback from an instructor. One of the biggest limitations and drawbacks of self-taught yoga is that you do not receive feedback on how you are doing the poses. Without feedback, you could be doing certain poses incorrectly for weeks, months or years.
Being your own yoga teacher can be a wonderful, relaxing adventure that, when done using common sense and safety in mind, can enable you to gain tremendous energy, flexibility, and serenity and live your life awake, alert and attuned.
This was first published in the June 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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