I’ve been going to yoga classes for 20 years. I’ve taken class in studios, gyms, and yoga centers, of course, but I’ve also done Downward Dog squashed up against a sofa in someone’s den and in a church basement with dust bunnies rolling by like tumbleweeds. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I took prenatal yoga. When we were homeschooling with a group of families, I arranged yoga classes for the parents during the kids’ chorus rehearsals. I have been known to drive 45 minutes out of my way, strain my budget, and manipulate my schedule like one of those crazy-making sliding puzzles, just so I can get myself on a mat in front of a teacher, surrounded by others with the same intention, with nowhere else to be and nothing else to do for those 90 minutes.
But, in all that time, I have never done a full yoga practice at home, on my own. Not even once.
Yoga-wise (and otherwise), I’m no cover model. My Crow Pose hops on one leg instead of flying, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll never cross Headstand off my bucket list. But put me in a class with the guidance of a teacher and the energetic support of the yogis around me, and I can do more than I think I can do. I feel strong, focused, confident, and engaged.
The few times I’ve unrolled my mat at home, though, I’m almost instantly bored and exhausted—trapped in some combination of option paralysis and total lack of motivation. Clearly, the measure of willpower that I draw on to get myself out the door to class is not equal to the task of pushing me through a single Sun Salutation right here in my own house. Which makes sense, when I think about it: As a freelancer, I rely entirely on deadlines to motivate me—I literally cannot write until the eleventh hour. Once I get started, though, the words flow. The yoga does not. No one cares if I get it done. No one is paying me for it. I’m not paying anyone else for it. Why does it matter? If Tree Pose is practiced in a living room with no one else around, does it make an impact?
I know, from my own experience as well as an increasing body of scientific research on yoga’s benefits, that the answer to that question is yes. Still, there’s a freedom and release I feel when I give up mental control and surrender to someone else’s guidance. And yogis have known forever that something magical happens when people move, breathe, or meditate in sync. It’s an effect sometimes called entraining—when a group’s energy aligns, heightening the focus and awareness in the room. (A yoga teacher might call it “raising the vibration.”)
“In India, in the Krishnamacharya tradition, asana was always practiced at the yoga shala—it wasn’t meant to be done alone at home,” says Beryl Bender Birch, founder and director of The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute. “It was done with your teacher daily, at the yoga school.”
Stephen Cope, a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and author of The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling (among other books), agrees that the idea of contemplative practice as traditionally a solitary experience is erroneous. “In the cultures of [yoga’s] origin, contemplative practice was always embedded in a surround of social relationships—the village, the tribe, or the ashram,” he says.
From a psychological perspective, Cope says, the ease with which we practice alone versus in a group can hinge on our attachment history, which goes back to our family of origin. For those with “insecure attachment,” it’s easier to practice with a group, so you can be “alone” in the presence of others, he says. “Yoga is a kind of play, and you have to feel safe and securely contained to play,” he explains. “For many people, myself included, the only way to get into a deep experience is to feel contained within the context of a group. I love doing yoga in classes, but forget about a solo practice for me—it’s just never going to happen.”
I completely relate to that statement, but I also think of myself as one of the most securely attached people I know. For help unraveling that paradox, I turned to the yoga teacher who knows me best—my mom, Carole Weinstein, who’s certified in both Kripalu and Mindfulness Yoga and has been teaching yoga and meditation since 2002. Her theory: Habits are hard to break, perhaps especially for busy people. “Your tendency when you’re at home is to take care of all the nine million things you have to do,” she told me. “It’s really hard to change the pattern you’ve established in your life of moving from one object of attention to the next, and just be here now.”
The good news is that I’ve managed to also establish a pattern of going to yoga class, where what my mom called “the energy and mystery of the sangha” take over. Among the “three jewels” of Buddhist mindfulness teachings—buddha (awakening), dharma (the path, or teachings), and sangha (a community of like-minded practitioners)—“the Buddha taught that the most important was sangha,” she said. “We’re part of a 2,500-year-old tradition of gathering together to practice.”
To work with my resistance to doing yoga alone at home, my mother recommended that I put on music I love, roll out my mat, and just see what happens. Other tips I’ve heard: Find a few yoga videos you like and rotate among them. Make a space in your house where you can leave your mat unrolled, so all you have to do is step on it and go. Decide you’ll do just seven minutes of yoga, and then you can stop (but you’ll usually do more). Establish a practice time that fits your schedule, so you can build a habit of practicing at the same time every day or every few days. None of these has worked for me yet, but they’re all great ideas.
My DP (that’s domestic partner, and also, conveniently, his initials) often meditates, but never does asana, in class or at home. When he heard I was writing about my resistance to home practice, he unrolled my mat for me and pretty much led me to it by the hand, insisting that I had to explore exactly what was holding me back. He even did a few stretches along with me, which helped me notice that assisting and instructing him was far more interesting to me than sinking into my own practice. As soon as he left me on my own, I faltered—but I did manage a couple of Sun Salutations and a spinal twist before I called it a day. And yes, it did feel good.
So how important is it to have a home practice? Mom says it’s vital for her as a yoga instructor, because that’s where she makes the discoveries that inform and enliven her teaching. As for the rest of us, Bender Birch says a personal home practice is essential, but that it doesn’t have to be an asana practice. “There are many ways to ‘practice’ yoga besides doing asana—meditate, breathe, chant, scrub floors, study the yoga texts,” she says. “It’s about being regular in your application.” If you do choose to do asana, she notes that no particular style lends itself to a home practice better than any other. “What asana system you do doesn’t matter, as long as it is authentic and it ‘works,’” she says. “Patanjali simply regarded asana as ‘practice’ for meditation.” Which opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms—namely, that meditation bench hidden all the way in the back of my closet.