How to Take Your At-Home Yoga to the Next Level

Experiment with props, try new classes, and maybe even ditch your screen

Photo courtesy of the author

Yoga is an ever-evolving, ancient practice with South Asian origins. But for many people living in the West, yoga has meant something very specific for the past several decades: thin, lithe, usually white women bending in spandex in a minimalist hardwood floor studio.

The past year has thankfully changed some of that perception.

For the first time, people who want to practice yoga have had no choice but to do so from home. Luckily, there has been no shortage of Zoom classes, YouTube videos, and fitness apps for both experienced practitioners and eager pandemic beginners. And beautifully, many people have found they prefer practicing at home. It can feel like a safer, more gender neutral space, free of judgment and body comparison. Not to mention it can be more accessible financially, as well as schedule wise.

A big part of the reason why so many people believe yoga isn’t for them is because of how yoga has been framed in the capitalist gaze. But cultivating a self-practice shows us it doesn’t have to be that way. Plus, the yoga studio as we know it is a modern artifact. And while moving and breathing in unison with other bodies in a room can foster great healing, there is also a sense of relief in knowing that no matter where you are or how much time you have, you can check in with yourself through the practice of yoga.

The challenging period we’re living through is a perfect time to deepen your yoga self-practice by engaging more deeply with yoga’s spiritual roots and meaning beyond asana (the physical postures). In doing this, you may find the reason why yoga has persisted as a practice for thousands of years: It is an endlessly adaptable companion to the spiritual and physical challenges of being alive.

Many people have found they prefer practicing at home. It can feel like a safer, more gender neutral space, free of judgment and body comparison.

How to elevate your self-practice

1. Find some props

Back when we could go to yoga studios, I had a litmus test for whether I was going to like a new studio or class: Were props provided by the studio, and was the use of them actively encouraged by the teacher?

Yoga props include items like foam or cork blocks, straps, bolsters, cushions, and thick blankets. They are a key ingredient to making yoga more accessible and adaptable to a wider range of body shapes and ability levels.

Props are a way to retain the intention of a given pose — opening across the chest in triangle pose, say, or freeing up the sacrum and getting full compression of the hip joint in a yogi squat — while making it more sustainable and feasible for more people. It’s also a way to stay away from the extreme edge of your range of motion and make sure your yoga practice does not push you into injury, which is especially important when practicing without a teacher in the room.

If you’re not ready or able to make a financial investment in some props, you can start by simply using items around your house. A thick book can double as a block. Firm cushions are also helpful. A regular belt or strap from a robe works, as do thick quilts (in lieu of the blankets often found in studios). If you want to start by purchasing one prop, a foam or cork block is an inexpensive place to start and is probably the most adaptable and useful of the options above.

Once you have your props, seek out classes with teachers who regularly integrate prop suggestions into their cueing. It’s important this is done not as an afterthought, but as a non-hierarchical and integral part of the sequence — that’s a sure sign a teacher is thinking about accessibility and adaptability, not just achieving impressive poses.

Using a prop is not a compromise or a sign you can’t do the pose. It’s a sign you are listening to and responding to your body’s needs and cues — which is what yoga is all about.

Furthermore, if there is a pose that looks or sounds inviting to you but feels out of reach, search online for variations or modifications with props. Lastly, follow the principle of if you can’t reach the floor, bring the floor to you. For instance, if your heels are lifted in a yogi squat, roll up a blanket and place it under your heels. If sitting cross-legged in seated meditation means you round your lower back, sit up a bit taller on a block or cushion. If you struggle to find stability with your hand on your ankle in triangle pose, come up a little higher by placing a foam block under your lower hand.

Using a prop is not a compromise or a sign you can’t do the pose. It’s a sign you are listening to and responding to your body’s needs and cues — which is what yoga is all about.

2. Explore more than just asana

That most people in the United States and Europe think of yoga as a form of exercise is a sign of how its complexity has been watered down and misappropriated by the “pay for a fitness experience” exchange. The yoga most of us find our way to today is an eight-limbed practice, and the physical postures are just one of those limbs. It took centuries of yoga’s progression through and alongside various South Asian spiritual and religious traditions for the poses we know of today to become a formalized part of the practice. While exercise may be a byproduct of yoga, it is certainly not its main intention.

So if you want to practice yogarather than just its poses — it behooves you to begin exploring other facets beyond asana. These include pranayama (breathwork), pratyahara (focus or withdrawal of the senses), and dhyana (meditation), to name a few. Beautifully, all these limbs work together and in succession, with the physical practice preparing you for breathwork and breathwork preparing you for focus and mindfulness and so on.

In her robust and practical book, Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice, activist and scholar Susanna Barkataki notes how yoga in the modern, Western sense has become attached to “physical prowess [and] body worship.” This is especially upsetting when you consider “the physical practice was developed to break the attachment and connection to the physical body, not to deepen it. Now, we also utilize yoga and mindfulness to create passive worker-enhanced productivity in the illusory game of big business.”

If you find yourself learning from teachers that seem fixated on boosting mental and physical clarity so you can answer more emails in less time and have super tight abs, perhaps reconsider your sources of instruction. Make sure you’re learning from teachers who are integrating yogic philosophy into their sequences. Consider trying a session devoted solely to breathwork and/or meditation, not postures. Seek out teachers from Indian and South Asian backgrounds and cultural traditions. The beauty of Zoom classes is that there are fewer limitations of time and space in the teachers you can work with, so take advantage of that.

3. Try your practice without any screens

YouTube, Zoom, and apps are undoubtedly great tools for beginners and people who just don’t want to think when they step onto the mat. But if you are enjoying an at-home yoga practice, and find yourself drawn to the mat day after day, it might be time to explore how your self practice feels without any screens.

You might think: But I will have no idea what to do if I don’t have a teacher or video! Consider that a yoga practice does not have to be a full 60 or 90 minutes. In fact, if you are interested in creating a sustainable, varied practice that you return to day after day, it probably shouldn’t look like that. You will burn out.

The body’s held wisdom is vast, but it’s not as loud and relentless as the cerebral brain. You can think of your yoga self-practice as time where you turn down the volume on the brain and turn up what your body is trying to tell you. Ask yourself: What do you need today? Is it 20 minutes of rest in a restorative posture with props? Is it the soothing repetition of sun salutations wedded to the breath? Or is it a few expansive backbends to uplift your mood?

It is an endlessly adaptable companion to the spiritual and physical challenges of being alive.

What happens when we turn off screens is that we have an opportunity to engage more deeply with ourselves. And listening to the body can be the first step on a path to a more integrated experience of body, mind, and self — which is yoga’s grand invitation. (Plus, who doesn’t need less screen time in their lives?)

A screen-free practice certainly doesn’t need to entirely replace a teacher-led one, nor should it. In fact, the two can work together, creating a feedback loop wherein your teacher-led classes inspire your self-practice, and your self-practice informs how you receive and respond to instruction in your own body.

If you still feel intimidated, write down a simple 10–15 minute sequence using poses you know fairly well from your teacher-led classes and start with that. Perhaps it’s cat/cow, sun salutation A, warrior 2, triangle, side plank, and finishing in child’s pose. As you practice, don’t just blast through the poses by rote repetition. Pay attention to what your body needs more of as you move: Grounding or uplift? Rest or exertion? Stillness or movement? In answering those questions, you may find the movements you are drawn to change. You may skip some things, dwell on others, try something new. Follow your body’s lead.

Half of the battle is getting used to the idea that yoga doesn’t have to look any particular way. It’s not about achieving any physical checklist but rather creating an embodied experience where you are aware of more than just your internal chatter. Some days, simply lying on the floor for 10 minutes is the perfect practice.

Writing about how to create a meaningful life in a chaotic world. Formerly a lifestyle and business reporter. Find me: @rojospinks.

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