by Jessica Powers
As I’ve grown as a practitioner, I’ve liked group classes less and less.
I remember being impressed by people in my yoga teacher training programs who were there only to enhance home practice.
While I was there to learn to teach, home practice is so integral to teaching that I’ve barely bothered to take any group classes since graduating my first Yoga Teacher Training in 2004.
I like it that way.
Group class teachers aren’t bad, or offensive. Some are downright lovely; delightful in their kindness, sequencing, and teaching techniques.
The other group class students are infallibly welcoming and enthusiastic. They smile easily and often hug one another in greeting or goodbye.
To be sure, the styles don’t always rock me. I know I’m a bit of an opinionated snob, though, I recognize that.
Still… I thought that the community aspect of group classes would trump the style card. I expected my love of sharing space and breath with other yogis to cry and pout and demand I attend classes.
It hasn’t. (The hugging might put me off a little as well, and bring ‘Kumbaya’ to mind, which makes me twitch in a homicidal manner.)
At any rate – I don’t miss group classes! I love my home practice.
Let’s consider the arguments for home vs. group practice…
THE DOWNSIDE TO SOLITARY HOME PRACTICE
- Leaving out challenging poses. Aka – being a bit lazy in my practice. Drop backs into Wheel Pose? No thanks. 108 Surya Namaskar? Not unless I need to pray hardcore. That pretzel pose Madonna can do with feet behind the head? Or jumpbacks to Caturanga? No and no. In fact, I have to bully myself a wee bit just to squeeze Extended Side Angle Pose in – it’s always been a challenge for me, with one leg shaking like a sewing machine, even if it is in the ‘beginners’ pose book for most Yoga lineages.
- Abbreviated practices. When you go to class you devote an entire hour or more to Yoga. You turn off your cell phone. Somebody closes the door and no one is allowed to open it and ask you for anything. Your pets can’t come and sit on you, or under you, and create no-go zones on your mat. Instead, at home, it might be 10 minutes playing with Handstand in the hall or 15 minutes of Lunges and various balance poses when your ankles feel weak.
- Lack of group energy. A wonderful thing that can fuel and support poses you dislike/struggle in/are almost fully embodying. Having other people cheer you on is lovely in Yoga. Scientifically, I understand that our brains process information in such a way that when we watch other people do poses we ourselves can’t yet perform, our body actually gets some of the benefit!
- No outside eye. Teachers are there to catch your body moving into habitual movement patterns that might not be optimal or safe over time. Ideally, not practicing with the class, teachers are watching like hawks for misalignment or cold areas in energy as it moves through the body while you practice your poses. They can kindly place a hand on a ribcage and ask you to breathe into it, finding more spaciousness and ease to expand the pose towards. They can suggest micro-engagement of muscles to enliven a leg, or remind you to release your clenched jaw and fists so that you soften your effort.
THE UPSIDE TO SOLITARY HOME PRACTICE
- Leaving out challenging poses! Because they aren’t the end point of Yoga and keep us attached to our body and our body’s ability. Letting go of the shazaam poses allows the essence of Yoga to come forward without shouting. Being comfortable and at peace, with full breath and attentive mind can take us a long way towards the Union that Yoga speaks of.
- Abbreviated practices! Tailor your practice to immediate needs as they arise. 10 minutes playing with Handstand in the hall is my favourite alternative to the afternoon slump that otherwise might have me heading to a nearby café for a mocha. 15 minutes of Lunges and various balance poses will let me pinpoint and address where I’m overusing my legs, where I’m holding tension in the muscles, and to invigorate my ankles.
- Lack of group energy! Meaning a break from group mind that can fuel and support tendencies to push/pull into poses and potentially to harm yourself ‘because everyone else can do it.’ Yes – group energy has a bad side, sometimes called mob mentality, but in Yoga seen more often as a subtle and serious competition with those around us and our own bodies rather than riots. There is a time and place to work with our susceptibility to peer pressure, but it’s not always the yoga mat.
- No outside eyes! No one to judge what you are wearing. Yoga practice in pyjamas! That means you can yoga before bed, and right after rolling out of bed. Lack of fashion consciousness is awesome for yoga. I just discovered that the way to get around having large breasts smother the face in Bridge and Shoulderstands – don’t wear a bra! Seriously, it lets the breasts fall naturally to the sides unlike bras which are there to keep them from giving into gravity and hold them in place – fine upright, less fine upside down. And let’s face it – if you’ve got breasts, you’ve been searching and buying yoga clothes that strap them down in one place. Home practice sets the girls free.
- Opportunity to practice integrated Yoga. Yoga practice at home offers more than an hour to ‘do Yoga’ – you can explore and play and see how Yoga, Union, is so much more than asana. It’s how you cook, clean, when and how you answer the phone, communication patterns with your partner and family, driving habits, water conservation, garbage/compost/recycling practices. On and on and on – real Yoga practice expands off the limited space of your mat.
That last benefit, really, is why group classes don’t jive with me anymore. If asana is only one aspect of Yoga, the only way we can really learn that is by reducing our dependence on environments that emphasize asana.
Instead we need to practice our lives as Yoga.
(Preferably in our pyjamas.)
If you’re interested in getting your home yoga practice going, you might be interested in Forty Days of Yoga – Breaking down the barriers to a home yoga practice. A great book, complete with worksheets, for getting to the core of why you practice, what stops you getting on the mat, and what to do about it.