One morning, about a year ago, I took out my yoga mat, placed it on the living floor, and prepared to do a headstand. At this point in my yoga practice, I had attempted to master a dozen headstands, finding each new attempt as painful as the previous. Upon seeking advice from my teacher, it was relayed I should remain present and observe my body’s response in the pose. Since it was not regular to practice headstands in my classes, I decided to start practicing at home.
As I lifted myself into position, I felt a pulsing discomfort in my neck, shoulders and lower back. I tried my best to stay with the sensations of my body but was only able to maintain the pose for a couple of minutes. After I slowly lowered my now-aching body, I rested in child’s pose as I focused my awareness on the blood flowing down from my head and into the rest of my body. When I could lift it without getting dizzy, I moved up into downward dog. I felt stiff but didn’t think too much about it. Instead, I stayed in the pose, listening to my body. Finally, I ended my home practice with a short savasana and called it a day.
For the next few weeks, my morning routine modeled the exact same sequence. Since these sessions lasted less than ten minutes, it was quite easy to keep up my home practice. Bit by bit, I became more comfortable in the headstand position. Although my practice sessions focused on salamba sirasana, I started to notice my downward dog experience had become completely different than it was in class.
Downward dog, also known as Adho mukha svanasana, was one of the first yoga poses that I ever learned. In every yoga class I’ve taken, it’s shown up in one sequence or another. In my vinyasa classes, we practiced it as part of our sun salutations. In between vigorous sequences, my teacher would use adho mukha svanasana as a rest pose. I could hear her asking me to press the base of my fingers firmly into the ground to strengthen my arms. Then she would suggest I lift my tailbone away from the back of my pelvis. After I did my best to follow her instructions, I would diligently hold the pose until she asked the class to come out of it.
At home, however, there was no guidance or a mentor to direct me successfully into the pose. I tried to recall all the different instructions my teacher had given me for downward dog. Unfortunately, I could only remember three of them. It felt foreign to have no one leading me in my practice as if I wasn’t present in my own body. In an effort to feel more connected to the pose, I bent my knees and straightened them. Then I lifted my fingertips off the ground and brought them back down again. Luckily for me, this worked. I slowly started to feel that I was back in my body again. From then on, these movements became a ritual for me whenever I did downward dog at home.
After weeks of daily practice, something quite unusual occurred. While I was in downward dog focusing on my breath, my left foot unexpectedly lifted off the ground and inched itself slightly to the left. Then, my right foot moved slightly towards the right. As a result of these two adjustments, my hips loosened, my groin softened, and I moved deeper into my body. Each movement in itself was very small, almost microscopic, but the change that ensued was dramatic. I felt more energetic and, paradoxically, relaxed. It had never occurred to me to adjust my pose without the guidance of my teacher, but now that I had done it, I was excited to experiment more. In the following practice sessions, I continued to make changes to my downward dog. These adjustments didn’t always improve my pose, but once in a while, they did.
Over the past year, my home practice has been in a constant state of flux. Most of the time my practice lasts thirty to forty minutes. Occasionally I spend an hour practicing asanas and follow it with thirty minutes of pranayama. On some days, I have a definite plan as to what I want to practice, but usually, I have no idea what poses I will incorporate until they emerge from me on the mat. I don’t know if I do a better downward dog today than I did a year ago, but I do have a better understanding of my practice.
Having a regular home practice gave me the much-needed space and time to experience myself. I could hear my thoughts and see how my body responded to them. My curiosity led me to experiment with the asanas and explore different ways of doing them. While I continue to take classes and look forward to working with teachers, practicing at home has allowed me to take full responsibility for my own practice and to make it my own. In doing so, I saw not only the richest of what yoga had to offer me, but also what I had to offer to myself.
Ann Bui lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She hopes to one day do a handstand away from the wall.