Forty Days of Yoga

Aug 14th, 2017
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Breaking Down the Barriers to a Home Yoga Practice

Asana’s regular contributor, Kara-Leah Grant (“KL”) has recently finished her book which will be available in early April. Asana (“A”) interviewed her on this project.

A: What inspired you to write this book? Which is more difficult – a home practice or authoring the book?

KL: I was inspired to write this book by several things. The first is the profound difference that regular home yoga practice has made in my life. It’s helped me heal from and manage chronic back issues. It’s also helped me understand and recover from two episodes of psychosis in 2004. The second is the number of people – yoga students, friends and family – who say to me, “I wish I practised yoga at home.” People really want to have a regular home yoga practice, they just don’t know how to go from having that desire to making it happen. The last reason is my belief that the more I can help and empower people to practise yoga regularly at home, the bigger the difference I can make in the world. Imagine what the world would be like if 10% of the population had a regular home yoga practice. Imagine 20%. That’s what I’m going for. It would revolutionise society – everything from healthcare to prisons, schools to aged care. Bring it on!

Authoring this book was effortless. The idea arose on one of my morning walks around the Glenorchy Lagoon. Between that moment, and finishing the first draft of the book – some 40,000 words – only four weeks passed. This book is something I’ve been living for the past eight years. I know it intimately inside out, so writing it was like an automatic download.

In that respect, maintaining my daily practice is far more difficult! I still have to use many of the techniques I explore in the book to ensure that I get on my mat each and every day. But it works, I practise yoga every day.

A: When did you start your first forty days?

KL: I can’t remember specifically. I know the first time I wrote about doing a Forty Day Sadhana on The Yoga Lunchbox was January 2009. But by then, I’d been regularly practising at home for about five years. The moment I really committed to daily practice was when I began teaching yoga, in either 2005 or 2006. I knew that to be a teacher, I had to have a daily practice of my own. Otherwise, what would I teach from?

A: Is “forty days” a magic number? Do you borrow the concept from another yoga master?

KL: Oh the magic of Forty Days … I first learned about using a Forty Day practice through Kundalini Yoga. I’ve since done some research into the reason for forty days and it crops up in a variety of different cultures and texts – including the Bible. Forty days takes us through one and a half moon cycles, which gives us an opportunity to experience our varying moods and cycles held against the consistency of the practice. It’s also long enough to turn the practice into a habit. It becomes part of who we are and what we do.

Our commitment to staying the distance is what’s crucial – if we miss a day, we have to start our count again at Day 1. On that first Forty Day Sadhana I wrote about on The Yoga Lunchbox, I missed Day 36. Unbelievable! So I had to start all over again at Day 1. This is important – the continuity and the discipline to stay the distance. Often we enjoy the first week or so. But by about Day 20, resistance can start to arise. The practice may be stirring up aspects of Self we’d rather not look at. Long-buried emotions or memories may be beginning to surface. Without the Forty Days to help us stay the course, it is easy to skip a day or two or let the practice lapse entirely. Knowing we’re committed and knowing we have to turn up to the mat no matter what helps us build the courage to face the discomfort and difficulties of the practice. It is here we begin to turn lead into gold … and that’s the magic of Forty Days.

A: Do you promote a home practice? Would this conflict with your profession as a yoga teacher if many start to develop their home practices?

KL: Yes, I promote a home practice. Absolutely, unequivocally. I would love to see every yoga student with a home practice. It’s crucial! A home practice gives us the ability to practise exactly what it is that we need to bring us into balance. We can meet our needs right where we are. You can’t do that in a general class. What you get might be good enough, it might make you feel great, but it’s not going to be the perfect practice for you. Plus in class you’re still focused mainly on an external source of information and knowledge – the teacher. A personal practice forces you to tune into the internal teacher. You learn to listen to and trust the deepest part of yourself.

If everyone had a yoga practice, and no one had need of a teacher anymore, I would rejoice. My job would be done and I would no longer be needed as a yoga teacher. In reality, even if everyone has a home yoga practice, going to class still serves an important role and purpose. A skilled teacher can help us see those aspects of our physical, emotional and mental being we’re still not seeing clearly. That might be a misalignment in our physical practice, it might be an attitude we’re holding onto on the mat or the way the mind leaps around in savasana. Going to class and having a home practice aren’t exclusive to each other, but mutually beneficial. I would love all teachers and studios to encourage and support all of their students in developing a home yoga practice.

A: You explained the nine obstacles of getting into a practice. Would these be good enough reasons for not trying? What is the best strategy to get over them?

KL: A good reason for not trying? Ha! If you don’t want to try and have a home yoga practice, don’t. Quit right now. Forget about it. Go do something else. Come back when you want – really want in the depths of your being – to practise yoga at home. Then the practice starts. There are always going to be obstacles to practise, and Patanjali was kind enough to write them out for us in the Yoga Sutras, distilling down those obstacles into nine. It’s a reminder that every yogi and every yoga student comes up against obstacles to practice – we feel lazy, we can’t be bothered, we’re agitated, we’re sick, we doubt our ability to practise, we crave something other than yoga. The difference between those who practise and those who don’t is not whether the obstacles arise or not, but the student’s attitude to the obstacle. Those who practise see the obstacle, and practise anyway. If necessary, for example if they are ill, they adjust their practice accordingly. Those who don’t practise buy into and believe the obstacle. “Oh I don’t feel like practising today, so I won’t.” The best strategy for dealing with obstacles is to first see them and then name them. See that thought and know that it is an obstacle to practise. And then practise anyway.

A: You also explained the importance of having a teacher whom one can work with and learn from consistently. Do you have your favourite teachers? What have you learnt the most from them?

KL: I trained with Shiva Rea, completing my yoga teacher training with her. Unfortunately she’s based in the US and I live in New Zealand. She is by far my favourite teacher though – she embodies Shakti. Her way of teaching and being speaks to my heart directly – the knowing that life is a pulse or wave that arises within, in each moment, in each breath and in each movement. Connecting to and opening to that pulse allows the practice to unfold organically from within. That is yoga. I love it.

Shiva is not the only teacher I have learned from though. I have a close sangha of yogi friends, some of whom teach and some of whom don’t. We share constantly on living and teaching and practising. Through their support, guidance and the way they mirror me so I can see myself more clearly, I learn so much. Having this sangha is as important as having a teacher to guide one.

Ultimately though, the teacher I have learned the most from, and the one that is with me at all times, is the inner Guru. It’s that knowing that comes from deep within. In my practice, the inner guru manifests in my breath – it’s my breath that leads my practice and reveals all I need to know. First I breathe, then I move. Breath envelops movement.

A: You quoted Sri K Pattabhi Jois, “Do your practice and all is coming”. What is your take on this?

KL: I struggled with this for a long time. I used to wonder if Sri K Pattabhi Jois just said it because students were asking silly questions and he didn’t want to answer. I wondered if it was a way of not answering the questions. Over time I realised this was kind of true. Jois was giving students a gentle reminder that no questions are needed. That no teacher is even needed. That when we do our practice, day in and day out, the next piece of the puzzle will arise when we’re ready. Our questions will be answered when we’re ready – from within, from that internal teacher. All we need is patience and a willingness to show up and do our practice. Now I understand. I have no questions. I either know, or I don’t know. And if I don’t know, I’ll know when I’m ready. Provided I show up and do my practice.

A: Do you assume the practitioner should have some basic knowledge about the poses, the sequences etc in order to get into a physical practice? Otherwise, what is the recommended starting point?

KL: Usually, by the time we’re looking to develop a home yoga practice, we’ve been going to class for a while and we have some basic understanding of yoga. Not always though! In an ideal world, we’d develop our home yoga practice in conjunction with an excellent teacher on a one-to-one basis. We might start by seeing them once a week and learning a practice. Then we’d check in with them every month or so. However, for many people, one-on-one sessions aren’t possible. I recommend that students start simple, and start with what they know. A starting point can be as simple as spending a couple of minutes breathing in Child’s Pose and finishing with Corpse Pose. Sure it’s simple, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy. Mastering those two postures could take you years! But in the meantime, your ankles, knees, hips, spine and shoulders have all been gently opened. You’ve learned to focus on your breath, and shift your breath into the back of your lungs and move it around your spine. You’ve learned to witness your mind. This is an excellent place to start. But it’s only one possible starting point – yoga is a wide and varied practice. It includes everything from asana to meditation, pranayama, chanting and even studying yogic texts. Where you start depends on your particular needs, your lifestyle, the time you have available, the knowledge you have, the support you have … all of which I explore in-depth in the book.

A: You indicated that a home practice is more than just an asana practice. Do you recommend including pranayama, meditation etc together in a home practice every day?

KL: Again, the right practice depends on the person. It depends how long you’ve been practising, what’s going on in your body and mind and what you already know. Creating and maintaining a home yoga practice is a process – start simple, work with a teacher either in a class situation or one-on-one, build gradually, educate yourself about yoga and let your inner wisdom and breath guide you. What I would recommend is opening your idea of what yoga is and not limiting yourself to asana. Explore the many paths and tools of yoga and determine which is right for you. Be curious. Talk to other students and other teachers. Try different classes in different styles. You will know when you’re doing the right practice for you because it will bring you into a state of balance – a state of yoga.

A: How do you recommend to best use this book – as a workbook; as a guide; as a motivation etc?

KL: Forty Days of Yoga can be used as all of these things. First, it is a workbook. You don’t just read it and set it aside. There are 16 worksheets that ask you to take time and dive deep into yourself as you answer the questions on the sheets. Those worksheets are designed to take you through a psychological process. Over time, you can return to them again and again, filling them in and seeing how you’ve shifted and changed.

The book has also been designed as a guide – it’s there to take you through the process of determining what kind of practice you need and setting up your life to support that practice. It’s also there to support you during your practice – what comes up on the mat? What issues arise? How do you deal with these issues?

Finally, I wanted to motivate and inspire people to practise. I wanted to remove all of those challenges and obstacles that prevent people from getting on the mat. On a day when you just don’t feel like practising, it’s perfect to pick up the book and read a page or two. Or maybe pick up your worksheet on the reasons why you’re practising and remind yourself of those reasons.

Over time, the book becomes a companion to your practice, always there to support, guide and inspire you through. That’s my intention.

Make it today to start your home practice!

Asana Journal

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