When you go to yoga class, you practice yoga, right? Definitely. You follow instructions to arrange your body and coordinate your breath in various poses and pose combinations. The result is relaxation, strength, flexibility, calm and bliss.
Is that the same as having a yoga practice? No. Because to practice is different from having a practice. The practice you do in class is your teacher’s practice, shared with you as a vehicle for learning, relaxing, strengthening, calming, blissing and creating flexibility.
What do you gain by having your own practice? And is one better than the other?
You gain a meditative mindset, and one is not better than the other. In fact, each relies upon and enhances the other.
The difference between a yoga class and a yoga practice is more than freedom, or getting to hold poses for the length of time you like, or following your intuition from pose to pose - all of which have value when balanced with their opposites. The difference between class and practice is the container.
In class, your teacher is the container, which can be part of what is so delectable about classes. I often hear, when I ask if there are requests, “Just tell me what to do for the next hour!” I love this, too, when I’m in the hands of a good teacher. The ability to turn over the reins, trust, follow and be led somewhere beautiful is the practice of surrender and has tremendous value. Sometimes it’s just plain luxurious.
The complement to surrender is effort. “What?!” you say, “I exert plenty of effort in yoga class, let me tell you!” And, of course, you are right. There is effort in yoga class: there is physical effort as well as your teacher guiding you to attend to all sorts of things, guiding your mental energy and effort.
The luscious quality of turning over the reins and being guided, however comes from surrender of a capacity that also must be exercised once you’ve reached a level of ability: the ability to be the container for your own practice. The difference between class and practice is that in practice you are the container for your own experience. Whether you move through a pre-planned sequence given to you or allow a practice to flow from your body through the filter of knowledge, when you practice you are both in the movement and the awareness of the movement. You are both in the moment and the bridge from the last to this to the next moment. You needn’t be taken out of presence to simultaneously be in the moment and holding awareness of the sequence of moments: this is meditation.
In Sanskrit, the traditional language of yoga philosophy, the poles of experience are referred to as vairagya and abhyasa: surrender and effort. There is a passive and an active component to experience, to wisdom, to learning - to existence. Abhyasa and vairagya are to be found in every pose, every breath and every moment, and so you’ll find an expression of them while taking a yoga class, following instructions, breathing and dissolving into the moment. But you can take that experience of abhyasa and vairagya in yoga poses, of effort and surrender, and place it in a context wherein the practice itself (with its components of effort and surrender) becomes the surrender to a constant awareness that over arches and contains the poses, the transitions and the breaths and unites them and itself into a true practice.
The difference between a class and a practice is not how proficient you are, how much you know about poses, effects or sequencing or how “good” you are. The difference lies in how you relate to that experience: are you the container or do you turn that over to another awareness? Each is good in its element - very good. Each without the other is imbalanced.
A home yoga practice is the surest way to cultivate this awareness and to become the container for your own practice - to truly own your practice, so that whether you are at home or in class you are practicing your own practice and not mimicking the teacher’s. While mimicking the teacher’s practice is certainly where we all start, and a place it’s often comforting to return, the next level isn’t defined by a pose or a sequence or any outwardly demonstrable action. You can be able to “do” any pose, even the most “advanced” and “difficult” pose imaginable and not own your practice. Only when you cultivate the ability to meet yourself, mano a mano, on your mat and feel your way from pose to pose, breath to breath, breath to pose and pose to breath - whether from a template or following an inner knowing - only then do you own your practice. Then you can own your practice breathing in Mountain pose and nothing more or your favorite “goal” pose - then you’ll be practicing even when you’re class. Then, you won’t find yourself looking from right to left or sneaking a peak in down dog to see if you’re “doing it right” even when you haven’t seen the pose. You’ll trust your inner sensation - and your teacher to correct you if you need it - and see yourself differently because your vision has shifted from external to internal, your senses have turned inward and your practice is truly your own.
Having a yoga practice requires repetition and regularity, but not necessarily a whole lot of time. You can have a home yoga practice of 5-15 minutes a day most days and gain so much of the benefit of a practice that your experience of classes will transform. Showing up for yourself in a practice and being there for yourself - lavishing your most valuable asset, your attention, on yourself - yields dividends on and off the mat.