Welcome Back Yoga: How to Get Back on the Mat

This was originally published on my Pleasant Hill Patch.com blog, Jan. 14, 2013.

Our studio staff were recently discussing our new Welcome Back Yoga class, designed to help ease our experienced students back into a regular class after a long absence, and we started talking about our personal experiences with lapses in practice. As yoga instructors, we still occasionally struggle with making time for our own yoga practice. We understand that a lot of factors other than just physical condition come into play when trying to reestablish the habit. One instructor recalled being nervous about returning because she was afraid the people in her class or teachers might judge her for her absence, without realizing that each person goes through the experience sooner or later, especially yoga teachers!

Even for established yoga practitioners, certain seasons are especially challenging. In the summer, we’re running around doing other activities and dealing with school being out and frequent, unexpected schedule changes. In the winter, we’re restricted by inclement weather and gloomy, dark early evenings. It can be difficult for people to find a way back into their practice. I sent out the following tips in our back-to-school studio newsletter, but since it is timely now and people are working on their resolutions, I thought I’d spread the word!

In addition to talking to an instructor about his or her personal experience, here are some other things that have helped us when we’ve fallen out of practice:

1. Join forces! When I first started taking yoga, I was so enthusiastic I dragged everyone I could to class with me. Not only did it make yoga a fun night out with friends or family, but it also encouraged me to go on those cold, rainy nights when I’d rather just stay home. Be cautious though, as the sword is double edged– if your friends and family skip a night, it can be harder to push through and show up on your own! (Several of our members have made their practice a girl’s night out event, and go out after class for coffee, drinks, dinner, or karaoke! Have fun with it!)

2. Remember why you are here. You probably didn’t start taking yoga to become a Yoga Journal cover model or perfect your Peacock pose. You probably started because you heard something about yoga helping with stress management, or easing aches and pains, or increasing strength and flexibility and balance. Maybe your doctor recommended it, or a friend told you how much it improved his or her life. Whatever your reasons, find a way to hold on to it that will work for you: Write yourself a post-it and leave it on your mirror, find a picture that makes you think of yoga and make it your background wallpaper, find a favorite quote and make it a mantra… I wear bracelets with messages that remind me why I keep going.

3. Remember who you are here for and keep that person a priority! You may have been dragged to a class by a spouse or nagged into it by a doctor, but you keep coming for you. You aren’t here to impress your teachers or some random stranger in class. You are here because you matter, not only to yourself but to the people around you, and keeping yourself well is important enough to invest your time. It is challenging to take the time for yourself when the world around you is trying to get as much of your attention as possible. When you are caught in the storm of your outside life, remember that you have an oasis you can call upon at any moment, and the more you practice, the easier calling up the calm can get. It’s a paradox: when you take time for yourself, you can handle the stresses of your life more quickly and efficiently. Talk to your instructors when this becomes challenging! We all have and continue to struggle with this!

4. Start small. If you’ve been practicing long enough to remember a handful of poses, create a home practice for yourself. Make a commitment to spending 5 or 10 minutes doing these poses. Attach it to an existing habit like brushing your teeth or doing dishes or laundry. As you start building the habit of doing yoga, some yoga, ANY yoga regularly, you can start scheduling classes and longer practices over time. Commit to your classes like you would commit to any other appointment. (Too soon in your practice to come up with any poses on your own? Tadasana, forward bend, Warrior I, Downward Facing Dog, walk feet to forward bend, tadasana. Too active a practice? Do a gentle cat/cow everyday.)

If you were fairly new to your practice and enjoyed an especially vigorous style, try taking a week or two of less active classes. While your “muscle memory” and habit may try to push you toward poses your body is used to doing, your body has been on vacation for a while and may not be happy about this the next morning. Taking a class one or two levels beneath your usual class can ease you back into a demanding practice safely.

5. Set an intention and practice ahimsa. I have always struggled with intention because, as a true Type A, I am very goal-oriented and driven. If I set goals in my yoga, I’m afraid it will twist it into something that is no longer beneficial. For me, and perhaps for many of our clients, there has to be balance between an intention and ahimsa, the yogic principle of non-violence. Where goals can often be pressure- and outcome-oriented and based in expectation, intentions simply express a will for the future, grounded in the knowledge that the future is impossible to know for certain.

If the future changes in such a way that you are no longer able to meet your intention, observe what affects those changes have on you and reset your intentions, but don’t beat yourself up over it! Practice ahimsa, the yogic principle of non-violence in thought, word, and deed toward yourself as well as others. While internalized guilt trips and self-chastising can be effective motivations in the short term, in the long term those negative attitudes can attach to the practice, which just makes it harder and harder to keep going. In the long run, when you run into an obstacle it is easier on your spirit and motivation to just get up, gently and kindly brush yourself off, shake the dust off your mat, and get back on.