by Eric Stewart
At the end of a class last week, a new student approached me and asked if there was anything that would be good to practice at home. I love to hear this question, because it shows interest and engagement. It’s one of the most common questions I field from beginners, and I suspect that there are many who wonder about it but don’t ask. When a new student inquires about home practice, I have a ready answer that boils down to a few points:
Do less rather than more in the beginning.
Do something that feels challenging and also something that feels easy and good.
Let curiosity guide the practice rather than striving to accomplish something.
This advice is meant to facilitate a positive experience during a student’s initial explorations. Doing less rather than more avoids the tendency to bite off too much and get discouraged. A balance of enjoyable and challenging elements helps the practice remain accessible and stimulating.
Curiosity is especially important. It sustains liveliness and interest. Keeping curiosity front and center is a great way to maintain spontaneity, and to avoid a rigid, purely goal-driven attitude.
Of course, having goals and objectives is important, but if a beginning student can stay centered in an attitude of curiosity, progress tends to happen faster, compared to an approach that involves striving to achieve the particular form of an asana.
Also, as much as the emphasis on goals can provide structure and intention for the practice, a curiosity-based approach has much to provide in the way of framework. An attitude of inquiry allows a person to perceive contrasts, similarities and patterns. This sort of information is essential for developing structure within a practice.
For example, curiosity allows a person to interpret sensation in their back and adjust the body in a way that leads to more space rather than compression and tightness.
Curiosity encourages an experienced practitioner to maintain the attitude of a beginner. It’s easiest to see the specifics of this approach in an actual practice, so let’s look at a specific asana.
Half-Dog (ardha adho mukha svanasana) is a pose that lends itself well to all three points of the advice I offer to beginners.
Doing less rather than more: Half-dog is a great practice to do by itself, most any time of the day. It is especially wonderful as a counter to the effects of sitting or standing for long periods of time. Office chairs, countertops, and walls make great supports for the hands.
Do something easy and something challenging: Normally what I mean by this advice is to do at least two different asanas or practices. In this case, easy and challenging elements are wonderfully contained in one pose. The elevation of the hands onto a wall or higher surface makes half-dog more accessible than full downward facing dog (and especially useful to those with wrist or shoulder problems). Yet at the same time, many students remark that there are ways in which half-dog can feel more difficult than its full-fledged sibling.
The challenge in this case has a lot to do with clear transfer of force and elongation through the limbs and the trunk. Less flexible people tend to round the back in a convex shape (photo below left) while those with more mobility in the shoulders, back or legs tend to collapse in a concave direction (photo below right). If you\’re not sure what your tendency is, have a friend observe you in the pose.
Integrity in the relationship between arms, trunk and legs is a matter of elongation supported by a balance of upward and downward forces. If you are tighter in your body, you may need to bring your ribs higher away from the ground to find that integrity. If you have more mobility, you may need to elevate at your shoulders or low back to avoid collapse and compression in these places.
Let curiosity guide the practice: If you approach half-dog by trying to force it open, you won’t do it for long, and you won’t return to it. The pose opens through attentive listening. Whether you have a friend offering feedback about the form of your asana or you are exploring on your own, try different things.
Notice the difference between doing the pose with the hands on a wall, at a right angle to the arms, and doing it with the hands flat on a counter or resting on the back of a chair. Experiment with wider or narrower stances in the hands and feet. Play with the effect of doing the pose multiple times with little breaks in between versus one longer, uninterrupted time in the pose.
Listen to what your body says. If something is painful, see if you can adjust so that force is distributed more evenly. Do your best to figure it out on your own. If you can’t, get help from a teacher.
Whether you have many years of practice behind you, or you are new to yoga, half dog is an excellent asana for finding and supporting one’s inner beginner. Happy practicing. Have fun!