home yoga

How To Create A Retreat Space At Home

Getting to do yoga or meditate at home can be challenging.

You may not have much time at home - and maybe your kids/dogs/cats view the unrolling of the yoga mat as an invitation to clamber all over it, and you. Believe me, I completely relate:

It can be very frustrating. But with a bit of ingenuity, you can squeeze in some 'you-time' and even create a retreat space for yourself.  

How to create a retreat space at home

Having a special little space set aside can be like having a practice buddy, just quietly reminding you to take time out for yourself, do a few yoga poses, sit and meditate for five minutes.

Here's my space. It's just a corner of my not-very-big lounge room. 

Peaceful yoga altar - creating a home yoga retreat

I use a few elements to make this a space I want to practice yoga in. Given that I am 100% likely to have my practice interrupted, the feeling of retreat needs to come from something other than actual peace and quiet! 

Four elements of a great home yoga retreat:

  • An anchor for the space. In this space, it's the Buddha statue. You could also use artwork that makes you feel inspired or peaceful, like these from Sweet Peony Press:
sweet peony press namaste print
sweet peony press let it go print
  • Candles. I love candles, especially ones made from natural materials with pretty, light scents. Lighting a candle at the start of your practice can be a ritual that helps you get into a calm state before you've even done any yoga.
  • Intention cards. There is a yogic tradition of setting an intention for your practice - it's called making a sankalpa. For example, making sankalpa to be accepting. How smart, when your you-time might get interrupted! Getting angry about the interruptions won't help, but accepting them? Well, you are halfway to calm already. 
  • Special keepsakes. These help to remind you of good times and loved ones. Life can be tough, and sometimes we need tangible reminders that it's not always so. Here, I have a set of mala beads I got at a beautiful retreat centre in South Africa, and a heart made from semi-precious stone. I also often add in gifts small children have given me. Right now, there's a little stuffed hippo on my Buddha's lap! You could also add photos of loved ones, keepsakes from special places…the options are endless.
special things to put on your yoga altar

Even if you don't get to use your little retreat space very often, it's so nice to take a deep breath when you walk past it, and remind yourself that your little oasis of calm is always there for you! 

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Building a yoga habit

Morning yoga has become a ritual for me. 

I roll out of bed and do a few yoga poses on my bedroom floor in my pjs. I do this every day, sometimes just for ten minutes. It doesn't always feel good, but it tunes me in to how I feel, and I am usually calmer afterwards. 

This habit has a significant impact on the rhythm* of my day, my productivity in my work, and how stressed I do or do not feel. 

Rituals and habits are closely related. 

I think of rituals as habits that give us a little space to find meaning, or to remind ourselves of it.  

The dictionary definition of ritual is “any practice or pattern of behaviour regularly performed in a set manner”, and there’s plenty written on how rituals can give meaning to events (even a study that showed that performing a short ritual before eating food increased the enjoyment of eating it!), and how the things we do repeatedly are who we become. 

(These two, on the relationship between personality and habit, and on how long it takes to form a new habit, are particularly interesting.)

What does this have to do with yoga? Well, yoga is a tool both for noticing our habits (in posture, movement, thoughts, emotions) and for changing our them so we spending more time with the ones that help us.

And, of course, yoga itself can be a habit or ritual. 

Do you want to build a yoga habit?

I’ve written here before about how a home yoga practice can be an antidote to Busy. It’s also a way of noticing things about ourselves and how we are in the world, and, potentially, to begin to build more helpful habits in other parts of life.

But how to start?

I’m going to give just one piece of advice.  

Start small. 

A small change is easier to do regularly, and to form a habit we need regularity. (There's a great post here on the Zen Habits blog about forming habits.)

So perhaps start just by standing for a minute (yes, just a minute) each morning or evening in tadasana with your feet at hip width apart, spine tall, face muscles softening.

Or, you might like to try just a minute each day of any of these simple postures:

Build a yoga habit

Pick a time of day, and do it each day at (or roughly at) that time. Be flexible though. If the time doesn't work, change it until you find a time that does. Then stick to it. And that one little change may lead to bigger ones. After all, from little things big things grow.

*A note: I prefer the word ‘rhythm’ to ‘routine’ because it’s a little more flexible and a little less mechanical (and hey, life isn’t always predictable).


A home yoga practice is an antidote to Busy

I’ll be upfront. This is a post about being busy. And it is, um, particularly timely for me. When I wrote this, I needed to work on about five different things that day (sound familiar?).

I was Busy. And I felt it.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this thing we call Busy; finding out what it does to our bodies and brains and how it messes with our body's basic rhythms and cycles. Some of the reasons it's problematic are outlined in more detail in more detail in this 2012 article from the New York Times, and this one from 2013, in Australian magazine Dumbo Feather.

What concerns me most about ‘Busy’ is its close relationship with chronic stress and anxiety.

There are countless studies that show the impact of chronic stress on the body and the mind, and not much of that impact is good. Stress is supposed to be a short-term thing. 

Essentially, the antidote is to slow down. 

The body and the brain need downtime (or ‘rest and digest' mode) as part of a regular rhythm to keep them from falling apart. Yoga, especially a simple home practice, can be that. 

Being Busy is not, in itself, a bad thing. But for most of us it would be more useful to see it as an sign to pay more attention to how we're spending our time.

The What:

If you're Busy, chances are you won’t be able to get to a yoga class, or, if you can, you’ll only be able to go to one a week, maybe two. But to balance out the stress mode, your body really needs more downtime than that. This is where a home practice comes in. 

A lot of people get (understandably) nervous about the idea of practicing yoga at home. The trick, really, is to keep it simple. (Incidentally, simple yoga is often exactly the kind that’s needed if one is feeling Busy.)

My tips for starting a home practice:

  • Start small: commit yourself to ten minutes in the morning or the evening — if you feel like doing more you can, but regularity is ultimately more helpful; you’re trying to create a habit
  • If you know sun salutes, just do that. One round on each leg. Then lie down for a few minutes. 
  • If you don’t know sun salutes, do two or three poses that you do know. Start with the ones you feel confident enough with from class. Perhaps downward facing dog or a warrior pose or two. Perhaps the much-loved (ha!) chair pose or high squat. (You can always add more later. You don’t have to do it all on the first day.) Then lie down for a few minutes.
  • If you don’t know any poses at all, just stand with your feet at hip width apart, let your spine lengthen, then watch your breath. Then lie down for a few minutes.
  • Lie with your legs up the wall for a few minutes. Listen to this guided relaxation:
Grab a restorative yoga guide sheet   here .

Grab a restorative yoga guide sheet here.

Make sure your buttocks are far enough away from the wall that you’re not feeling a strong stretch in the legs, then just let yourself relax. Watch your breath. Resist the urge to do anything.

  • Have I made it clear enough that at least part of your home yoga practice, especially if you’re feeling Busy, should be just lying on the floor doing nothing?

Often the yoga I personally do at home is more complicated than this, because that’s what I feel like on the day, but at least once a week, sometimes more (usually when I’m feeling Busy), my yoga practice is just one of the points I’ve listed above. 

Honestly. 

Some days I just stand still for a few minutes. Other days even that’s too much and I just lie of the floor for a few minutes. This is a good way to lie:

Image courtesy   MoveWell Studio

Image courtesy MoveWell Studio

Yes, really. Some days I make time to do nothing. This is yoga.

If you want to do more than this (and I suggest perhaps waiting until a time when you’re not feeling so Busy to introduce a more complicated home practice), you can ask your yoga teacher to help you come up with a sequence that works for you. Or grab this download.

The Why:

To be honest, the ‘doing nothing’ kind of yoga is often far more challenging for me than the stuff that’s stronger physically, especially when I’m feeling Busy. The urge to “be productive” with all my time is strong. I suspect many people would notice the same thing.

The thing is though, different types of activity affect us in different ways, and downtime is productive, not just for the physical body, but also for the brain. This bit is especially important for those of us who work, probably at a desk, in a job that uses the brain but not so much the body.

Here's how different types and levels of activity affect our brains:

Aerobic exercise — something that gets your heart rate up — encourages the growth of more neurons and a better blood flow in the brain. This seems to improve the ability to focus in the face of distractions; it improves planning, scheduling, working memory and the ability to switch between tasks. All pretty good reasons to step away from the desk and move around, yes?

Anaerobic exercise — stretching or strength training that doesn’t necessarily get the heart rate up — appears to increase activity in the part of the brain that helps us to resolve conflict and to distinguish between confusing or disparate sources of stimulation. Again, helpful.

And then there’s doing nothing. Physically, doing nothing (or at least very little) allows the body to rest, restore and digest. But mentally, doing nothing is important too. Resting allows the mind time to wander, and to start sorting through all the stuff. It’s in allowing the mind to wander that we’re more likely to suddenly realise, say, that the answer to the problem at work can actually be solved using the something from some other part of our lives. Neurologists call this analogical thinking.

Here's the clincher: what we do with the physical body seems to be more effective than cognitive exercises for improving brain health and cognitive function.

The different benefits of the various types of activity (or non-activity) for the mind and body really need to be part of our daily rhythms, but they're especially important when we're Busy. So how about we all just have a little lie down now?