In the yoga community, the term “Daily Practice” is used a lot in conversation. People often ask me “What does your daily practice consist of?” and I’ve heard many people say, “I really need to start a daily practice.” What I haven’t heard as often are some questions that I think really deserve to be asked:
- What is a daily practice?
- How much time does it take?
- What are the benefits of doing a daily practice?
In the dictionary, “practice” is defined as:
- “the customary, habitual, or expected procedure of something”
- “the repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it”
- “a period of time spent doing this”
Anything repeated on a daily basis that we become proficient at, is a daily practice. This can include mundane activities like brushing our teeth or checking our e-mail, to more complex activities like training for a sport, or studying to learn a new subject.
In the context of yoga, “daily practice” often refers to yoga asana—the physical postures, but can also include mantra (sankrit or English chants or phrases), pranayama (breathing exercises), contemplation (journaling, focusing your attention on something specific), reading or studying something that inspires you or connects you to your heart, to yourself or to the world around you, feeling or expressing gratitude, setting intentions for your actions or behavior, or remembering or celebrating something that you value or believe in.
You might have heard the saying “practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.” However we practice, we generally get proficient at doing the thing we’re practicing. So if we derive benefit from the thing we’re practicing then it stands to reason that we would derive regular benefit by doing it consistently. One of the downfalls people experience in attempting to develop a daily practice is that firstly, they don’t really know why they’re doing it; and secondly they don’t necessarily choose practices that they receive benefit from. We all know why we brush our teeth, or have a shower, or eat a meal—we all know the benefits and we all know the consequences when we don’t do it. Success in establishing a daily practice works similarly.
When we see the benefit and place value on having that benefit in our lives — and when we experience some degree of pain or discomfort when we don’t receive that benefit — that can be a big motivating factor towards establishing a practice.
If the practice we do makes us feel better, is enjoyable, helps create a sense of peace, calm, joy, love, inspiration, then the rewards themselves become motivating. When we receive so much benefit from something that we notice and even suffer a little in its absence (perhaps we experience a higher degree of anxiety, get triggered more easily in our relationships, aren’t able to think as clearly, don’t feel motivated), then the suffering itself becomes the impetus for establishing a regular practice. To this end, it is important for us to consider why we would want to develop a daily practice, exactly what we are practicing and what we are practicing for.
Within the context of developing a daily practice, when students have said to me “I really should develop a daily practice”, I have asked them “Why?”
Certainly not to dissuade them or because I don’t think there are benefits to developing a daily practice, but because if our motivations are extrinsic (meaning we are doing it just because everybody else is, we think that it’s what a dedicated practitioner of yoga “should do”, or we feel that we will somehow be more accepted if we do) then chances are good that we will either lack the motivation to start or continue the practice, or that when we do and we fail to receive very much benefit from it then we are more likely to stop practicing. If this becomes a repeated occurrence (we tell ourselves we should do something, we start, don’t receive the anticipated benefits, then stop/quit), many times we’ll start to tell ourselves a story about that cycle—“I’m not very good at committing”, “I don’t have the motivation”, “I’m not disciplined”… or whatever it is. When we start telling ourselves a story, then that story becomes a part of how we perceive ourselves and we subconsciously play that story out over and over again.
When we ask ourselves “Why?” and can honestly answer that the motivation for developing a daily practice comes from an intrinsic motivation (a deep sense of knowing that it is the right thing to do—for myself and for the people in my life), we are a lot more likely to commit.
When we have an experience of a practice that connects us more deeply to our own heart, helps us to have better relationships, show up more fully, feel more alive, be more grounded, passionate, loving… whatever it is, then we experience more motivation and commitment than if we are doing something in the hopes of receiving someone else’s approval or feeling more accepted.
So before you start ‘shoulding’ yourself — stop and ask yourself,“Why would I want to develop a daily practice? What’s in it for me?” And if you don’t get a big, hearty “Yes!” for all of the reasons it will benefit you from the inside out, then you might be better off not doing it right now.
But when you have your reasons, and you get a big ‘yes’ from doing it, the following 6 steps will help you create and maintain your own daily practice.
- Create a list of all of the perceived benefits that you will receive by committing to a daily practice. This will help give you the motivation that you need to commit.
- Make a list of all of the ways you have experienced discomfort, hurt, pain or even suffering by not having a daily practice in the past. This list probably won’t be as much fun and likely won’t make you feel very good, but is actually a great way to link not doing a daily practice to something undesirable—which impacts you on a subconscious level and provides further motivation for commitment.
- Decide how much time is reasonable for you to devote to a daily practice. If you only have 5 minutes per day in the morning, then don’t start off by creating a 30-minute daily practice that you already know you’re not going to do. A 5-minute practice done 5 or 6 times a week for a year, is better than 30-minute practice done once every 2 weeks or once a month, or 5 times in a row then forgotten about. You can always increase the time once you’ve well established the daily routine.
- Decide on a specific time of day that makes sense for you to practice. If you have a consistent routine, it might be realistic to say that you’ll do your practice at 8am every morning. But if you already know that your routine changes frequently, you might be better off to give yourself some flexibility, or tie it into something else that you do every day no matter what. For example: as soon as you wake up, right before you eat breakfast, before your first coffee of the day, before you go to bed, etc.
- Decide what your practice is going to consist of. A basic rule of thumb that works for me is to do practices that I receive benefit from and that have meaning for me. Anytime I’ve done things because I thought I should, someone told me to, or because someone else was doing them but they didn’t hold any particular meaning, enjoyment or benefit for me, I’ve never stuck to them. Essentially, if something makes you feel lighter, more joyful, peaceful, grounded, connected to your true self, then that’s a good indication that it’s a practice that works for you.
- Just practice. Don’t wait for a certain day to start your practice. Begin it now and do it as consistently as you can. If you forget a day or two, just start again. If one day you can only do it for 2 minutes or you only have time to do it in the car, well—better than nothing. There’s a Japanese proverb that goes: fall down 8 times; get up 9. Give your initial practice a few days, or even a week and then give yourself permission to tweak it a little bit. Make it shorter or longer, add in practices or take some out, just make it work for you.
Remember, as your daily practice develops so will you. The practice I started many years ago is very different from the practice I have today. As your practices grows and evolves, a big part of that is letting go of judgment and criticism and allowing your practice to be what it is. The relationship you develop with your practice, and how you treat yourself in relationship to the practice, is just as much a part of your experience as the practice itself.