Yoga: How to start and sustain a healthy and holistic practice

I’m Kaitlyn, a writer, traveler, and serial exercise dabbler. Over the past three months, I’ve gone from complete yoga novice to nurturing a daily practice. In this seven-part series, I review the best resources, tips, apps, and gear to help even the most stressed-out and stiff-backed desk workers start a healthy, holistic, and life-changing yoga practice.

Here’s are the other posts I’ve written so far in this series:

Too busy to read the whole article? [1800 words, an 8-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • This is part 1 of a 7-part series. Follow-up articles will be linked here as they are published.
  • Habits are built through a series of trigger->routine->reward.
  • I test out DoYouYoga’s 30-day video program to see if it can help me build a habit.
  • I like the program, but I don’t like that it doesn’t give me time to meditate, which is very important to me.

Part 1 (of 7): How you can build a yoga habit in 15 minutes a day.

I don’t have any particular qualifications to write about yoga. My lifestyle is unremarkable—I don’t smoke, but I do eat meat and drink alcohol a few times a week. I over-salt my food. I stay up too late, I work too much, and I can’t remember the last time I woke up for the sunrise.

I used to live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a laid-back city with a yoga scene of international repute. I would drop into a class every now and then, get a rush of endorphins, hug my teacher and pledge to be back in a few days. Then I would get busy and stressed out and forget. When I couldn’t maintain a perfect lifestyle and schedule, I’d get embarrassed and stop trying. This on-and-off cycle lasted for years.

With most fitness routines I get attached to keeping an ideal schedule, but when I can’t keep it up, my enthusiasm wanes. This makes it hard to make a daily practice stick.

Instead of rigorously planning my practice, I needed to make it into a habit. The Habit Loop helped me understand how a habit works—habits are caused by a Trigger, followed by a Routine, and that then leads to a Reward. For example, every morning I wake up (Trigger), make coffee (Routine), and drink it (Reward—both because of the caffeine and the comfort of fulfilling the habit with delicious hot coffee).

I already knew the Reward for doing yoga (it feels amazing). Routine gets more complicated, simply because there are so many kinds of yoga, and so many ways of doing it. We’ll cover some of the variations later on, but since we’re all beginners here, just trust me: it never ends. I realized my fitness plans never quite work because the best way to start a habit that sticks is actually to start very, very small.

Yoga instructor Laurence Gilliot agrees. “If I don’t feel like it, I tell myself ‘Ok, just five minutes.’ Then I start and often I end up doing more than five min. The hardest part is to get yourself onto the mat.”

“The hardest part is to get yourself onto the mat.”

So I definitely needed something short. I needed a quick routine that would help me build the fundamentals and the confidence to move to a longer practice later. Yoga is supposed to be fun and feel good, but like any new skill, there is a learning curve. I didn’t want my daily routine to be so challenging that it left me discouraged or constantly sore—I wanted to see if yoga fit as part of my daily life.

I started with the DoYouYoga 30 Day Yoga Challenge. In this program, instructor Erin Motz leads a different 10-20 minute routine every day, designed to introduce a total beginner to some basics of yoga and let them feel the benefits. You can either sign up for a daily email or find all the videos here or on YouTube. The daily email became my Trigger, and the video my short, achievable Routine.

DoYouYoga

30 days of free videos, via daily emails or download when-you-want

Price: Free

Pros:

  • No-pressure, short intro to yoga, with a motivational 30-day format
  • Easy way to sample some different kinds of yoga and different poses
  • If you’re sore, try a targeted Day to get straight into your problem area
  • After 15 minutes you feel the reward of the practice – and often want to do more

Cons:

  • A 15 minute practice doesn’t have the space to spend much time in any pose
  • Many comments were asking for advice when they found a pose difficult or painful – A teacher will be able to make adjustments if you’re doing something incorrectly and safely push you to go farther, but a video can’t
  • Since they are “bite-size,” the videos often do not make a coherent sequence if you double up, so if you want a longer practice, find a longer video class (more about this next time)

My experience with DoYouYoga’s 30-day challenge

Day 1: Opening up hips and back helps people (like me) who sit a lot. My lower back felt loose and warm with fresh blood flow all day. It’s also interesting to see that one side of your body can be more flexible than the other.

I liked the idea that committing to 15 minutes of practice every day would make it easier to add more time. Everyone can find 15 minutes each day to spare, right?

Day 2: Spending a lot of time in Downward Dog used to be impossible for me—my shoulders would pop out of joint and I would topple to the ground. It looks and feels like I am weak or off-balance, but actually I have an abnormality in my arms. If I hadn’t had a teacher show me how to work around this problem in a live class, I wouldn’t have been able to finish even this short routine, and I would have been totally demoralized.

All video classes have this disadvantage—they cannot accelerate your practice the way a few sessions with a live teacher can, especially if you have an injury or a health problem to work around.

All video classes have this disadvantage—they cannot accelerate your practice the way a few sessions with a live teacher can, especially if you have an injury or a health problem to work around.

Day 3: Focusing on the back and posture was a good counterpoint to days 1&2

It turns out even finding 15 minutes was tough. I would plan to wake up early, but end up sleeping in and then drinking more coffee instead. At night I would decide to meet up with some friends …

Day 4 & 5: I got busy. And the internet was too slow.

How frustrating. Why would I procrastinate about doing yoga? I like doing yoga… right?

The daily reminder email wasn’t helping – if I couldn’t start the video right away, it got buried in my inbox.

I was buying into my old habit again. I got anxious that I wouldn’t be able to do a routine the “right” way or that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the practice. Then I would avoid yoga. I needed to let go of these ideas before I could move forward.

The second time I tried to do Days 4, 5, and 6: The YouTube commentators and I are all surprised at how sore the short yoga-and-Pilates influenced routines make our abs and core. Day 6, focusing on the lower back, is a great relief.

So I gave up on the perfect schedule and squeezed my practice in between work and errands. I wasn’t sure how this would work with a longer daily practice, but I was finally doing yoga every single day, whether first thing in the morning or in the afternoon after hitting a deadline. This really built my confidence.

Pro tip: Instead of doing a routine when I got an email, I left my yoga mat unrolled on the floor where I would see it when I had time to practice.

Day 7: Crow pose always looked impossible and somewhat boggling. A clear explanation of a sequence and which muscles to strengthen made this seem much more achievable. Day 8 also demystifies Wheel pose.

I started to look forward to the daily video, and soon I was spending more time on the mat. I would start with some stretches at first and revisit favorite poses after a video ended. Some days I doubled up or tripled up, and I also stopped feeling guilty if I had to skip a day.

Day 9: More movement and the introduction of more balance poses. I love balance poses, and I really like doing these at home where I can control the length of the pose (and no one sees me fall over!)

Days 10 & 11: Some relaxing stretching through the side body followed by a restorative routine with plenty of time to unwind and quiet down.

I was missing something, though. My favorite thing about yoga is that focusing on your practice naturally quiets your mind down and moves you into a meditation.

Laurence calls yoga a “Meditation in motion” and says, “When I start my practice, I usually still have thoughts flashing through my mind. When I start to focus on my breath and movement, I get into ‘the zone’—I just become the movement. My mind slows down and is concentrated on what’s happening in the present. Stillness comes. If I am struggling with a question or a challenge in my life, in this moment of stillness, the answer arises by itself. This is a magical moment.”

In only 15 minutes I really couldn’t get “in the zone.” Meditation is a major part of the yoga experience, and it’s missing from these 15-minute videos, I think simply due to the short formats.

Pro tip: Consider pausing the video for a few minutes occasionally if you want more quiet space.

Day 12: How embarrassing. I hurried through the hand and arm sequence that looked “easy” and ended up straining my hand. Between that and the intense hip openers on Day 13, I was ready for a recovery day. These were good reminders to keep listening to my body, not my ideal of what I thought I should be doing.

After about two weeks, I’d learned that I could keep up with a regular practice and get excited about getting on the mat each day. I was willing to commit to 15 minutes of practice, and I often did 30-45 minutes once I’d started. I had also built the confidence to start doing longer routines. I was ready for more.

What I learned from 15 minutes a day for 15 days

1) Just start doing it! This isn’t the time to strategize or plan. Go to the videos or sign up for the daily emails. Do one video today, while you are thinking about it.

2) There is no way to “Win” the 30 Day Challenge, so treat the format as a guideline, not a rule. Do two in a day if you want. Pause the videos to stay in a pose longer if you feel like it. Try to stay roughly in sequence (don’t just jump to the end), but you can explore what you are interested in that day. This isn’t how the program is designed, (and, again, I am not a yoga teacher) but I got more out of these videos by using them as a jumping-off point, then listening to what I needed.

3) Conversely, if the 30 Day format is motivational and comfortable for you, stick with it—what do I know?

References

  1. Laurence Gilliot, interview. With six years’ dedicated practice of yoga with a wide variety of styles and gifted teachers, Laurence’s classes are inspired by Anusara, Vinyasa, Restorative yoga, Yin yoga and Ayurveda. Laurence has also studied Buddhist mindfulness meditation on several retreats with Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh, co-facilitates a weekly meditation group and combines the Eastern practice of Buddhist psychology with the Western practice of Non-Violent Communication to coach both individuals and groups towards more fulfilled and joyful lives.