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February 08, 2006

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Publication Date: Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Health & Fitness: Healthful ritual Health & Fitness: Healthful ritual (February 08, 2006)

Developing a ritual around a yoga regimen at home could be the key to an enduring practice

By Renee Batti

Almanac News Editor

Easy come, easy go. That fairly well sums up the birth and death of most New Year's resolutions.

That commitment you made last month to go to the gym three times a week, to walk during the first half of your lunch break, to take a yoga class or begin a yoga practice at home -- has the determination begun to flag as February yawns ahead? Or has it evaporated completely?

It's a notorious problem, but it's not necessarily the result of a weak will. Circumstances of over-extended lives often conspire to sabotage our best intentions.

Donne Davis of Menlo Park says the difficulty of sticking with a fitness program might also be rooted in the way one approaches the effort. A practitioner of yoga for some 17 years, she has sustained her own commitment to a home program by developing practices that keep her focused and mindful as she moves through the poses that keep her limbs stretched and limber, her body graceful and flexible.

She calls those practices "rituals" -- a word that might scare off some people who immediately think of religious rites, chanting or incense burning. But Ms. Davis, a writer and life coach who presents lectures and workshops, often on the benefits of rituals in daily life, defines a ritual simply as "a conscious habit."

It is the addition of consciousness -- or mindfulness, or awareness -- to a habit that often puts that habit on more stable ground and gives it more staying power, Ms. Davis says.

The consciousness present in ritual, she says, "keeps our mind in the moment." With the inevitable distractions that arise on the home front, such focus is important to those trying to sustain a home yoga practice.

"When you're doing (yoga) mindfully -- with intention -- you're going to get more out of it. You're going to be more aware of how you feel, both during and afterward. ... And when you get more out of it, you're going to want to do it more."
Yoga at home

Ms. Davis has teamed up with her yoga teacher, Ann Merlo of the California Yoga Center in Mountain View, to give workshops on developing an enduring yoga practice at home.

While Ms. Merlo focuses on teaching a basic practice sequence that can be expanded as the practitioner develops, Ms. Davis gives tips on how to design a personal yoga ritual. The workshop also addresses a range of practical challenges that tend to derail attempts to regularly roll out the mat at home and devote a half-hour or so to yoga.

Yoga's popularity as a fitness regimen in the United States has soared over the last half-dozen years. A growing number of health and fitness professionals have come to recognize the ancient practice as a beneficial alternative to high-impact exercise.

Although researchers in this country have been slow to study yoga's health benefits, the practice is thought to reduce stress -- a condition that can lead to numerous health problems. It also increases flexibility, coordination and strength.

Not surprisingly, the home yoga workshops have been popular. Establishing a routine at home is an attractive alternative to attending a class two or three times a week, particularly to those whose time and finances are limited.

Ms. Davis says that workshop participants point to a range of obstacles they face in trying to develop a home practice.

Space is a problem for many. Solution? "Create a yoga corner," she says. A basket can be used for a mat and props, such as a blanket, blocks and a belt. The portable prop basket will also come in handy if a specific space is not always available -- such as when your child comes home from college or your spouse wants to watch television -- and you have another space to move to, she notes.

More difficult is the presence of children, Ms. Davis acknowledges. "It's a challenge to do yoga with kids around. But one possibility is to do yoga two or three times a week after putting the kids to bed."

She also suggests getting the kids involved, noting that there are books available on yoga for children. Even then, she says, it's a challenge. "Sometimes in life you just have to make accommodations -- and cut yourself some slack."
Developing rituals

Embarking on a home yoga practice might seem easy, but dealing with the unforeseen problems and sustaining the commitment can sink the enterprise quickly.

That's why creating a ritual around the practice can be the key, Ms. Davis says.

Her suggestions for starting include clearly thinking out your goal, and writing it down. "Make it small and realistic. Write it on a piece of paper where you can see it. State your intention." she advises.

"Maybe it would be to do yoga three times a week. Each time you do it, make a check mark. Track your progress."

Another ritual might be to keep a small journal nearby. "After you have done your practice, make some notes about how you feel," she says. "Make notes about the poses, how you feel after (each of them), ... what progress you've made."

Ms. Davis emphasizes the need to "be kind to yourself" if at some point you don't meet the goals you set for yourself. "If you have a setback, where you don't do it for two or three weeks, start over -- but don't give up," she says.

She also urges people to adapt their practice to the circumstances -- physical, emotional or logistical -- of the moment. "Too tired? That's a time to do more restful poses, not stand on your head.

"The key is to adapt your practice to how you come to it," she says.

Rituals might also include lighting a candle, and playing music that encourages mindfulness and calm.

Ms. Davis says she likes to "add new little touches" to her rituals from time to time. "The thing about rituals is they can get stale -- it's paradoxical in a way." But, she adds, "when you refresh your ritual, you recapture the vitality of it."

Ms. Davis' belief in the value of rituals goes beyond her yoga practice. She says one of the most meaningful practices she and her husband, Sonny, share was begun shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Every night at meal time, they light a candle "and say one thing we're grateful for," she says.

"Rituals can touch all aspects of our lives, making us more aware, more thoughtful about what we do and what's important in our lives," she says. "Rituals provide comfort, security and a sense of identity."

For information about future workshops on developing a yoga practice at home, call Ann Merlo at the California Yoga Center, 424-8316, or log on at www.californiayoga.com.


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