February 25, 2011

Curing Bad Habits Through Yoga.

A habit is something you can do without thinking – which is why most of us have so many of them.
~Frank A. Clark

Do you have a habit that you’re forever trying to change? It could be something relatively inconsequential like twirling your hair when you’re thinking or reaching for the M&Ms when the mid-afternoon “sleepies” hit. Or it could be something a little more insidious like barking at your kids for stupid things (not making their beds or putting their laundry in a hamper, say) when you’re really upset about something going on at work.

It can be incredibly frustrating to catch yourself doing the very thing you swore from the bottom of your heart that you’d never do again. It can be even more frustrating to slip up just when you thought you were finally making some headway toward change. But slip up we do. Over and over again sometimes. Indeed, slipping up seems to be an integral part of the human experience. It actually seems to be part of the process of change itself.

For me, the key is to notice when I’m slipping up. It seems simple, right? How hard could it be to notice what you’re doing? Maybe I’m just one of the slower ships out on the sea, but it’s wickedly hard for me to notice that I’m about to slip into one of my habitual behaviors. Turns out, I’m much better at noticing something after I’ve already gone and done it.

At first glance, noticing my mistakes after the fact seems ineffectual. Not only am I painfully aware that I’ve slipped up, so I’m feeling pretty yucky, but sometimes, my awareness yields the added bonus of the hard work of making amends for my goof. This is all a part of the process of growing and changing, however. The more I do the work of reflecting on my habit (and correcting its effects), the more likely I am to start to notice my impulses and stop myself before I act on them.

Yoga is a great way to practice noticing. Nothing else in my life has taught me how to pay complete attention to what I’m doing than practicing asana. While it’s possible to stand in mountain pose (tadasana) without awareness, once you’ve felt the potential of this simple posture (the stable feeling you get when you deliberately balance your weight over the arches of your feet, the powerful feelings that come from engaging your core muscles (bandhas), the subtle feelings of spaciousness and freedom that come from extending your torso by lifting your sternum and pulling your low ribs toward your hips), you’ll never want to go back. As you move on your mat, you learn to carry this type of awareness and focus to every posture you take – the complicated and the simple. By doing so, the added richness of your practice is immeasurable.

It follows quite naturally (I promise), to find yourself paying more attention to your actions off your mat. The effort it takes to pay attention starts to diminish as it becomes itself a habit. I can’t tell you how many times a yoga student has come to me with a question about a nagging pain. My questions for them typically range way off their mats. I’ll ask, for instance, what side they sleep on, how they sit at their desk, how they stand while cooking dinner, and what they carry around all day (backpacks and babies can wreak havoc on the body).

More often than not, my queries are met with silence and a wondering expression. They have no idea how they sleep or sit in their chairs. You’d be astonished at how much we do in life without awareness. The good news is that once they realize that they don’t know the answers to my questions, they head back off into their lives with opened eyes.

Even better, they come back to class the following week filled with data and ideas about what they’re doing to cause (or at least exacerbate) their aches and pains. Noticing their behaviors allows them to start the process of changing them. They start to “catch” themselves sitting with their legs crossed and uncross them. When things are going really well, they may find that sitting with both feet on the floor is feeling a little more natural. But it’s perfectly normal for them to continue catching themselves for a very long time.

Which is how it tends to go with all habits. It’s important to remember that just spending less time with your legs crossed (or carrying a backpack on one shoulder, or standing with all your weight on one leg …) because you’ve caught yourself is often enough to alleviate a nagging pain. In other words, you don’t have to eradicate a behavior to see benefits. Similarly, each time we catch ourselves being sharp with our kids after a tough day at work is more than just a step in the right direction. It is a stepping stone to living more the way we want to live.

There is no limit to the number of times we’re “allowed” to slip up. The important thing is for us to keep noticing and to never give up believing in the possibility of change. In fact, it could be said that if “slipping up” is one of the trials of being human, then our ability to notice is the silver lining that turns our trial into a gift for growth. 

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