12.14.2010

Bad Habits

 "To fall into habit is to begin to cease to be."  -- Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life

We are creatures of habit.  We all have our routines, a list of signature behaviors we have accumulated, of both the good and bad varieties, which color our character and shape our personality.  The ability to form habits is an evolutionary advantage and one of the most primitive forms of learning; once a task has been performed with enough consistency and repetition, it becomes second nature, automatic. By delegating some commonly completed processes to the subconscious, the mind filters the totality of experience down to a manageable sliver and makes mental resources available for more intensive analytical tasks.  This is the mind's way of efficiently managing its considerable workload.

What do habits have to do with yoga?  Well... nothing, and that's the point.  Habits are activities performed entirely without conscious thought.  Habits are the opposite of yoga.

In yoga, we strive for mindfulness in every moment.  Whether we know it or not, when we practice yoga, we engage in the practice of expanding of our own capacity for awareness in the present.  We increase our ability to experience the fullness of life.  However, for the daily practitioner, to whom the actions and sensations may be both comfortable and familiar, the challenge becomes preventing the practice itself from becoming habit.  After the ten thousandth Surya Namaskara, it is tempting to disconnect ourselves from the motions and let the body move on muscle memory alone while the thoughts are allowed to stray where they might.  We must be wary of habit creeping into our practice.  We must fight the urge to move through even the smallest vinyasa or the umpteenth chaturanga without the full attention of the mind.  This is at the very crux of yoga.  When we cease to pay attention, we cease to be engaged in the practice.

So how does one prevent the practice from becoming habitual?  By making it a ritual, instead.  Make every moment on the mat a dedicated act of devotion -- to what or whom, it does not matter.  Use intention and meditation.  Use stillness in your practice.  Take the time to re-center, to check in again and again.  With every breath, notice your thoughts.  Observe the patterns of your own mind and train yourself to stay connected, to recognize the signs of action without awareness and remain diligently watchful.

And what about off the mat? You may ask.  What of the well-worn habits in our day-to-day lives?  One could say this is where the real practice occurs, in the little things we do every day.  Can you mindfully brush each and every tooth?  Can you tie your shoes with total attention?  Can you be thankful for everything you have to protect when you lock the door as you leave for work every morning, and take pleasure in the scenery of the same route you walk, ride, or drive each day?  These are the moments in which the fullness of life passes by unnoticed unless we remain present and engaged in the practice.

6 comments:

  1. wow...this is timely to say the least. I've been practicing yoga for a year now and I've been thinking quite a bit about how my practice has changed. It went from honeymoon phase, to a very brief disconnect phase during a nasty bout of bronchitis, to "i need more challenges, and finally to a routine practice. I've felt like yoga is like doing laundry; I can't imagine not doing laundry every again because it's such a part of my weekly routine. I had a really great class last night where I breathed through some uncomfortable poses, really practicing in being in the moment. I guess treating the practice like it was my first and rediscovering it..being in love with it again. Recently, I've felt like I've had the "been there done that" attitude and was a little despondent. I've bookmarked your teacher training posts and will dive in soon. I've been thinking seriously about TT and was getting a bit worried because I didn't want to lose my passion for yoga! But the simple act of mindfulness and being present can do wonders....

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  2. So true, and thank you for the reminder. The past year or so for me has been incredible, not because I've done anything that might be considered outstanding but because I've been so much more connected with the present. I took some meditation training that involved mindfulness homework - we had to practice mindfulness while driving or in the supermarket queue, places where the mind tends to wish it was anywhere else. We then had to report back to our class. It was hugely helpful, as I learned the value of every minute of the day, that nothing is a waste. That there is 'life' in every moment and we need to be present to experience it, not wishing our life away. It's hard to put it into words but I'm sure you know what I'm talking about :-)

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  3. Erin H - Thanks for commenting. I hope the YTT posts are helpful to you.

    Brigid - My YTT course involved a good deal of mindfulness training, as well, from wrist bands as reminders to beware of coloring our reality to colored dots placed around the house, signifying different mindfulness checks. Blue dots were to remind us to breath deeply, red ones to make us aware of our posture. There were others, and gimmicky as these little games may sound, they really are effective in training the mind to be watchful and aware.

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  4. Yeah, sometimes gimmicky is helpful, especially when it's a lifetime of poor habits of the mind that you're dealing with. It's a fair bit of work to make mindfulness the overriding habit. I might actually implement the dot idea in my own life! I could use regular reminding. Cheers!

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  5. I think it's important to distinguish between the things we do all the time because we just do them all the time, and the things that we do all the time because we mindfully decide to. I think that's why it's called a 'yoga practice' and not a 'yoga habit'!

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  6. This was so lovely; I love what you said about devotion. That's so true (and hard sometimes)!

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