"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.