Aug 29, 2011
Motivating myself to start a healthy new habit
I’ve been working on getting a daily yoga practice going. I thought it might improve my overall energy levels, and help with the chronic tension in my back and shoulders. But it’s been a “two steps forward, one step backward” sort of path. It’s especially on those days when I’m feeling pretty good that I tend to slack off. I think what the heck, I don’t really need it today. But then one day becomes two, then three… And I find myself feeling sluggish and tight again. Ugh.
So I’m re-experiencing firsthand what it’s like to try and get a healthy new habit going. It sure isn’t easy. How do we keep ourselves motivated?
We all take up these practices for a reason. We know they’ll be good for us. We think they’ll help deal with (fill in your pet problem here). And it’s perfectly natural and human to focus on results. After all, why else are we doing this?
But I’m seeing that it’s a trap. Sure, there’s plenty of research showing that yoga and meditation improve your health in all kinds of specific ways. But the thing is, it’s not a predictable mechanistic process. There is no guarantee that taking up meditation will solve insomnia in X weeks. Or that yoga will calm anxiety in Y months. In fact, it’s very possible there are other influences fueling your particular insomnia or anxiety. In that case, these practices might have little effect. Expecting results is always a questionable thing to do.
The Buddha taught meditation as a path to end human suffering. Not as a fix-it treatment for specific ailments. The reason it helps our ailments is because it transforms us at the root cause of our suffering – i.e. cuts down on our neurotic way of chasing after every single thing we think will make us feel better. When we stop bouncing around like a yo-yo, the resulting calm creates a healthy foundation for the entire body. But when we chase after yoga or meditation with our same old neurotic wanting mind, we’re still trapped in the cycles of our own suffering.
I, for one, have dropped my expectations. Things ARE improving, slowly. But I’m not looking for specific things anymore. I’m putting my attention on something much bigger. I’m working on learning a healthier way of being, and yoga happens to be the instrument through which I’m working. I know it’s the HABIT and how I engage with it that will change me. It’s not something to achieve. It’s an ongoing practice. And it’s how I show up for myself that will work the magic.
So what’s my motivation? Well, to use the Buddha’s terminology, it’s to end my suffering. And to learn to do it HIS way. Not my deluded ways, which I’ve tried often enough to see that they don’t work so well. So what this means specifically for me is:
- Don’t judge whether my practice went well today or not. It’s really not relevant. As long as the long term trend is forward (including the backslides), that’s all that matters.
- Take responsibility for my choices and their consequences. There will be days when I just don’t feel like practicing. Without beating myself up, I’ll note the consequences of skipping a day. Maybe nothing happens. But it’s one less day that I didn’t make it a habit. Am I okay with that? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I take each incident on its own terms.
- Question my whims, moods, and cravings before acting on them. For example, if I’m procrastinating, there’s something going on worth investigating.
- Stop measuring and comparing myself against others. My yoga class meets in a room with a full wall mirror. Need I say more? Really, all I need to do is start where I am and point myself forward. It doesn’t matter what others are doing.
- Learn how to motivate myself. In other words, observe what works best for getting myself through challenges. Sometimes I need a kick in the pants. Sometimes I need to cut myself some slack. It’s good to know which is which.
- Face my limits and work very mindfully with them, but watch that I don’t cross over into “too much” territory. Especially when working with old injuries, weak areas, and new scary poses.
- Stay in the moment and savor it. After all, it’s the only time when practice happens. If I decide that it’s worth spending the time to practice, it’s worth engaging myself in it fully. Especially on the days when I think I’m too busy to practice.
- Always be kind to myself. In other words, do what I think is in my best interest. Even if it’s not necessarily what I want. And never, ever beat myself up.
You’ve probably noticed that this list has nothing specific to yoga. Because it’s not about yoga. It’s about life. I can’t say for sure that yoga has become a real habit yet, but I’m giving it plenty of time and space to develop it its own, organic way. And I’m learning a lot about myself in the process. And isn’t that really what matters?