How Yoga Can Change Your Habits
When I first began practicing asana back in 1982, my intention was to regain my natural flexibility. Years of hiking, biking and not stretching had tightened me up, and I felt a need to balance my strength. I’d always been curious about the mental dimension of yoga, even though I had no idea what it was. So I found a hatha yoga class and from my first class, I knew I’d found a home in the calm clarity I felt after class.
Back then I was 26 years old, and not long out of college. My college years had not been marked by a quest for clarity. They were, instead, all about altering my mind as often and in as many ways as I possibly could. It was the ’70s after all, and I was at Indiana University which at the time had the distinction of being the U.S.’s number one party school. By 1982, this phase was winding down for me, but my lifestyle was still not entirely healthy.
The first time I noticed that yoga was changing me was about three weeks after my first class. The evening before this particular class, my then-husband and I drank a few beers. In class the next evening, I felt shaky and weak. My perspiration smelled like beer. I didn’t like the feeling. Even the tiny amount of sensitivity I’d uncovered over just three weeks of practice shone a light on the effects of alcohol on my particular body.
Since then other unhealthy habits have fallen away, not through force, but because they just don’t feel good anymore. Just this morning as I sat waiting for my car to be inspected and registered, I looked at the panoply of candy bars at my garage’s front counter—Mounds, Reese’s, Snickers, etc.—all candy bars I loved as a kid. But this morning I was not even tempted. Nor have I been tempted for quite a long time. Looking at the bars brought back the feeling I used to have after eating them: agitated, ungrounded, with a “sick” stomach.
It’s not that I’m averse to enjoying a glass of wine once in a while in the right situation. I do sometimes. But I drink it knowing that during and after drinking, I will feel a certain way, and it’s not a feeling I enjoy so much anymore. Still, in the company of friends and family, occasionally enjoying the social connection is worth the aftereffects. The point for me is that drinking is a conscious choice, not a mechanical habit.
Changing the Brain
What got me thinking about yoga and its ability to make us more sensitive to our actions was a great interview in the Huffington Post this morning. In the interview, Dr. Timothy McCall talks about how practicing yoga changes your brain. Here’s the quote that brought back my reflections:
“When yoga is practiced with sensitivity and attention, it gradually increases awareness. It awakens your ability to feel what’s happening in your body, heart, and mind. When you become more aware of your body, more aware of your mind, more aware of your breath, you start to notice the consequences of your behavior. So a particular food that might not be so healthy may taste good to you, but you may start to realize that when you eat it, you feel crummy. When you notice that connection, you say, ‘You know what, I don’t think I want to eat this anymore.’”
In the interview, McCall talks about neuroplasticity, the ability the brain has to change itself. When we perform an action, connections are made in the brain that make that action easier to perform again. This is how we create habits. The good news is that we can cultivate the habits we want, habits that help us feel stronger, calmer, healthier, clearer, etc. and override the habits that make us feel sluggish, agitated or weak.
It All Comes Down to Mindfulness
The key is paying attention—being present to what we feel when we eat, drink, exercise—even when we practice yoga. Each individual’s experience is going to be different. For me, alcohol just doesn’t feel very good. For others, it might be the best thing to take the edge off a stressful day. We all have the power to decide for ourselves if we take the extra care to be mindful of how our actions make us feel.
Tune in to how you feel after eating, drinking, exercising and practicing yoga. I like to pause and tune in after each asana. This helps me to understand the effects of each pose and the quality of my effort. Does the pose I just practiced help me feel agitated or calm, tense or relaxed, frustrated or peaceful, edgy or smooth?
This, of course, can apply not only to what we ingest or our physical practices. It also applies to our mental/emotional habits. How does greed feel? How does generosity feel? How does it feel to hate someone, or to love someone?
Yoga practice has the power to change your habits, and your life, for the better. When you are mindful of the present and future effects of your behaviors, you have the power to cultivate them—or change them.