Practicing yoga has so many benefits. The best known of these include stress relief, along with physical strength and flexibility. But there’s more. Practicing yoga can help us navigate the ups and downs of our lives. The Yoga Sutras (sutra 2.48) state that “mastering” asana renders us “no longer upset by the play of opposites” in our lives. Early on, I discovered another important benefit: yoga’s ability to help us change habits.
I started practicing yoga when I was 26 years old, and just 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.
A Gradual Shift
About three weeks into my yoga practice, I discovered that an unpredictable shift had taken place. The evening before this particular class, I drank a few beers. In class the next evening, I felt shaky and weak. 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 many 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. 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. The point for me is that drinking is a conscious choice, not a mechanical habit.
Change Your Brain, Change Your Habits
A while back, the Huffington Post interviewed Dr. Timothy McCall. He spoke about how practicing yoga changes your brain. Here’s the quote that most resonates for me:
“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, the brain makes connections 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 and 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. The ability to change your habits depends on understanding how these habits play out in your life.
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 cause me to 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 our habits, and our lives, for the better. When we are mindful of the present and future effects of our behaviors, we have the power to cultivate them—or change them.