It happens. Despite your best intentions, you find yourself roaming the internet hours past your bedtime, chatting on the phone when you’ve blocked out time to exercise or scarfing down a pint of ice-cream when you’ve already had enough to eat. If you’ve developed some awareness through your practice, you probably know which behaviours are no longer serving you and you sincerely want to overcome them. So it can be frustrating to catch yourself slipping back into old habits.
Fortunately, yoga offers a compassionate approach to making changes. Start by setting an intention for the behaviours you’d like to change and then actively work toward it without judging yourself when the process takes longer or is less flawless than you’d like. If you do slip into an old habit, forget the impulse to direct disappointment or anger at yourself and decide to simply start again.
Here are three ways to take a yogic “time-out” and set forth on a transformative path that might change your behaviours (and your life) in ways far grander than you might ever imagine.
Come Into Full Bloom
By connecting to your authentic Self in meditation, you can identify your highest goals and develop a greater awareness of how your everyday actions can best support those goals. Through the flower meditation that follows, you can also create a more positive state of mind.
You’ll notice that while you concentrate on and identify with the beauty of a flower, it is impossible to feel uptight or bound up in a mental narrative about your shortcomings. Instead, you may find that you emerge from meditation with a sense of contentment and ease. Try it for 10 minutes daily for a month and observe how it helps you see yourself—and the behaviours you’re trying to change—in a new way.
Place a single flower in a vase on your altar or on a table—anywhere you can spend a little undisturbed time with it. Gaze at the flower, noticing the colour and texture of the petals and moving your awareness from the edges of the petals toward the centre as your focus deepens.
Now broaden your vision and take in the flower as a whole. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the flower. In the parlance of yoga, this is called dharana, or one-pointed concentration, which slows down the thinking process and paves the way to a meditative state of mind.
When you’ve memorised every detail, gently close your eyes and direct your attention to your heart. Visualise the flower there, living inside you—a symbol of your inner beauty, which is always radiating from within. This is dhyana, or meditation—an exquisite state of stillness in which the mind produces few thoughts or none at all.
After several minutes, drop the image and simply rest your awareness at the heart centre.
Yoga teaches that when you’re connected to your heart centre—your true Self—you have clearer perception, you make better choices and you suffer less. If you practice this meditation regularly, you may find that unhealthy behaviours become less appealing, because they do not resonate with the wisdom of your true Self.
This newfound relationship with yourself can be a refuge when you need to turn inward and take stock of your actions. When you need guidance, simply ask yourself: what would serve the interests of my true Self? Then gravitate toward the thoughts and actions that best support your goals.
Carve a New Trail
When you catch yourself engaging in unhealthy behaviours—recklessly spending money, wolfing down a box of cookies, needling your lover to change or ignoring your kids so that you can hang out online—practise Pratipaksha Bhavana, a type of cognitive reframing that can act as a behavioural reset button. This Sanskrit term comes directly from the Yoga Sutras and can be translated as “When obstructive thoughts arise, practise the opposite thought”. In other words, when you find yourself indulging in negative thoughts and behaviours, you can stop and cultivate the opposite thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
“This simple practice can help you slowly gain control over your mind by guiding it away from negative thoughts and behaviour…”
Take a deep breath and then name the problem. Admit to yourself: “Yes, I did that. I yelled at my child; I ate half a bag of chips; I lacked compassion for my co-worker.” Only when you are aware of your unconscious patterns can you choose a different thought or course of action.
Remind yourself that it’s OK to make mistakes. Your inner critic might respond to your behaviour with self-judgement, discouragement or shame, but you can reframe the slip-up by adopting an attitude of lovingkindness toward yourself.
Express gratitude toward yourself for noticing the behaviour and for being aware of its unpleasant effect on you. Be grateful that you want to make a positive change and that you are choosing to be more caring toward yourself and others.
Finally, let your desire to create better habits direct your vital force toward thoughts and actions that truly serve you—and choose your next steps consciously. You might, for example, apologise to your child, seal the bag of chips and eat an apple instead, or turn your mind toward a mantra or positive affirmation instead of criticising your co-worker.
If you use this mental checklist on a regular basis, you may find that your positive habits get stronger and your negative ones begin to wither away. As you flex your muscles of awareness, they, too, will grow stronger. You’ll begin to see the behavioural patterns that undermine your wellbeing and you’ll eventually be able to make better choices to begin with.
Another wonderful way to get a fresh start when you’re on the brink of a bad behaviour is to practice pranayama (breath control). For example, the next time you’re irritated and about to lose your cool, try taking a two-minute time-out. Begin with 12 full, deep breaths, letting your mind rest in the natural rhythm of each inhalation and exhalation. Notice how each inhalation creates a feeling of expansion and how each exhalation creates a mild contraction at the navel centre, connecting you to your personal power.
If you have four more minutes, try a yogic breathing pattern that extends the exhalation, inviting a sense of relaxed awareness into your body and mind, so that you can shift your awareness from distraction to attention, from stress to calm—and act from your higher Self. Breathe deeply a few times, then follow these steps, repeating each one three times before moving on to the next.
Inhale for a count of 6 and exhale for a count of 6, bringing the mind into the present moment.
Inhale for a count of 6 and retain the breath for a count of 3. Then exhale for a count of 6 and retain the breath for a count of 3. The breath retention has an uplifting, vitalising effect on the mind.
Inhale for a count of 6 and retain the breath for a count of 3. Exhale for a count of 9 and retain the breath for a count of 3. The extended exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response.
Inhale for a count of 6 and exhale for a count of 9. With every exhalation, gently firm your belly and enjoy its grounding, empowering effects.
Because these breathing exercises activate the navel centre, they’ll help you tune in to your personal power and create a calm, clear state of mind. You’ll then find it easier to overcome the temptation of an unhealthy behaviour, make a wiser choice and start living your best life.
Mirka Scalco Kraftsow, the director of teacher development for the American Viniyoga Institute, is dedicated to the transformational teachings and practices of yoga. Find out more at www.viniyoga.com.