Yoga Will Always Meet You Where You Are
Bad habits cause us to suffer. Practice pulls us back to what we really want.
BY MAGAZINE CORRESPONDENT AJA BLANC
Recently one day, I woke up, looked around, and realized I had inadvertently acquired some bad habits. There they were, just hanging out with me with no intention of leaving. When I assessed the bad habits, I thought they had found me by mistake, because I don’t actually recall seeking them out or even being aware that I was feeding them.
Are bad habits really inadvertently acquired? Probably not. Depending on the severity of the bad habit, one could argue that bad habits are very real expressions of, well, all kinds of subconscious mind stuff.
And although I felt taken by surprise by these unwelcome guests in my life, I would bet that if I looked at things closely, I would find that these bad habits didn’t arrive out of nowhere, but were cultivated over a period of time.
Buzzed up or blanked out
It was my ongoing practice of yoga that sounded the alarm of the unwelcome bad habit intruders. In yoga, I find a place of equanimity, balance and wholeness. The Bhagavad Gita describes this as sattva, the mind’s normal state in which it discriminates accurately. The opposing qualities (gunas) are rajas, a state in which excessive mind activity weakens discrimination and tamas, a state in which insufficient mental activity weakens discrimination.
In her book “Bringing Yoga to Life,” Donna Farhi speaks to this experience. “When the mind is dominated by sattva and in a state of equilibrium, we will find ourselves naturally drawn toward the very things that generate this happiness.”
Or in my case, a mind that (even for the shortest moments) is dominated by sattva can highlight the things that inhibit this happiness.
A dedicated and skillful yoga practice will always meet you where you are and can create a sense of equilibrium that ripples out and off the mat like ripples in a pool of water. When those ripples hit a dam in the flow, it is usually good time to slow down and look around.
Don’t shoot the messenger
Sure enough, when I took stock I not only could clearly see those blockages, but like many unwelcome messengers in life, they gave me important information. I came to see these bad habits as blockages that prevent a sense of balance and wholeness from radiating out into my life.
It would be impossible to make some kind of master list of all the possible bad habits one could have. They are too subjective and too dependent on the individual context. Sure, there are some biggies – I don’t think I would be going out on a limb by saying that smoking is a bad habit. But perhaps more broadly, bad habits are any actions or behaviors that either inherently or through frequency, create discomfort, pain or suffering.
Some psychologists believe that bad habits are acted upon when a “trigger” is set off emotionally. And there are even more theories as to why they are so hard to get rid of. Much of what I had read is conflicting.
Some scholars say that people with bad habits have an inability to truly understand the nature of risk, while studies have also shown that people do in fact understand the risks associated with certain bad habits – such as the risks associated with excessive drinking, overeating and smoking, and yet cannot stop the habits.
Habits can turn into addictions, addictions can turn life threatening.
Don’t judge, but don’t look away
When we pursue contemplative practices that give us, for even the most fleeting moments, a sense of wholeness, it becomes much easier to identify our attitudes and actions that butt heads with that feeling. I think this is why people have often observed that once they take up a yoga practice in earnest, they also start to make changes in other areas of their life that feel just as good.
So if the first step is cultivating a sense of inner self that leads to awareness of when actions threaten our equilibrium, the second step would be non-judgment. This is even harder than the first step I think. Because oh-man isn’t that some juicy fodder for some self-loathing and hate.
To remember and actually believe that it is the habits that are bad and not you the person, that is the work to be done. I have a yogi sense of guilt that rivals other spiritual practices. But feeding a bad habit with thoughts of self-loathing is mind spiral that gives a weight to the habit that makes it hard to unload.
Be unwilling to be unhappy
My recent bad habit was not immediately life threatening, but I can see the spiral of negative effect. It started with a trigger – the stress of a new job that had my mind racing at night. I started to have trouble getting to sleep. Go to bed late, wake up late. I woke up later and later. Mornings left me with no time for yoga and feeling rushed, impatient and angry. Later mornings led to regular cups of coffee.
Is waking up late inherently bad? Not at all. Is coffee inherently bad? Of course not. (I am from Seattle; it would be sacrilege to even suggest it!) But these habits were keeping me from making choices that are better for me and how I show up in the world.
When I wake up early, I feel awake, alive and cheerful (i.e. not an angry caged bear – my patient husband’s words) I do yoga, I meditate. I have a warm cup of something – maybe tea, maybe its coffee. It’s the difference between making choices from a place of self-love and awareness or out of habitual behavior that is out of my control.
Am I a “good” person for making better choices for myself? No, not really.
But I feel better and because I have tasted a sense of wholeness in my yoga practice and savored it, I have one of the best reasons in the world to kick those unwelcome habits to the curb.
Peace to your practice,
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.