Humans are “creatures of habit”. The ability to form habits is actually an evolutionary advantage – and one of the most primitive forms of learning. Once we have repeated doing something with enough persistence, it becomes second nature. This reminds me of how I used to cram for my college chemistry finals. If there was a problem I couldn’t solve, I would repeat similar problems over and over and over again until doing the problem required less thinking and more doing. It isn’t exactly the best way to go about learning, but it’s what most of us wind up doing when cramming for multiple choice tests that didn’t require we analyze or explain answers.
Yoga and habits have absolutely nothing in common. They are in fact – complete opposites. Habits are activities performed entirely without conscious or analytical thought. In yoga, we try to cultivate mindfulness in every moment – an awareness of the present.
For someone who practice yoga daily (or very regularly), certain poses, movements, or actions can become comfortable, familiar, and even habitual. How many times have you done Surya Namaskar A? Or even just the simple motion of chaturanga? After so many times – it becomes difficult to resist the temptation to allow the body to move purely from muscle memory while our thoughts wander elsewhere.
QUESTION: How do we prevent our practices from becoming habitual?
ANSWER: Make it a ritual.
According to Wikipedia, a ritual is “a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value.” This is where INTENTIONS come into play. We make every movement, every breath, and every thought on the mat an act of dedication and devotion. To whom or what is up to the practitioner. By using intention, meditation, and stillness in the practice – we give ourselves time to check in, observe our thoughts, notice how the physical body feels, observe the patterns and stories your mind tends to run back to, and try to remain focused, connected, and present.
When we allow our yoga practice to become habitual rather than a ritual – it loses its meaning. It then becomes no different than any other form of exercise where we are simply moving the body without focusing the mind. The practice of yoga, union, reminds us to be connected and aware in the physical, energetic, and emotional realms.
A ritualistic practice requires conscious thought and action – a habitual practice requires action without any conscious thought.
I cannot deny that I have most definitely allowed habit to creep into my yoga practice. It’s inevitable for someone who strives to practice daily. I notice that when I come to yoga with a really strong intention, my practice is much more fulfilling. When I have an intention, I am able to move with awareness and purposefulness, rather than tuning out or starting to think about other things like what I’m going to eat after class.
Here are some tips for how to mindfully set an intention, and to USE that intention throughout your practice to help you stay PRESENT and CONSCIOUS of your breath, movement, and thoughts…
- What is important to you right now? When setting an intention sometimes the first thing that pops into your head you might disregard because you don’t think it’s “good enough”. If it’s important to you – it’s good enough!
- Sometimes you can pick a different intention for each class – or perhaps sometimes you might want to stick with the same intention for a longer period of time. Just let the intention be with you for as long as it feels right. Don’t feel like you have to let go of it immediately, or hold onto it forever.
- You don’t have to cure cancer. Don’t feel like your intention has to be something extreme to be useful. It can be a simple, beautiful truth about yourself or your practice.
- Avoid intentions that will cause you to have lingering thoughts in the past or future. For example, if you’re thinking a lot about something from your past, a good (present) intention might be to just “let go”. If you’re thinking about a job you really want to get, a good (present) intention might be to be courageous or believe in yourself.
- If you’re drawing a blank, think of one word that you would like your yoga practice to reflect. Peace. Love. Happiness. Forgiveness. Easefulness. Truth.
And once you have set a thoughful intention, put it to good use!…
- The point of setting an intention is for you to be able to use it to help you move through your practice in a purposeful way. It’s not just the physical poses, but each transition between the poses, each breath is an act of dedication. Use your intention to help you stay present and focused.
- Think about how you can embody your intention within each pose. For example, if your intention is to “let go” – check in regularly to see where you’re holding tension in your body. Sometimes you may be clenching your jaw, or gripping the floor with your toes. Allow the tension to soften away as you remind yourself to let go. If chose to set an intention for someone in your life who is struggling, how can you practice the poses in a way that honors that person and provides them strength and healing energy?
- When you meet a pose that challenges you, and your mind is tempted to wander away – use this as a reminder to come back to your intention and breathe with even more purpose. Most of the time in a difficult pose, it’s your mind that will talk you out before the physical sensation does.
- Don’t feel like you have to do every pose to the 10th degree for your intention to be important. The only thing that matters is that you stay present throughout the practice. Stay in child’s pose, be present and simply breathe with purposefulness toward your intention.
- When closing your practice, take the time to thank yourself. And as always – remind yourself of the ways you can bring you practice off of your mat. Stay conscious. Stay present. And continue to live life from a place of yoga, union, and love.