sadhana

Facilitating behavioral change: establishing a daily practice

If there’s something we psychologists know it’s how hard it can be to make behavioral changes. If it weren’t then this world would look a whole lot different, your life would probably look a whole lot different.

We’re creatures of habit, lovers of the path of least resistance and automatized to the point of in many ways resembling an autopilot that has set out across the ocean, navigating us through our daily lives.

Luckily, something else we psychologists know are a few tips and tricks on how to facilitate the desired changes in our behavior. And, lucky for you, one of our aims with YOMI is to share whatever knowledge we have that might make life easier for just about anyone who’s interested. Hence: this series of blog posts called “Facilitating behavioral change”, fresh with psychological knowledge and research, applied on our yoga and meditation practice, in our regular everyday stressed out lives.

When getting into yoga and meditation, whether it be through a more structured program such as the YOMI program, via a youtube home practice or the occasional yoga class at your gym, most people eventually become more and more intrigued by the thought of establishing a daily practice: a daily sadhana. Which, due to our somewhat habitual and lazy nature, can be easier said than done. Establishing new habits usually requires a bit of effort, but can be facilitated by a number of things:

·      Take small steps: the hard part of creating a daily practice is usually not so much the actual “practice” part as the “daily” part. If we focus too much on the practice being big, advanced or strenuous, chances are it’ll be hard for us to keep up on a daily basis. Rather, when starting out, try to take smaller steps in the beginning, gradually building your practice. Start with a shorter practice, using only poses and exercises you know well. When establishing a daily sadhana five breaths on your mat everyday actually is more beneficial than one and a half hour of advanced asanas once every other week. 

·      Create a good space: It might sound like an obstacle that shouldn’t have much impact on your own willingness to practice, but not having a good space to set up your mat or meditation pillow will decrease the chances of you practicing on a regular basis. People are fairly easily conditioned (as much as your average dog or rat), and our brains love to make associations between activities and certain places (e.g. associating our bed with sleeping, our dining table with eating, and the bathroom with brushing our teeth). So much that it can help us get sleepy when we are nearing our bed in the evening. Creating and condition yourself to a certain place for your practice is a good helper. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you just need to know where to roll out your mat, and that this preferably is a place where you have room to raise your arms, and not be disturbed by too much noise or other people. If you want to cozy it up, go ahead, see that as a bonus, but not as a required.

·      Keep your things handy: When NIKE claims “Just do it” they’re probably not thinking about that in order to do it we need to take a few steps first. Such as getting into the appropriate attire and finding our blocks. The rule usually goes that the more accessible your needed stuff are the likelier that you’ll do it. If you do your practice in the morning, set up your space and lay out your clothes the night before. Keep your mat visible, it’ll remind you of your practice. (Remember the previous step about creating a good space, and about how the brain loves to associate things with each other, such as your mat with you doing your practice).

·      Be humble towards the fact that you have a whole other life to live – but adapt accordingly: Few of us have the luxury of leading lives where time seems to come in abundance. We are usually quite busy, especially the one’s of us who seek out yoga and meditation to help manage our stress levels. And in some ways life is what it is; we won’t get rid of certain daily chores, our kids will need picking up from school at certain times each day, our bosses might keep giving us the evil eye if we slip home early too often from work. So, while you get ready for making that really big life change of downsizing or quitting your job (or if you’re just quite happy with keeping things fairly much as they are, but would like some more time for yoga), stay humble towards the fact that life is there, and it’s requiring quite a bit of you. But learn how to adapt accordingly. What time of day would be the easiest for you to practice? Are you a morning person enough to get up half an hour earlier and roll out your mat? Are you an evening person that would benefit from winding down with a night time practice? Is it possible to come into work later and staying later, giving you some more time in the morning? Are you willing to give up a bit of TV time in the evening to practice?  Do what suits and do what works for you, it’s usually a good guideline to increase your chances of getting on your mat. And that’s really what it’s all about: getting you onto your mat and start breathing. Once you’re there you can gradually build the rest. 

​ Yoga won’t always make you feel good - and that’s exactly as it should be

In most yoga schools establishing and keeping a daily sadhana (daily practice), including both asana and meditation, is highly encouraged. Often this daily practice is talked about as the foundation for one’s yogic development and an essential part of getting closer to the 8th limb of yoga; Samadhi. The quote by famous yogi Sri Pattabhii Jois: “Everyday do your practice and the rest will come”, is something that yogis worldwide believe in and live by.

There is however, in a wide array of yoga circuits (not the least on facebook and instagram), a fairly well established culture of spreading the message that yoga will somehow automatically and every time you do it make you feel great (a quick search on the instagram #yogaeverydamnday offers captions where expressions such as “nothing in the world compares”, “you always have a choice” and “feeling grateful as hell” are amongst the first to pop up.) And while this of course at times is true, it certainly is a bit of a modified truth. Sometimes yoga doesn’t give you that incomparable feeling. Sometimes we don’t have a choice when it comes to the state that things around us are in. And gratitude usually takes quite a bit of hard work, and does not always naturally pop up at the end of our practice.

But – and this is an important but – there is sometimes (note: not always) an important difference between what feels good and what serves us well. There’s also often times an important difference between what feels good short term and what is beneficial for us in the long run. Sometimes yoga doesn’t feel good; not at the beginning of practice, not during and not even after. Sometimes it stirs up emotions, sometimes your body’s sore as hell, sometimes you haven’t slept all night and are exhausted, with your mind occupied by thoughts about the fight you had last night with your partner. In the short run, sometimes, yoga might even make you feel worse – sad, irritated, frustrated and disappointed. This doesn’t however necessarily mean that your practice hasn’t served you well, and that the benefits of it won’t come dripping down into your life later on.

One of the skills we need to develop, as yogis, but also in regular life, is to learn and get to know what it is that actually serves us well – even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it in the moment. And equally learn what doesn’t serve us well, even though it really feels good in the moment. As psychologists this is something we continuously work with our patients, particularly patients suffering from depression and anxiety: finding out which things are meaningful and beneficial for you, and finding a way of getting them into your daily routine. Sticking with them even when you feel like rolling back into bed and skipping life altogether. Learning to trust that sometimes it’s enough to know what’s good for you, adapt accordingly, and be patient as the benefits might not show up until a while later. Or in other words; Everyday do the practice that serves you well, and the benefits will eventually start pouring into your life, even if it sometimes feels like shit in the moment.