We are all creatures of habit. We tend to do the same things over and over again, to think the same thoughts over and over again. The more we do things a certain way the more likely we are to keep doing them that same way. The more we repeat a certain thought pattern the easier it becomes to think that same way again. Most of our habits are extremely useful. You can wake up in the morning, get dressed, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, walk out the door without having to think about how you get it all done. Habits save time. Unfortunately not all habits that we have are productive and helpful. We all have ways of moving, thinking or acting that influence ourselves or others negatively. For example we may be slouching or hunching the shoulders, fail to listen to others or lash out in anger, have a negative, limiting self-image or hold prejudices against others.
The practice of yoga is a lot about cultivating awareness of these habits so that we can consciously change them. Physically, we become more aware of how we move our bodies and where we hold tension so that we can stretch, strengthen and balance our bodies better. We learn how to move more freely with poise, strength and grace. This part of yoga is relatively easy to practice. You show up on your mat, practice regularly and change will follow. For most people this path is clear and understandable.
Our habitual thought patterns are generally less obvious than our physical holding patterns but they are enormously influential in shaping our experience of ourselves and the world around us.
When we think a certain way that neural pathway is strengthened. The more we repeat that thought the stronger that neural pathway becomes until the thought pattern is so familiar and easy that it feels like a part of us. Therefore we tend to believe what we think very strongly. We identify with our thoughts and often consider them the essence of who we are. This strong attachment to how we think makes it much harder to change our thought patterns versus changing our physical bodies. First we must be able to separate fact from interpretation. To accomplish this, it is helpful to learn how to cultivate a pause between our thoughts and immediately believing in them. To put a little distance between ourselves and our thoughts. To view them as objectively as possible as if they were words spoken by someone other than ourselves. Then we can begin to question and analyze them. Ask ourselves whether what we are telling ourselves is based on facts. If so, is there is another interpretation or another way of looking at things that may be more beneficial and constructive? We can then actively try on a new perspective. This may feel awkward and even false at first. Our habitual thought patterns will always feel more true simply because they are more familiar. But if you persevere and keep reinforcing the new way of thinking it will start to feel more natural. And assuming you base your new way of thinking on facts, it will not be less true than your previous counter-productive thought pattern.
Changing mental habits require effort. To visualize this, you can picture your habitual thought pattern as a big, heavy ship cruising in a certain direction. To keep going in this same direction is easy. If you want to change direction however, first you need to slow down the ship, meaning becoming more aware of what your actual habitual thoughts are. Then you have to change direction, meaning actively trying on a new perspective. Then you have to gain speed in this new direction, meaning reinforcing your new way of thinking. Once you have that going it will be easy again. You have a new habit.
The first step in creating any sort of change is awareness. Slow down, pause and reflect on your own thoughts, words and behavior. Cultivate that pause which gives you a moment to choose a response rather than react habitually. Try on a new perspective or consider a different interpretation. Although effort is required to build new neural pathways, this effort is only required in the beginning. With some perseverance and determination you can turn that ship around. You can open up your mind to new possibilities and do not need to believe the voice in your head telling you that you can’t change. The power to change your mind lies within your own mind.
As the physical practice of yoga leads to a more open, strong and flexible body so does the mental practice of yoga lead to a more open, strong and flexible mind.
Maja started practicing yoga in her hometown of Stockholm, Sweden more than 20 years ago. After moving to NYC she was drawn to delve deeper into the practice of yoga and completed her first teacher training at OM yoga center in 2006 where she then joined the teaching faculty. Since then she has completed her 500 hr certification, also at OM yoga center, as well as many other trainings such as Restorative yoga with Judith Hanson Lasater, Anatomy studies with Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project and Prenatal teacher training with Bec Conant.
Maja will be hosting a retreat in Mallorca with her yogini friend and colleague Clare in May 2018.