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 behaviors 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 behaviors 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 behaviors (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 behaviors you're trying to change—in a new way.
1. 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 color and texture of the petals and moving your awareness from the edges of the petals toward the center as your focus deepens.
2. 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.
3. When you've memorized every detail, gently close your eyes and direct your attention to your heart. Visualize 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.
4. After several minutes, drop the image and simply rest your awareness at the heart center.
Yoga teaches that when you're connected to your heart center—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 behaviors 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 behaviors—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—practice Pratipaksha Bhavana, a type of cognitive reframing that can act as a behavioral reset button. This Sanskrit term comes directly from the Yoga Sutra and can be translated as "When obstructive thoughts arise, practice the opposite thought." In other words, when you find yourself indulging in negative thoughts and behaviors, you can stop and cultivate the opposite thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
This simple practice can help you slowly gain control over your mind by guiding it away from negative thoughts and behaviors and toward those that are in line with your highest ideals. You can practice Pratipaksha Bhavana by running through the following four-step mental checklist whenever you realize you're succumbing to a bad habit. It will give you a fresh perspective so that you can act wisely rather than reacting unconsciously with an old behavior pattern.
1. 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.
2. Remind yourself that it's OK to make mistakes. Your inner critic might respond to your behavior with self-judgment, discouragement, or shame, but you can reframe the slip-up by adopting an attitude of lovingkindness toward yourself.
3. Express gratitude toward yourself for noticing the behavior 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.
4. 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, apologize 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 criticizing 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 behavioral patterns that undermine your well-being, 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 behavior is to practice pPranayama (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 center, 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.
1. Inhale for a count of 6 and exhale for a count of 6, bringing the mind into the present moment.
2. 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, vitalizing effect on the mind.
3. 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.
4. 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 center, 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 behavior, make a wiser choice, and start living your best life. It's going to be a great year, isn't it?
Mirka Scalco Kraftsow, the director of teacher development for the American Viniyoga Institute, is dedicated to the transformational teachings and practices of yoga.