When I started chemotherapy in December 2004, one of my first impulses was to do yoga. Though I was too ill to practice much, I made a call to Elena Brower, a popular teacher and studio owner. We arranged a private session, and she came by my tiny apartment, which was crammed with books, had a sink full of dirty dishes, and was strewn with clothes, piles of paper, and CDs. She assessed my place and me. “We’re not doing yoga today,” she said. “You’re a little weak for that. But we’ve got to clear this space—give you a good place to heal.” Soon, she was a decluttering blur-whisking takeout food containers into garbage bags, stacking books, and washing plates. I feebly joined in, and we hit my closet. Many things flew into an empty box. Soon it was full. In a few hours, the apartment sparkled in a way it never had. My plants looked happier. I felt calmer, softer, relieved. Alone in my clean apartment, I felt the lifting of a shroud of dullness and agitation I hadn’t known existed. I gratefully reveled in the lightness. The stage was set for healing.
Now that I’m well, I still struggle with clutter. But the lesson stuck with me. I’m conscious that maintaining a clear space supports my mental clarity, health, and joy. And I’ve discovered that the reverse is true, too: The way to create lasting order in my outer life—in my home, my schedule, and the way I use my resources—comes from clearing out my inner landscape and refocusing on my priorities.
I know I’m not the only one to long for a clearer, simpler life: a less cluttered home, freer schedule, and more manageable budget. But the solution to the problem of chaos is not always a head-on organizational attack. How many times have you launched a cleanup mission only to be overwhelmed by a greater mess of half-sorted boxes from the depths of the closet? Or sworn to stick to a budget only to lose track (and hope) in a few weeks?
In the face of any challenge, yoga teaches you to pause and look at the source of your problems. In fact, the starting point for making order out of the chaos in your life may very well be on the mat, says Christina Sell, an Austin, Texas, yoga teacher and the author of My Body Is a Temple: Yoga as a Path to Wholeness. “In practice, you touch the place in yourself that is much closer to your truest Self,” she says. “You get glimpses of: Oh! This matters! Not this other feeling I’ve been wrapped up in or distracted and cluttered by.”
Through such self-reflection, you can cultivate clarity and align with what really matters to you. From that alignment, you can consciously choose to let go of what’s not important and make more room for what is, whether it’s in your home, your budget, or your busy schedule.
Clear the Flow
When it comes to your physical space, it can feel as though you’re shoveling snow in Antarctica as you wash the same dish for the 800th time or see the pile of mail you so proudly tackled a month ago magically rebuild itself. One good way to make cleaning more effective—and enjoyable—is to look at the bigger picture and remind yourself why a clear inbox matters, says Erin Rooney Doland, the editor in chief of the popular Unclutterer blog.
“Decluttering isn’t the goal,” says Doland. “Decluttering is the process by which I can better focus on my goals. When you know why you’re doing something, the motivation is a lot easier to find.” For example, you may want to have a more organized living space so that you spend less time looking for your glasses or so that you can establish a serene area in which to practice yoga. Once you’ve decided on your purpose, write down the reason and post it somewhere visible, Doland suggests.
When choosing which projects to tackle, continue the process of self-inquiry. Rather than attack your mess wholesale, first figure out what in your home is not working for you. Is it the anxiety of unopened mystery mail? Of constantly losing your keys? Of having no place to put your yoga mat? All of these seemingly minor breaks in flow can create a cumulative frustration-but they can also inspire creative solutions. For Doland, it was her sock drawer. It drove her inexplicably mad to match socks while folding laundry. So now, all her socks are the white athletic kind, and folding laundry is a much happier experience.
If you’re like me, though, the hardest thing may be keeping the volume of stuff under control—and the more you have, the harder it is to keep it organized. When Brower overhauled my apartment when I was sick and we sorted out my tiny, jammed closet, I started to distinguish the necessary objects from the space-hogging ones. Now, I try to cut clutter at the cash register.
As I’ve become more in tune with my body through yoga, I’ve noticed that sometimes when I reach for my wallet, I get a “no-buy” feeling in my body-a tightening in my belly and throat. My mind will put up a fight if the purchase seems to make sense—I need it, it’s on sale, and it’s for tomorrow—but every time I ignore the no-buy feeling, I regret the purchase. Turns out, heeding my body instead of my chatty mind is an excellent way to cut back on clutter.
Once stuff has passed that hurdle, I try to apply the “one in, one out” rule: If I bring something home, I have to get rid of something else. And yet clutter still manages to sneak through. When I’m trying to pare down my belongings, I ask the classic questions: Is it beautiful? Is it useful? It is deeply meaningful? Have I enjoyed it in the past year? Plus, I invoke a freeing gem from a friend: “It’s possible to accept the essence of a gift but let go of the object.”
Some of us live with a level of financial disorder that we wouldn’t tolerate in our closets, and we wish for a more orderly, less stressful approach to managing our finances. “If there are unpaid bills, if you have no clue how much money you’ve got left to spend for the month, that is disorganization that leads to suffering,” says Brent Kessel, a financial planner and the author of It’s Not About the Money, a guide to using yogic principles to uncover your unconscious money habits and determine your financial values.
For many, the first step toward financial clarity is to rip open those bills; assess your income, expenses, and any debt; and create a plan—which involves thinking about what’s most important to you. In this process of making the unconscious conscious, you may face feelings of shame, anger, or despair. “When you open that credit card bill, and it brings up uncomfortable emotions, use your asana practice,” says Kessel. “How do you deal with it when your hamstrings are crying out? You breathe and make sure you’re not being overly aggressive or overly passive. Do the same thing. Put yourself at that appropriate point of sensation and breathe. And speak kindly to yourself.”
Even if your finances are more orderly than your junk drawer, you might still benefit from reflecting on your money priorities to make sure the ways you spend and save money match up with your values and goals. “It’s about deciding what matters to you, not what the culture says should matter,” says Kessel. “Maybe you don’t want to retire early. Maybe you want to find work that’s meaningful to you and that you can do until you’re 80 or 85 years old. Maybe you don’t want to pay for a private education for your kids even though all your friends do.”
When you’ve identified the things that matter most to you, you can keep your priorities in mind as you set up, and live by, your budget. You may recognize things that are less important, like a daily $3 afternoon latte habit, that you can cut back on.
When your days are packed with work, child care, errands, housework, and recreation, the hectic pace can easily leave you feeling burnt out. And the stress of cramming in so much often takes away from the pleasure of those activities. Yoga teacher Kate Holcombe, a student of T.K.V. Desikachar and the founder of the Healing Yoga Foundation, says there is a way to remain serene and fully present in the midst of your daily hustle. Holcombe, who juggles running a nonprofit, teaching workshops, and raising three kids, says that what’s key for her is to commune with herself daily in asana practice. She says even five minutes a day of a quieting practice, whatever that is for you—pranayama, knitting, writing, walking—allows you to reconnect with your center and to keep that connection strong even when your days are packed. When you are rooted in this way, your attention radiates from a calm inner hub; every time you focus on an activity, you extend from and then return to your center, always staying grounded. “The more present you are with yourself,” she says, “the more present you can be with others.”
Having a daily practice is also the key to becoming more conscious about how you spend your precious—and limited—time and discerning what to keep and what to cut from your busy schedule, says Holcombe. “Taking time to differentiate between what’s just stuff out there and what’s me, and listening to the voice of my true Self, makes it a lot easier to make conscious, meaningful choices about how I spend my time and energy,” she says.
Your daily centering practice will give you a better sense of what matters to you—which can shed new light on your actions. We all find different activities energizing or depleting. One person’s wasted afternoon may be another’s dream day. “Ask yourself with each decision you take, ‘Is this making my life easier or more difficult?’ Don’t let yourself get pulled away from the things that matter most to you,” Holcombe says. “Keep that connection with yourself so that you make sure what you’re doing is feeding you in a positive way.” For Holcombe this means not owning a TV, so she can spend more time with her kids and her work, and often choosing family time over parties.
Certain kinds of activities—TV and Facebook, to name two—have a distinct ability to make you lose consciousness of the passing of time. Holcombe suggests giving yourself specific time windows for such activities to keep them from encroaching on things you value more—whether that’s cooking or crafting or spending time with friends. Whether you spend half an hour or three hours on a time-hogging activity, the key is to keep it from spilling over into the rest of your life, says Holcombe. By choosing and sticking to time limits for things that take away from what you really love, you can make more room in your life for the big, important things that resonate most deeply.
Walk the Path
Like most people, I still struggle to stem the tide of clutter and to balance an overcommitted life. I try to remember that life, like yoga, is a practice, not “a perfect,” and that the small, positive steps add up and can eventually become habits.
Yoga itself might be one big decluttering mission, suggests Holcombe. She quotes Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, one of the founding fathers of modern yoga. “(He) used to say, ‘Yoga is a cleaning process.’ It’s just clearing out the dust and the cobwebs so we can differentiate our minds from ourselves.” This idea also appears in the Yoga Sutra, the ancient yogic text written by Patanjali, says Holcombe. She paraphrases what she sees as the central point of the text: “As a result of yoga, the things that block our true essence dissipate. And the result is that we can shine from our true, authentic Self.”
Knowing this helps me continue when the path is too strewn with unfolded laundry to see clearly. Remembering to breathe when I’m facing a pile of dirty dishes or checking my bank balance nudges me toward my heart and center. Spending five minutes tidying my desk clears my mind for writing, just as meditating clears space for me to feel my spirit. Few of us can be in the zone all the time; life happens too quickly. But I’ve found that taking advantage of the moments when I am aware to declutter my mind, my body, or my space helps create a more centered life.
Writer Valerie Reiss breathes through clutter and clarity in the apartment she shares with her (surprisingly tidy) husband in Brooklyn.