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Shake Up Your Routine: How to Break the Autopilot Cycle

Why not break out 
of your comfort zone 
and discover how much richer life can be? Here’s your guide to get started.

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Even when things are going great, you can still get mired in daily patterns that start to feel uninspiring at best, and draining at worst. Why not break out of your comfort zone and discover how much richer life can be? Here’s everything you need to start.

It’s all too easy to find yourself on autopilot, simply going through the same-old motions: work, eat, yoga, sleep, repeat. And while sometimes sticking to your routine is a good thing—like showering every morning, without which you might start to lose friends!—it can also make your life (and, let’s face it, you) a bit boring. Which is why there are tremendous benefits to stepping outside your go-to box, whether that box includes eating the same bowl of steel-cut oats every morning or going to the same yoga class every other night. The path to your escape: tapping your creativity.

Now, before you start having flashbacks to those miserable, parent-mandated clarinet lessons of your childhood, take a big breath. We’re not suggesting you need to develop the musical skills of Mozart, write the next great American novel, or innovate a best-selling app. Rediscovering the creative genius inside you is actually much simpler than all of that.

“We all have many seeds of creativity in us,” says Gail Brenner, PhD, author of The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life. “We just have to make the space for them to come through and flourish.” Of course, our yoga and meditation practices can help us do that. Read on for expert advice, techniques, and more to help you step fully into your creative flow.

See also Teacher Spotlight: Jason Bowman Talks Asana and Creativity

Not sure exactly how dusting off your old guitar or buying a blank canvas and some paint is anything more than a distraction? Theo Tsaousides, PhD, a neuropsychologist and author of Brainblocks: Overcoming the 7 Hidden Barriers to Success, says that creative ventures like these actually prompt our brains to produce and combine ideas, making us more likely to adapt, change, and grow in other aspects of our lives. “Creativity is the key that unlocks our brain’s potential,” he says. “In fact, when we don’t allow our brains to think creatively, we court a variety of problems that can affect everything from how productive we are to how much enjoyment and satisfaction we get out of our lives.” By letting your brain go freestyle, you could:

Combat depression.

Consider the nature of depression, a condition that affects at least 16 million Americans at some point in their lives, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Depression often involves looking at the world through a glass darkly but being unable to change that perspective, says Tsaousides.

“But if you’re in the habit of thinking creatively and coming up with options for solving problems, it can lead to a sense of hopefulness that can help stave off feelings of depression,” he says.

Ease anxiety.

When we become overwhelmed with worry, it’s often because we fear one particular outcome, says Tsaousides. But if you’re able to imagine alternative scenarios, it helps to put your mind at ease.

Boost productivity.

Creativity involves taking risks—and, often, failing at what you set out to do. However, allowing yourself the freedom to try and to fail can help you discover what doesn’t work, which also shines a light on what does work, ultimately leading you to greater success. And that can fuel your hunger for more success, which in turn increases your productivity, says Tsaousides.

See alsoRock Out with Teacher Mary Clare Sweet (+ Get Her Playlist)

camera, roadtrip, photography

Take the (mental) road less traveled

We all have ways in which we think of ourselves—and ways in which we believe others define us: smart, athletic, type A, scatterbrained.
“We get so attached to these labels that it can be incredibly difficult to do something outside of them,” says Tsaousides. In the Yoga Sutras, these patterns are called samskaras—mental and emotional habits through which we continuously cycle. Repeating our samskaras only reinforces them, creating little “grooves” of thought and feeling that become our go-to patterns. Yet it is possible to steer out of these negative grooves, says Brenner, by reframing how we view the world, our relationships, and—perhaps most importantly—ourselves. Try these expert-approved exercises to help you find freedom from the negative samskaras that might be hindering your realization of a more fulfilled self.

Realize that your “rules” can be the exception.

“We get used to our usual thought patterns and feelings, but it’s important to understand that staying in them is a choice,” says Brenner. So, recognize whatever your storyline is and become more aware of it—ideally, when you’re playing it on repeat in your mind. Maybe you habitually beat yourself up after receiving constructive criticism from your coworkers or boss and tell yourself you’re not smart enough to do a great job. Or perhaps you have a long to-do list but can’t seem to get started because you’ve failed to complete those tasks in the past—so why would this time be any different? Simply looking at the confines of your typical thoughts and behaviors will make you more likely to see their limits, and in so doing, come to recognize that other options are always available. “When you realize your self-imposed boundaries, that’s when you can work toward making a change,” says Brenner.

Sit with yourself.

All too often, we’ll exercise or attend yoga class just for the physical benefits or to connect with friends, which is great. But it’s also important to carve out time for quiet reflection, whether that’s sitting down to meditate every morning or simply having a cup of tea each night in relative silence. “Collaborative thinking and community support are great ways to help fuel your creativity and move you in a positive direction, but in order to implement changes, you need to get quiet so you can process that input and determine your next best steps,” says Christine Whelan, PhD, a professor at the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Make small changes.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on a new habit or do a complete life 180—say, by quitting your job or moving across the country—in order to tap into new thoughts and ideas. “Start by trying something as innocuous as driving a different route to work or mixing up your usual breakfast menu,” says Tsaousides. Yes, even such seemingly minor changes can help train your brain to be open to—
and get ready for—bigger shifts. It’s like building up your tolerance to change so that when something big comes along, you can handle it with ease, he says.

See alsoIn Focus: Creative Yogis where Asana + Art Collide

Get comfy with discomfort.

Part of the work of shedding old patterns involves embracing the fact that you might feel awkward or even slightly miserable in your new, unfamiliar world. The best way to practice this acceptance is to repeatedly expose yourself to things that don’t feel easy. For example, you might volunteer to go first when presenting ideas at a work meeting even though you hate public speaking or fear that your coworkers will judge you. Or you could say “yes” when your best friend invites you to her favorite Saturday-morning dance class instead of going to your usual yoga class. When you feel uncomfortable or a little out of your element, remind yourself that your efforts are ultimately broadening your current comfort zone, outside of which new ideas await.

Repack your baggage.

“Life is a journey, and the stuff you needed in your bag to get to where you are now may not be the stuff you need on the journey going forward,” says Whelan. That means it’s time to dump it all out and really assess what’s there: material possessions, your friends, your emotions, your job, and so on. Then, ask yourself: “What’s serving me and what’s not?” And: “What’s helping me break free of my negative samskaras and strengthen the positive ones?” Once you’ve assessed everything in front of you, you’ll be in a better position to decide what stays and what goes.

7 Surprising Ways to Spur Innovation

1. Take a walk.

walk, trail, woods, nature

There’s a reason you come up with your best ideas while you’re exercising: Going for a casual walk fosters more creative thinking than sitting, according to a Stanford University study. Experts think it’s because walking makes the heart pump more quickly, which circulates more fresh, oxygenated (read: energizing) blood to all of your organs—including your brain.

See also12 Yoga Poses to Spark Creativity

2. Do a quick body scan.

savasana, resting

This style of meditation is more than simply relaxing; it can also help you tap your creativity to solve problems. One study published in the journal Mindfulness found that a meditation practice during which participants were receptive to every thought and sensation in their body made them better at divergent thinking—the creative process of coming up with numerous possible solutions to a problem—than when their meditation involved focusing on a single thought, mantra, or object.

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3. Eat more fruit…

raspberries, glass jars

and soy and seeds and any other food that contains high levels of tyrosine, an amino acid that is assumed to increase your ability to think harder and more creatively, reports a study in the journal Psychological Research.

See alsoStudy Measures How Much Music Enhances Practice

4. Let yourself be bored.

ocean, perspective

Turns out that mundane tasks may not be as useless as you might think: In one recent study, participants who were assigned to copy numbers out of a phone directory for 15 minutes (yawn!) were more creative on the next task (coming up with new uses for a pair of Styrofoam cups) than people who went straight to the cup challenge.

See also 10 Best Yoga Tunes of the Year

5. Hit the road.

travel, compass, map

Travel can be a wonderful way to enhance your creativity, according to research by Adam Galinsky, PhD, a professor at Columbia Business School—especially when you immerse yourself in the local culture (rather than, say, opting for the all-inclusive beach resort). Galinsky has found that foreign travel in particular boosts the flexibility of your thinking, sparking new ideas.

See alsoTrending: Yoga at the Airport—Try It to Relieve Travel Stress

6. Leave your desk messy.

messy desk

Finally, a good excuse not to tidy up! A study at the University of Minnesota found that people forced to work in messy offices came up with more creative and interesting ideas than those in neater spaces.

See alsoThe Yoga Sutra: Your Guide To Living Every Moment

7. Start doodling.


Next time you’re stuck in a long meeting, pick up your pen and go to town in the margins of the paper in front of you. Doodling improves your focus and memory, according to research published in the journalApplied Cognitive Psychology, and can also fire up your creative juices, solidify ideas, and inspire new notions.

See also Meditation to Boost Creativity

Plus: A meditation to cultivate creativity

body scanning, third eye

Creativity flows most readily when there is space, time, and consistency, which is what meditation helps us achieve, making it a wonderful tool for tapping our inner creative genius, says Elena Brower, a yoga and meditation teacher in New York City and co-author of Art of Attention. “Our privilege as practitioners of yoga and meditation is to consciously create that space and time in which to dissolve limitations and receive our creative inspiration,” she says. Try her meditation below, designed to help you move beyond your usual boundaries and open yourself up to new and different possibilities. “This meditation is a simple exploration that connects you to the central channel of your body, where creativity lives and where confidence and clarity can arise,” says Brower.

  • Begin by sitting comfortably, hips elevated higher than your knees. Inhale into both nostrils, all the way down into your belly. Feel light descending as you breathe in. Exhale up from your belly and out through your nostrils, and feel light rising as you breathe out.
  • Next, add the elements of receptivity and listening through a simple mudra and affirmation to enhance your creative clarity. Place your hands into the shape of a bowl in front of your heart space, with your pinkies touching, palms facing up.
  • Breathe deeply into your belly through your nostrils and feel a quality of receiving in your hands. Invite the source of your creativity into your physical body, noticing any thoughts or sensations as they arise. Welcome your breathing and watch it become longer, steadier, and more patient with each successive inhale and exhale. As you find more stability in both your breath and your body, you produce rich soil in which to place the seeds of your creativity. Breathe long and fully for 3 to 11 minutes—your choice.
  • To end, imagine you’re moving light all the way down into your belly, and bring your hands to prayer (Anjali Mudra) in front of your heart. Exhale up from your belly and out through your nostrils, drawing your navel center back toward your spine, imagining light rising and emanating brightly throughout your being and into the space around you.

See also Elena Brower’s Yoga Flow to Transform Tension into Forgiveness