The vast majority of us would like to eat better, exercise more, spend less time on the Internet, and get more sleep. When it comes to behavior change, we recognize the power of habit and the value of commitment devices. A friend employed a comical commitment device last week: he declared publicly on Facebook that if he didn’t manage to lose 10lbs by the new year, he’d donate $1,000 to Ben Carson for President, a “doctor” who stated homosexuality isn’t genetic because prison can make people gay.
Turns out yoga has it’s own principles for creating positive changes in our behavior, and they have been working their magic on me the past couple months. The second limb of Ashtanga Yoga (there are eight) is the niyamas, principles for behavior towards the self. Together they form a potent recipe for personal understanding and behavior change. There are five of them: saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (friction from behavior change), svadhyaya (knowledge), and ishtvan pranidhana (surrender to god). The last one is still a mystery to me but the other four, particularly santosha, tapas, and svadhyaya interplay quite beautifully to bring about positive change. Like design thinking, they represent mindsets where you can jump in anywhere and bounce between them.
Svadhyaya is a good one to start with. It refers to the understanding of ourselves that we gain from studying the ancient texts or other scholarly works, as well as from introspection and meditation. When you think about it, it’s pretty surprising how little time we spend really investigating ourselves; we’re so busy meeting our endless social and work obligations or crossing off our to do lists. Practicing svadhyaya can help us slow down and bring awareness to the behaviors that create joy or agitation in our lives. It can also help us discern at a more fundamental level what really matters to us, versus what everything and everyone around us makes us think matters to us. Armed with this clearer understanding of ourselves, we can then determine the things we want to change.
That’s where tapas comes in. Tapas refers to the friction, or heat, or fire that comes from positive change: breaking bad habits and establishing good ones, or fighting the inertia to change jobs or get out of a relationship. You know tapas well: that urge for a burger when you’re trying to eat healthy, that procrastination to go for a run later (which often never happens), that temptation to stay up just a little bit longer on the Internet when it’s past your bedtime. Yoga asks us to step into that fire. It’s quite simple really, but just recognizing tapas when it occurs gives me that extra little motivation to get on my mat, turn off my phone, or pass on the chocolate ice cream (as if I ever actually pass on chocolate ice cream!). Seriously though, it’s powerful stuff. I see the resistance as it comes up and I’m reminded to push through it.
Santosha though, is probably the most beautiful of them all: contentment. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude and focusing on the positive. I have enough. I am enough. What I’ve done is good enough. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s so easy in today’s world to get caught up in comparison to others! Shantosha’s about accepting yourself where you are. This comes hugely in handy when, inevitably, we falter when we face the tapas. It asks us to be gentle with ourselves at the same time that we work towards becoming better versions of ourselves. To give ourselves credit for the effort even if the outcomes are yet to manifest.
The morning of my third day of yoga training, I really wanted to be on time. If I showed up late, I’d be locked out of the room for meditation. As the minutes ticked by at home that morning, I became more and more anxious about getting out the door. My kids suddenly became whinier and more difficult. I became more agitated. I finally left the house in a huff, rushed across the city, and arrived… 2 minutes late. Locked out. Pissed. Great way to start a day of intensive yoga training.
So I sat there in meditation outside the room (svadhyaya), contemplating what had just occurred. This silly habit of mine of being late causes spikes of stress daily, if not multiple times a day. Clearly, my increasingly upset state had a direct affect on my children, which turned into an unpleasant spiral for all involved. Then here I was driving rushed across the city, obviously putting myself and others at risk. All for literally no good reason. So I decided to work on it. So now when I’m tempted to send one more email or wait five more minutes before heading out the door, I recognize the tapas. It’s usually enough to get me moving. Often times, I’m still late. When that happens, I get less worked up about it.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to do better next time.