How Yoga Can Help You Break Your Bad Habits And Establish Good Ones


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.

What Does Being Late and Talking Too Much Have To Do With Stealing?


The first limb of yoga (I explained yoga and how the exercise part fits into a broader philosophy in a previous post) is the Yamas.  There are five of them: Ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non stealing), Brahmacharya (abstinence) and Aparigraha (non hoarding, non coveting).  Together they constitute the moral commandments of yoga.  Intellectual curiosity motivated me to study yoga philosophy, what I didn’t expect was the immediate, significant shifts in my behavior and more importantly — overall happiness.

The third yama, Asteya, has arguably had the most significant impact.  Non stealing.  Digging deeper, it means only taking what we need, or what’s an appropriate allocation.  Not wasting.  Otherwise we are stealing from others.  

What are some of the little things we all do that would be considered violations of Asteya?  Being late.  We agreed to meet someone somewhere at a certain time, they stopped what they were doing to be there on time, but we didn’t.  Being late also violates Satya, truthfulness.  We committed to be somewhere at a certain time and then we didn’t follow through.  Yoga has also made me more aware of the habits that create agitation and this is probably the biggest one.  I get stressed out trying to get out the door, it stresses my kids out and we downward spiral together, I feel bad I’m late, I drive faster than I should, and all for what?  Usually nothing important.  Nowadays trying to break my habit of being late is probably my most significant “off the mat” practice.

Interrupting or talking too much and not letting others have space to speak their mind are other prevalent violations of Asteya.  So many of us extroverts, with natural strong personalities, just talk more than we should.  I practiced this while in my yoga teacher training.  I’d hold my question or comment until we were ready to change gears; often times someone else asked the same thing I would have, and doing so gave them an opportunity to contribute.  In group exercises where I’d typically wind up taking on a facilitating role, I’d make sure the quieter people were prompted to chime in.  I bet almost universally those of us in leadership positions can work on this one.

Some other common, Asteya unfriendly behavior: copying, taking credit for other’s ideas and efforts, being an energy vampire, seeking attention, being needy, taking advantage of others, being distracted (by your phone perhaps?) when you’re with others or in a meeting, ordering too much food, wasting resources.  The list goes on.  Bringing awareness to this yama showed me the subtle ways I take more than I need and by virtue of that, am less thoughtful to others than I could otherwise be.

So let’s be late a little less, and let others talk a little more.  And put that phone away and give your friends and family the attention they deserve.  I promise it’ll make you happier along the way.    

Ahmisa And That Bottled Water You Just Drank


Yoga is everywhere these days, though the form that most of us know involves incredible flexibility and seemingly impossible configurations of the body.  After nearly a decade of (mostly) dedicated practice, I decided to take the plunge and do a teacher training.  My primary motivation was to deepen my personal practice, as well as to understand the broader philosophy from where this popular form of exercise has sprung.  There is such unexpected, profound value in what I’ve learned: I now have the tools to, put most simply, live a happier life.  

Anasa, as the physical practice is referred to in the yoga texts, is just one of eight limbs of yoga.  The first limb is the Yamas, which refer to principles of how we treat those around us.  The first and in some ways most important yama is Ahimsa.  Sanskrit is this incredible, dense language where each word requires a whole paragraph of English to convey its meaning.  In it simplest translation, Ahimsa means nonviolence.  But it’s not just nonviolence really, it’s non-harming.  Compassion.  And not just in our actions, but in our words and in our thoughts.    

As part of our training, we spend a day focusing on practicing each of the yamas.  I found ahimsa to be particularly complex.  Superficially, it’s relatively straightforward.  I’m kind and compassionate to most of the people I encounter in a day.  Awareness of ahimsa did make me think twice about giving someone a dirty look for driving badly, getting angry at my kids, or rolling my eyes at my husband for some quotidian annoyance or another.  It’s kind of amazing what happens when you choose to radiate kindness instead of negativity.  It spreads.

But it’s when we really start to unravel ahimsa that things get really interesting.  What I am implicitly endorsing with that bottle of water I just purchased; or that eyeshadow I just put on; or that gasoline I just bought; or that steak I just ate?  Our consumption decisions have profound effects on others and yet we make them with little, if any thought about it.

This disconnect between our values and the outcomes we support through our economic behavior has been on my mind quite a bit lately.  I believe there is an enormous opportunity here.  I think, for the most part, we’d all like to close the gap between the world we want to see and the one we perpetuate as we vote with our dollars every day.  But how to do it?  The information asymmetry is immense.  It’s not realistic to think that we as consumers will research the practices of each business behind the products we purchase.  The reality is we’re living in a world where we expect increasing efficiency in everything we do.  This doesn’t mean all is lost.  I think it means that there’s a big opportunity for an intermediary to come in and help us make the right choices.  Sometimes this takes the form of a store that we trust to only carry values aligned products.  Other times it takes the form of third party certification.  We see this happening in specific areas, such as fair trade certification.  But we need a global measure that considers the environment as well as the people directly and indirectly involved in production.  The B Lab does the best job out there with their B Corp Certification, but their reach so far has been limited.  I’d be stoked to find an ecommerce site where I could do most of my shopping.

In the meantime, it’s worth taking a moment to think twice when you pull your your wallet.  And when you do that, believe it or not, you’ll be practicing just a little bit of yoga.

Enough With Failing Fast Already

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This perpetual talk about failing fast is kind of driving me crazy. Of course we can and should learn from our missteps, but all the “failing fast” rhetoric misses a crucial point.

We shouldn’t be failing, we should be experimenting. Maybe I’m being a stickler for nomenclature, but to me there is a big difference between failing and experimenting.  Failure is when you’re sure you know the answer, invest in building something, launch it, and then realize you were wrong. Experimentation is when you think you know the answer, go test it before you invest heavily in it, and then iterate based on what you learned.

We fail when we over invest our resources in something that’s unknown without testing basic assumptions. We fail when we don’t turn a thoughtful eye towards learning until we’ve run into a brick wall. Preaching failing fast sets us up for a much longer and more expensive learning cycle than is necessary.

Instead of creating a culture where failure is permitted, we should be creating a culture where experimentation is expected. When starting to invest in a new idea, we should ask ourselves, “what assumptions we are making that are necessary for that idea to succeed?” We should ask ourselves, “why is a certain variable in our idea (e.g. mode of input, distribution channel)  what it is?” and consider exploring alternatives. We should develop experiments (at the we call them prototypes) to explore these critical unknowns, and feed our learning back into a new iteration of the idea. Working with this mindset, one invests more and more in each experiment, and they morph into the implementation of a well-tested idea.

When we experiment instead of fail, and start talking about our process and lessons, our learning curve really starts to hockey stick.

Google vs. Facebook: The Ebola Giving Edition


About a month ago, I signed in to Facebook to discover a banner at the top of the page. “Jenny, you can help stop Ebola,” it read. I clicked on the link and was confronted with three options: the American Red Cross, International Medical Corps, and Save the Children. Three massive international health NGOs. Though I’d worked in Liberia multiple times, I didn’t have a sense for which had better capabilities on the ground. I paused, thinking of how those organizations were likely flooded with donations, dubious about the efficacy of their use. I hit the back button and went about my business.


Days later I opened a new tab in Chrome and found a similar, though critically different message on the Google home page. Google would match a donation I would make to Ebola that day, 2 to 1. It felt irresponsible of me to ignore the opportunity. I clicked. I was further pleased to discover that my donation would go to Network for Good, an organization that would allocate the funding where it was needed. I donated a couple hundred dollars without hesitation.


Facebook: 0; Google:1. Of course, having a donation matched is a big motivator, but what made the difference for me was the absence of choice and the presence of a trusted intermediary. I felt better about where my money would go when ceding control. Makes sense though, right? It’s kind of crazy to think you’ll get anything less than tragically inefficient allocation basing choice on little more than brand recognition and ordering.

Getting Back on the Mat


I used to be a pretty intense ashtangi. I’d be in the studio at 6am at least a few days a week, typically practicing for nearly two hours. I even went to India to study at the source. Yoga provided an important space where I could grow as a person outside of my professional trajectory. It became a part of my identity.

Then I had my first child. I kept trying, and kept failing, to “get my practice back.” I’d manage to find a few days a week to start building myself back up, and inevitably drop off again, only to start from a familiar set of stiff limbs weeks later. I never came remotely close to the place I’d left off.

Something shifted when I had my second child two years later. I gave up trying to retread a familiar path to see what I’d missed around the next corner. Instead, I aspired to just get on my mat, every day. A mom of two might not be able to find two hours a day to indulge in yoga, but twenty minutes was surely doable.

Inevitably, twenty turned to thirty more often than not. Nowadays, forty five is the norm, with an occasional sixty-minute indulgence. Though kapotasana is still a distant memory, I’ve reclaimed a personal space that I value highly.

That same mentality applies to most anything, I suppose. In the past year and a half, I’ve written a single blog post. Time to get back on that mat too. I may not have the most profound things to say at first, but at least I’m saying something.

Surface Your Assumptions. ASAP.


I’ve been using a design method called assumptions storming lately, and I’m finding it incredibly valuable for both ideation and prototyping.  You start with an idea, or an existing product.  Invariably, that idea or product rests on a big long lists of assumptions: about the value proposition, about the system, about constraints, about user behaviors, etc.  More often that not, teams aren’t even aware they made the assumptions in the first place.

So the first thing you do is pull all of the assumptions to the surface. Get a few people in the room with a bunch of post it notes and throw them up on the wall with an assumption on each one. Sometimes I find it helpful to overlay the assumptions on some visualization of the product or user experience. Journey maps (blog post on them coming) are particularly useful, and they force you to think end to end about the idea.  From there you can identify the critical or most interesting ones vs. the more tactical ones.

This exercise is usually pretty eye opening. You start to see the opportunities you ignored because arbitrarily assumed things had to be one way vs. the other. You might identify a huge assumption that, if incorrect, sinks the entire effort. Just having awareness of what is based on evidence vs. hunch is a huge step.

From this list there are a number of directions you could go, depending on whether you think any given assumption is likely to hold:

  • You think it’s wrong: Brainstorm around the assumption being false. I’ve seen this be a great way to get teams into new territory time and time again.
  • You’re not sure: Back away from the assumption and explore alternatives in addition to the original idea (note this is often an aspect of an idea, not the entire idea itself).
  • You think it’s right: Acknowledge the assumption and move forward, with an eye towards whether usage and user feedback gives evidence to that end.

Assumption storming is fast becoming one of the most powerful methods in my design toolkit, well worth the hour-long exercise at any point in an idea’s lifecycle.

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