Are you starting to see spring flowers popping up in your neighborhood? I envy you! In northern New England, where I live, winter really hangs on for dear life. Here’s a picture of my muddy road right now.
If you live in a frosty climate, you may be familiar with mud season. It’s a period of several weeks in the spring when the roads thaw and transform into a substance resembling chocolate pudding, or more accurately, quicksand. It's much harder to drive in the mud than in the snow. No matter how carefully you try to avoid the ruts in the road, they grab your tires and yank you in. The more you drive, the deeper the ruts get, until finally, you get stuck.
In yoga, they have a word for this phenomenon: samskara. A samskara is something you do or think over and over again, just because that’s what you’ve always done or thought. The more you do it, the harder it is not to do it.
How often do you wake up in the morning and pour yourself the same brand of cereal? Or stop at the same coffee shop for the same cup of coffee? Have you been trying to lose weight by going on diets over and over again, even crawling humbly back to the same program that didn’t work permanently for you the first time?
When it comes to food, it’s very easy to shift into autopilot. We pick a diet approach or a handful of foods we like, and then we just eat those things and stop thinking about it. If we try to break away, it feels weird and uncomfortable. We’ve created these pathways in our brains, and they pull us back into eating or doing the same things over and over, like driving into those ruts in a muddy road.
It takes a lot of energy to change familiar patterns of behavior, but the good news is, it gets easier. To get started, don’t try to shake up everything all at once. In fact, don't do anything at first. Just notice which foods you reach for over and over again at the same times of day. Pay attention to the situations or emotions that always make you want to eat. Interesting, isn’t it?
Next, try making one or two small, experimental changes. If you always eat the same kind of cold cereal, try hot porridge instead. If you always order a large coffee, try asking for green tea. If you tend to reach for cookies in the afternoon, grab a handful of almonds. This doesn’t mean you have to eat almonds every afternoon from now on - you’re just trying it this once, to see how it feels.
Who knows, maybe eating almonds (or peanuts or apples or eggs) every afternoon may be right for you! Routine is not necessarily a negative thing. Habits only become bad when we unthinkingly lock ourselves into them, even when they just plain don’t work.
Today, instead of eating a particular food purely out of habit, try something totally different instead. If it’s an improvement, great! If not, choose something else tomorrow - and keep an open mind.