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Breaking Patterns with Yoga

Posted Sep 08 2009 10:00pm
"Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs a step at a time."  --Mark Twain

A few weeks ago, I was hiking in my favorite nature preserve. It was a beautiful day -- sunny with a lilting breeze and warm without being hot. I'm walking down a dirt path with lovely wildflowers sprouting riotously on either side of me. I'm feeling pure joy -- I'm loving the weather, I'm enjoying being in nature, and I'm feeling grateful for being alive.

And then I notice something furry lying utterly still on the dirt path. My heart plummets, I let out a little cry of distress, and I start to slow my step. As I get closer, I see that a bunny (Long Island is chock full of bunnies -- I often find them in my yard -- usually in pairs -- snacking on the grass) is lying smack in the middle of the path. His legs are spread out behind him, flat on the ground, as are his front paws. His body, boneless, is completely extended -- and eerily still.

My mind starts whirling -- how badly is he hurt and how can I help this little guy? My mind races on wondering if I can scoop him up and run him over to an animal hospital. Somehow the joy that I was just experiencing 30 seconds ago has dimmed a bit as I stare at the too-still form lying on the dirt. I continue walking until I am but a few steps from the bunny.

And suddenly, his head lazily rolls towards me and he gives me a sleepy look (you should have seen his big, brown eyes -- so adorable!). In about 3 seconds, his lazy look turns to one of panic and he rolls up to a crouch and swiftly bolts into the flower patch. He moves so fast that I barely spy his fluffy little while cotton ball of a tail as he dives for cover.

Turns out the little bunny lying so still on the path was sunning himself. Rude human that I am, I intruded on the furry one's sunbathing/nap time. I laugh out loud at what just transpired and suddenly feel the joy rush back into my body full force.

This little experience reminded me how thought patterns -- especially habitual ones -- affect one's life. Yoga is, after all, about creating new, positive habits. With the practice and discipline of yoga, we turn distraction into focus, stiff and weak into flexible and strong, negative into positive. One of the reasons I'm a big fan of a more mindful yoga practice versus a practice in which one is distracted by an ongoing monologue by the teacher and/or loud music is because a mindful practice that focuses on movement and breath helps the practitioner notice physical and emotional patterns (or knots). This insight is exactly what one needs to create a new pattern and/or untie the knots.

What are you patterns? Where are your knots (be they physical or emotional)? Are you aware or do you simply act on autopilot without giving much attention to how you are on the mat and/or in the world? Here are some things to think about:

  • How do you feel about your body when you're practicing? What thoughts do you think about the story you create? Do you punish your body for its limitations by pushing it during your yoga practice? Do you think negative thoughts about your body -- it's too large, too small, not flexible enough, weak, etc.?
  • How do you handle challenges that arise during your practice? Does your mind scream "STOP!" or do you push yourself perhaps sacrificing the breath as you do so? Do you believe that pulling back or resting in child's pose is "weak" or a sign of "giving up?" Do you think that your practice needs to be painful in order to be considered "good?" Do you honor limitations or ignore them altogether?
  • Does your practice have the two qualities outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras -- sthira and sukha? Do you muscle your way through your practice or do you move through it with ease and comfort? Do you think your practice has to be difficult in order to be useful?

Now take all of these and ask yourself how this is plays out -- or doesn't play out -- in your life. Do you notice a correlation? Do you see similarities in how you approach your yoga practice and your life?

Awareness is the first step in changing habits. And if you need a little help with breaking habits, try these:

  • Often your body gives you clues as to what's going on with your thoughts and emotions. So often we armor ourselves to feeling emotions. We avoid rather than embrace. This could be carrying over into your yoga class. Steve Sisgold, author of the wonderful book What is Your Body Telling You?, offers ups this wonderful video about changing habits through body awareness
  • Master yoga teacher Andre Lappa teaches the most amazing practice that involves arm and leg movements called Dance of Shiva. It's an interesting mix of yoga, dance, and coordinated movements that seemingly rewire your brain. If you're looking to kick and addiction, get past writer's block, or rewire your brain, I highly recommend Dance of Shiva.
  • To balance mind and body, I often use a number of breathing techniques. One of my favorites is a simple 5-part breathing with arm movements. Sit comfortably and bend your elbows raising your hands to waist level, palms facing each other. Inhale in five sniffs through the nose while moving the palms in towards each other and exhale in five sniffs through the mouth while moving the palms in towards each other. Your hands can hit your body as they move in and out (towards each other and away from each other). 
  • Zero in on specific patterns by combining yoga and journaling. Bliss: Chakra Healing Through Yoga & Journaling by Jeana Lynn Weinberg is a fabulous book that combines chakra healing yoga and journaling. The book -- which is available in either hardcover or paperback (I recommend buying the book on Jeana's Web site, as it's cheaper than Amazon) -- breaks down each chakra, offers clear directions coupled with pictures of poses for each chakra imbalance and supplies questions to explore in a journal. I've read quite a few books about chakras, and this is one of my favorites. It's easy-to-read, not overwhelming in terms of information, and the yoga practices are fabulous. I especially enjoyed reading Jeana's story about how she came to be a yoga teacher -- very inspiring. This book allows you to zero in on the patterns/habits plaguing you and focus on changing them using a mix of yoga and self-exploration.
  • Sound is another way to bust old habit patterns. Traditional chanting focuses on the mind -- improving focus/concentration and memory, as well as improve digestion. If you can't find a chanting class, then check out the wonderful free download from Sankofa Song entitled Sound Shifts Stuff.

May your awareness be heightened so you can start escorting your habits downstairs.


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