This was written by one of our advisors, Kelly McGonigal.
A Practice for Change in the New Year
It’s time for New Year’s Resolutions – those passionate, determined, optimistic, and sometimes desperate pledges we make to change ourselves. How do we get from where we are to where we want to be, without giving up in frustration? Consider skipping the resolutions this year. In their place, make room for a yoga practice that truly prepares you to change your life.
Open to Possibility
Change is unknown, and we often cling to old habits because they feel safe. Yet yoga teaches us that change is constant. What first appears to be stillness and constancy in a yoga pose reveals itself to be always shifting, always transforming. The same is true for each of us – while our lives and personalities may seem stable and unchanging, we are actually always unfolding. Yoga teaches us to welcome the inevitability of change, to be curious about where our practice is leading us. When we are open to change, we are better prepared to direct change intentionally.
A simple breathing exercise can help you find ease with the constant rhythm and change of life. In a comfortable seated pose, close your eyes and draw your attention to your breath. Observe the breath as it enters and exits the body. Rest your hands on your belly, and notice the movement of the breath. On each exhale, pull the belly in and press the breath out completely. Relax the belly on each inhale, and notice how the next breath rushes in. By letting go of the old, you create room for the new. Let go of what you don’t need, and create space for change in your life.
Expand Your Awareness
Intentional change requires self-awareness. We spend much of our time listening to others, seeking advice, and looking outside ourselves for insight. Yoga teaches us to develop our own insight through careful and compassionate observation. By giving us the opportunity to slow down, yoga helps us recognize what is personally important. A good yoga practice can stir you up, challenge you, and refresh you. What is left, as you settle into savasana or meditation, is clarity. With this clarity, it becomes easy to see what changes will truly enhance your life – and they may not be the kind of changes we habitually pledge in our New Year’s resolutions.
Through yoga practice, we also become aware of the relationship between our thoughts, actions, and experience. It can be as simple as noticing how your posture influences the quality of your breath, or how a small change in the placement of your hands makes a challenging pose easier. This process of noticing, of generating insight, seems simple. But over time, as you carry this art of awareness into everything you do, every choice will be better informed, every action more intentional, and every response more insightful.
Balancing poses are particularly effective for developing awareness for a simple reason: without awareness and internal intelligence, we fall. To test your internal awareness in your yoga practice, try closing your eyes in a balancing pose (such as tree pose). Instantly, the unconscious processes that were holding you in the pose will reveal themselves. When you stop looking outside yourself for balance, your internal intelligence will rise to the challenge.
Find Your Focus
Yoga develops our ability to follow through on our intentions. Each pose is an opportunity to develop concentration. We direct our effort and attention to simple actions: staying aware of our breath and our body as we hold a pose. Each pose is also an opportunity to develop commitment: we learn not to give up at the first sign of boredom, anxiety, or fatigue.
To achieve true change, focus on the integrity of each action, rather than the outcome you hope to achieve. To find this quality of focus in your yoga practice, choose a standing pose (such as warrior pose) that is challenging but accessible to you. Enter the pose with commitment, but without ambition. Hold the pose as long as you can, without losing the integrity of the pose’s alignment or sacrificing the quality of your breath. End the pose when you feel too uncomfortable or tired to continue, or when you feel a sense of satisfaction and completion. Carry this focus and integrity to every action in your life.
Surrender Your Timeline
Change happens in increments, sometimes large and sometimes achingly small. When we want change to happen instantly, we often give up. Yoga develops the patience to allow change to unfold at its own pace. With time, yoga shows us that small acts, performed consistently, can create profound change over time.
To develop this patience in your yoga practice, enter a pose that directly confronts, and slowly unravels, tension in your body. Choose a pose that challenges your flexibility, but that you can comfortably hold. Relax in the pose and wait. Breathe deeply. Commit to holding the pose for five minutes, or as long as the pose remains comfortable. Notice how the body’s tension unravels slowly, but surely. Practice the same pose daily. As your body adapts to your consistent patience in the pose, your starting point in the pose will change as well. Develop the patience to move towards change slowly and purposefully.
A Practice for Life
Yoga practice is just that – practice for everyday life. Apply these qualities of openness, awareness, focus, and patience to any change that you would like to see in your life. While we cannot control all of life’s many changes, we can act intentionally to shape our lives and experiences. You don’t need an iron will to stick to your New Year’s resolutions – a simple yoga practice is strong enough to guide you, and flexible enough to receive whatever life brings.