While you may have smelled hot chocolate a million times, that smell might just trigger one specific childhood memory. For me there is one winter day: coming inside from playing in the snow, shivering, my mom wearing that welcoming smile, the chocolate smell filling my senses as I quickly peel off my wet clothes, and run to the kitchen for that cup of childhood heaven, warming my body and spirit. Deliciousness floods my senses. There’s the sweet warm taste, but most importantly, the thoughtful caring it implies, knowing I am loved just the way I want to be loved.
Of the hundreds of times I’ve smelled hot chocolate, that essence is what comes up for me. Not that specific memory, but that quality of YUM!.
Conversely—if the smell of asparagus reminds you of coming home in a terrible mood after a fight with your best friend, eating it under protest with a scowl on your face, then being sent to your room for spitting it straight out, you would be left with a negative memory of that smell that could prevent you from ever even trying its bright clean succulence, and perhaps even subtly souring your experience of meals where asparagus was served, untasted, on your plate.
Aroma’s ability to trigger memories is well known in our culture, and it may be lesser known that our sensory-memory connection works with all the senses.
My mind has literally every single second of my life’s worth of armpit information to draw on, but that one time I was tickled until I couldn’t breathe stands out. That event left me resistant to people touching my armpits, even incidentally. That “never again” life-or-death memory lives on as if it were yesterday—and that’s just a tickle.
In the realm of raw physical danger, imagine yourself tumbling down the stairs, striking a vertebrae on the edge of a step. Your body’s amazing automatic self-preservation system automatically kicks in to grip that entire area, just in case! If your back is broken, that stiffness can protect you from spinal cord damage and paralysis. Even if you are OK, the gripping can linger for years and years. Further, if that fall down the stairs happens clumsily in front of people, that area of your back might also store deep embarrassment, psychosomatically joined to a story of you being dangerously uncoordinated. If you were accidentally pushed by a loved one, it could store a complicated mix of love, resentment, and mistrust. The possibilities are endless, but the result tends to be a reluctance to move that part of your back ever again. Luckily, there are many vertebrae, and you can get around pretty well without allowing flexibility in that one joint.
It’s hard to say whether tension in moments like that are useful at all in helping prevent injury. In many circumstances going limp and allowing the impact to be distributed throughout your system can reduce the chance of injury, which is why the passed-out drunk passenger can fare better in the same accident than the panic stricken passenger next to him. Either way, once the risk of physical injury has passed, we are technically free to begin moving that joint again. The hard part is telling that to your subconscious. When people re-live stories like this, without even noticing, they tend to brace the very part of the body most associated with the horror, sometimes issuing an incongruent laugh for their audience.
More subtly – when we cringe in embarrassment or shame, the emotional layer of embarrasment tends to distract us from the physical clenching happening in our bodies. This distraction drives the association into our subconscious, where we associate the memory of that shame with the specific areas of our bodies that tightened. Shame is a social mechanism to help us remember not to repeat an experience: “You pushed your little brother over?!?! He’s much smaller than you! You should be ashamed of yourself!” Cringe. Never again. Never again do I want to have an experience that feels as bad as this – risking the safety of my brother and the love of my family.
Mortified (shame is almost like death), we decide consciously never to repeat that action, and subconsciously never to put ourselves in any experience that reminds us of feeling that bad. The subconscious aspect is the tricky part here. When ashamed, we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we don’t notice the way we are cringing. This physical cringe gets mapped to the emotion of shame. Later on, In our avoidance of re-creating shameful experiences, we also tend to avoid feeling the parts of our body we associate with shame. Our self-preservation mechanism will slam on the brakes when we seem to be putting ourselves in danger, not necessarily distinguishing between a real physical threat, or simply exploring a posture mapped to the “mortifying” experience.
Try it – take a moment and remember a horrifying incident you survived, and notice where you cringe. Notice that the cringing was not consciously chosen, and can be consciously released. The way we brace ourselves to get through stress becomes the way we hold on to stress.
Regardless of whether the bracing was useful in the first place, chances are if you’re able to sit down and read this far into an article, you’re currently out of immediate danger, and unless you’re haging from a cliff or something, you can probably relax at least a little bit.
Fortunately, our lives contain more than just that one experience, and our bodies more than one joint. As we go through life, our subconscious is continually mapping parts of our bodies to both lovely and horrible experiences.
Most injuries contain a subconscious layer of regret, embarrassment, mistrust, or shame. This layer itself becomes a “never-again” experience. Not only do we not want to repeat that particular shameful experience, but we don’t want to experience any shame, or any reminders of that shame, and again we brace ourselves against that experience. The more reluctant we are to re-live our experiences, the fewer the options we have left in our joints to move our bodies. We are subconsciously steering clear of our past, while wondering why we feel stiff!
So we have this yoga practice. On the surface, it’s a great way to become more strong and flexible. Yoga’s ancient roots are as a spiritual practice, created to clear karma/samskara—the unresolved actions from our past. The hatha (physical) practices are to clear our physical cringing. The key to flexibility is to be willing to feel the parts of your body you’ve subconsciously patterned your every movement around. The way you do just about anything: climbing out of bed, putting on your shirt or pants, anything, all the complicated movements you can do without thinking are patterned to function without touching on physical or emotional pain, so you can complete the task efficiently and move on with your life. They key to liberation is to be willing to invite our minds back into the joints we’ve locked ourselves out of, and resolve the fear and avoidance of the memory.
For example: back pain. You go into a shape that requires you to move the joint in question: a backbend for instance. Go in far enough that you can feel the tension, but not so far that you risk damage. Double check your structural safety. Then actually feel the sensation. Get to know it. Savor it like a fine wine. Learn from it. Discover how long it’s been there, what incident initiated the tension, whether there was physical damage. Breathe deeply. Breathe so deeply that even if there were permanent damage to the joint, at least the space around it would feel more open. Let yourself feel. Sometimes in our past we stifled scream or cry or laugh. Let that out too. Keep feeling until either you know you should seek professional help, or until the tension dissolves in the light of your awareness, leaving you spacious and happy.
Repeat at a pace that works for you: weeks, months, years – until you’ve cleared every joint that can be cleared. Then look at your body, and notice how beautiful it has become, not because you were seeking beauty, but as a wonderful side effect of wanting to know yourself and liberate yourself from the clutches of the past.
Practice yoga to reclaim your body from a past that no longer exists. Practice yoga to liberate your subconscious fear of your past. Practice yoga so you can actually enjoy this amazing gift of a body that you were born into.
If you want to live from your heart
you’ve got to live in your heart
Living in your heart requires a willingness to face everything contained there,
including the hurt.
Yes, your willingness to face your hurt,
old and new,
is a prerequisite to living in love.
Any fear of feeling your hurt will have you taking too wide a berth,
missing your heart altogether.
Like a rock in your shoe,
it’s not wise to limp for too long,
relying on your other leg.
Like a rock in your heart,
it’s not wise to limp for too long,
relying on your mind, your ego.
Go ahead and feel the hurt,
let it guide you back to your heart.
Stop for a second,
Take off the protective layer,
look for the hurt,
When you find it,
ask it what it needs,
What it wants for you
and let it go if you are done with it.
Keep it as a worry stone
to rub when you need a friend.
The important part is to reconnect with your heart.
To live from your heart.
To cease avoiding it for fear of further pain.
The real pain is living
in avoidance of your heart.
“Thank you for helping me break my addiction,” he said, with a grateful look in his eyes. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“You sent an email to our list with the steps to healing an unhealthy habit. They made the difference. Thank you.”
I felt that familiar glow that happens when I realized I’ve helped someone. I can’t tell you how great that made me feel. I simply shared a process I created for a coaching client, and he took it and ran with it, and it changed his life. Here it is. If you need it, take it and run.
Humans are creatures of habit. We thrive with routine, and our habits make up who we are. A habit is simply a pattern of behavior that becomes unconscious with frequent repetition. Many people can get through huge portions of their day without making any new decisions: what to eat for breakfast, which pocket to put our keys, which way to go to work, etc, etc, etc.
Operating out of habit is what allows us to function at a higher level.
For instance, our ability to walk without having to think about which part of our foot to place on the ground first allows us to take a walk with a friend and have a conversation. However, as a yoga teacher, I work with a lot of people who have bad backs because of the way they walk. We don’t *have* to think about the way we walk, but if it’s causing us trouble, we need to change.
The key to changing a habit is to bring what is unconscious into consciousness.
The following seven-step process can be used for any habit: distraction, bad posture (I corrected mine as I typed that), overeating, substance use, spousal abuse, giving up… you know yours. For the purpose of simplicity and illustration, I’m using the example of cigarette smoking. The important thing when using this process is to acknowledge which step you are on and move towards the next one. As you’ll see, the progression is to catch ourselves earlier and earlier in the process.
From unconscious to intentional: How to heal an unhealthy habit:
1. Notice that there is a problem (“I’m short of breath”)
To begin, we need to notice and honor the existence of a problem. We can function in spite of the gradual onset negative symptoms for great lengths of time. The smoker might think their reduced breathing capacity is simply what they should expect at their age, and at this stage it’s simply acknowledging that not everyone has that issue, and it might be behavioral.
2. Notice that there is a habit creating that problem (“My smoking is affecting my lungs”)
Once we’ve acknowledged the problem, we look backwards towards what behaviors are causing it. Lung pain from smoking may be obvious, but neck pain could be from so many things, we have to discover which habit is causing the problem.
3. Notice that you’ve just acted in the habitual way (“I’ve just smoked a cigarette and I can feel the effects”)
Here we are acknowledging the issue after the fact. Many people get caught in a shame spiral here, but don’t. Simply honor that you’re already at step 3 and getting closer to the solution.
At this stage we want to begin to disengage from identifying with the habit. That is, the subconscious mind twists “I am a smoker” into “if I stop smoking I am not myself,” and will react to losing the habit almost the same way it would to losing a limb. Let the sensible part of you remember that not only will you still exist if you don’t perpetuate your habit, but you will live a better life.
4. Notice that you’re in the middle of the habit (“Hey, there’s a cigarette in my mouth, I should quit soon”)
I’ve heard this so many times from smokers. “Man, I should quit smoking… [puts cigarette back in mouth, deep inhale, laughs it off]”
This is a very important stage in your habit breaking, your awareness has come alive and you have caught yourself in the act.
When a behavior goes unconscious into compulsive habit-land, it usually drags the enjoyability of it into unconsciousness as well. All habits begin seeming like an enjoyable good idea from some perspective. So we’re doing something we used to enjoy without noticing whether we’re enjoying it anymore.
So until you’re ready to give it up, take this moment to actually enjoy it. The unconsciousness of the habit makes the benefit unconscious, too.
At this stage it is important to get a sense of two things: The desire you are trying to meet from your habit (relaxation, looking cool, sense of feeling high) and the cost of your habit (coughing, decreased breathing capacity, risk of lung cancer).
The risk at this stage is feeling powerless to help yourself. When you catch yourself but don’t stop yourself it can be demoralizing. Remember that you are choosing to enjoy and explore what is happening, and you will feel more at choice and more ready for the next stage. Consider this progress.
5. De-rail the habit mid pattern (Pull the cigarette out of your mouth and put it out)
My moment of awakening around this: I was on a sugar fast for a bit, found myself at a potluck and there was a bowl of chocolate covered almonds. I was standing there talking to someone next to the bowl, reached over, grabbed a small handful, and dropped a couple in my mouth. I realized I was in the middle of a habit, so I spit the chocolate out. Sacrilege, I know, but that was when I got it.
This is the turning point. You’ve let it go on long enough and have made the choice to move forward.
Sometimes you’ll put out several cigarettes before you’re through. That’s okay.
6. Notice you’re at the beginning of the cycle (“I’ve got a cigarette in my mouth and I’m about to light it”)
So there’s this moment, you’re engaged in the conscious shifting of a pattern to something healthier for you, you are somewhat in the grips of the pattern and at a powerful decision point. Do you launch into the habit? Can you at least pause here to consider what need you expect to meet by engaging in the habit, before you launch it again? And once identified, is the habit really the best way to meet that need?
Just now, writing this, the Facebook notification sound came on. Like Pavlolv’s dog I wanted to switch windows and check it. Pausing to thinking about it, the need was “feeling loved”. That Facebook ping let me know someone I care about said something that would remind me of our connection. I realized that I am loved even without checking, and was able to get back to writing. Besides, writing this might generate even more good feelings and more connections…
When you get better at noticing this “about to begin” stage, it is a very powerful place to stop, put the cigarette back, or maybe hand off the pack to someone in prison that can trade it for toothpaste.
7. Notice that the cycle is about to start (“I’m about to reach for my cigarettes”)
We’ve been raising our awareness, catching ourselves earlier and earlier in the process. At this stage we have caught ourselves before we’ve even begun. This is a huge victory.
Since by now you’ve identified the needs, we can find better, healthier ways to meet those needs. Smokers sometimes talk about wanting a break, to take a deep breath. One smoker called it a friend for two minutes. Some smoke for the oral fixation. Ronald Reagan famously chose jelly beans over cigarettes, which can be helpful for the negative effects of smoking, but is really replacing one bad habit for another. In that case it addresses the oral fixation, but probably not the underlying need that had him reach for something to put in his mouth.
Instead you could take a break and breathe clean air, let clean air be your best friend for two minutes. I even created a prana-cigarette, which some of my smoker friends have used to help them quit. It’s basically a bamboo straw that you can use to feed the oral fixation, while learning how to enjoy a pollution-free breathing break.
Once you regularly make the better choice here, you will realize you have broken the habit. Congratulations!
All along the way, whether it’s the day you move forward to the next step, or just hang out in the current step for one more day, celebrate yourself just for noticing where you are. Awareness is the prerequisite for progress and should be celebrated. Raising our awareness is the real yoga. It allows us to act more intentionally, interrupt unhelpful patterns, and create the empowering actions that help us fully enjoy our lives.
Please share freely and let me know how this has worked for you or your loved ones. If you need help, I’m here for support.
Today I am writing about New Years Resolutions, and how yoga practice supports the growth you want…
There is a tradition here about setting New Years resolutions, and a trend of people not even bothering because: who keeps them anyhow? People have made enough broken promises to themselves, why make one more?
Because we know there is an opportunity for growth for us, and to affect that change it’s going to take some dedication and determination. As humans we are creatures of habit, and most everything we do is habitual. Our morning routine, the way we tie our shoes how, many times we chew before we swallow, how often we check email or facebook, whether we walk on the inside or outside of our feet… the list goes on forever.
The habits we have create our reality. The habits we have point our lives in a direction that determines an almost certain future. If looking at that future feels good to you, then fantastic! On your jolly way. If looking at that future has some room for improvement, it’s time for a course correction, and the thing about course corrections is: the sooner you make one, the smaller the change you need to get to your desired destination.
To grow in the way we want to grow, we can create a habit that points us in that direction.
MAKING IT WORK
So you have a vision for a positive future, a habit pattern from the past, and here you are, always in the ever changing present, with a choice between going to the past or the future.
Put your attention on the now. The present is where you can make decisions. Leaving your decisions in the past is habit. Making decisions in the future is procrastination.
Making decisions in the present is power. Sieze your power.
FACING THE HURDLES:
Following through on these changes takes determination, like running hurdles. In the hurdle races there is an end goal, and a number of obstacles. Missing a hurdle hurts and will slow you down, but does not disqualify you, nor do you lose style points. The worst thing you can do is look back at the missed hurdle and regret missing it. That almost guarantees you’ll smash right into the next one. Look forward for the next one and do your best to clear it, keep running, looking forward. The natural consequences of missing the last hurdle was penalty enough.
This is the subtler habit to shift to enable the bigger changes.
INTEGRITY: RECOMMIT, RENEGOTIATE, AND/OR CONSEQUENCES
The problem people face with these changes is when they miss one commitment they tailspin out. They feel they’ve broken their integrity and don’t want to proceed out of integrity.
There are three basic ways to restore integrity:
Normally the natural consequences of missing a commitment are enough, but sometimes adding a consequence that one can complete quickly – as running out of time for the commitment is often the cause, and we don’t want the excuse for the integrity commitment. Something like a cold shower, a donation to a cause, or publicly confessing on facebook can serve. This works because the commitment was to either complete the task OR do the commitment. If either is done we are in integrity
Okay, so we’ve missed something. Do we still want to do it the same way? “90 minutes of yoga six days a week? Yes! I still want that! I feel the consequence of missing that and I recommit to that moving forward.”
Sometimes we realize we’ve overcommitted and need to renegotiate. “I was overzealous. I think what would actually serve me is 15 minutes 3 days a week and 90 minute practices 2 days a week. I can keep that one for a week and see how it goes”
Yoga is the practice of getting present. In the hatha form that I teach and practice, we move into our bodies, which are always and only ever in the present. We face the places where we habitually store tensions, and instead of taking that as a permanent reality, we make choices around how to deal with them.
Patanjali (author of the yoga sutras ~0AD) said one of the forms of ignorance is misidentifying the temporary as permanent. You were not born with your habits, you will not die with your habits, they are temporary visitors. Acknowledge them as such, and let them go if they do not serve you.
To leverage yoga to help your life, make use of “Sankalpa” (intention setting). Take a moment at the beginning of each practice to get quiet and remember the changes you are looking to make. Get a sense of the kind of person who would make that changes. Allow yourself to be more like that person.
When in the flow of your practice, you’ll want to add in some warrior poses, and set a timer for 2 or more minutes – increasing over time – noticing when you want to leave the pose, but staying in your commitment unless you feel like there would be tissue damage. Feel the power as your strength sustains you well beyond what you thought you’d be comfortable doing, guiding you towards the fullness of your capacity, and reminding you of the quality of persistence you have that you can achieve what you set out to do.
If you need support in changing your life and habits, talk to me, that’s how I help.
I’m giving away five free consultations to people who haven’t tried a private yoga session with me, where we’ll create a customized practice to embody the change you are cultivating, NOW. You will feel like the person who will stay focused on their growth… every day.
For those who are not in the first five, my new client special of $70 has been reduced to $60 for the month of January.
Please email me at email@example.com to claim your spot!
The steps to take to shift a habit