Habits can be both useful and unhelpful. If you think about it, what we are could be described as the sum of our habits. The ancient yogis noticed our propensity to get stuck in ruts and actually had a name for this cyclical behaviour: they called our habit patterns samskaras (which is where the English word “scar” got its origin). The good news is that we can cultivate new habits using the tools that our yoga and meditation practices help us to hone. We can weed out the bad ones and replace them with new ones that are going to make us happier and healthier.
Yoga is all about identifying our habits. Obviously we have movement habits, which show up as areas of tightness or restriction in our bodies. We also have habitual ways of taking in information, thinking, rationalizing, dealing with feelings, and behaving.
Scientists who study habits have discovered that when we practice a skill routinely and regularly, it essentially becomes sub-conscious. Our habitual patterns are gradually “wired” into deeper, older brain structures (basal ganglia) where programs can run without us having to pay attention to them. This energy-saving brain function means we don’t have to check the map every day before driving to the office. Once we have the route memorized we don’t have to use up critical decision-making energy. The first time I drove a car the experience was exhausting for me and nerve-racking for my instructor. Now I can arrive at my destination, listen to the radio and plan a class in my mind all at the same time. Habits are efficient and operate in a fairly simple loop: cue—routine—reward.
When it comes to breaking habits or developing new ones, you would think that the process should be easy—identify the cue, change the routine, and substitute a better reward. But if it were easy, the diet industry wouldn’t be worth bezillions of dollars and nobody would smoke. We’re just not that simple.
Yoga psychology locates the cue at the sensory level. I have a feeling, I either like it or dislike it, and then the brain kicks in with suggestions about how to react and how to rationalize my reaction. For example, I feel anxious; I don’t like feeling anxious, so my brain suggests going to check my email. I rationalize that choice by telling myself a story about missing out on something important. The distraction sidetracks my anxiety, until I actually read my email, and then decide to go make tea to combat the anxiety caused by my email. This loop can repeat itself all day, because the cue that’s causing the problem isn’t getting addressed by any of my responses, and the reward is part of the problem.
In his excellent book on habits, Charles Duhigg suggests some practical questions to ask yourself when you are trying to diagnose what is triggering a habit. They are:
- Where are you?
- What is your emotional state?
- Who else is around?
- What action preceded the urge?
To do the work of answering these questions, you will need to take a few moments to be still and calm. Mindfulness practice is the ideal way to produce the space and focused attention that you will need for habit-breaking self-study. Once you have solved the riddle of the cue, or trigger, you can substitute a different behaviour and figure out a better reward. This process can take a long time, so don’t be hard on yourself. If your plan A isn’t working, you may have to go back to the problem-solving stage and try again.
Let me know if this information resonates for you in the comments section. I’m always intrigued by how other people are working with their bad habits, and/or how well they are succeeding at implementing new ones.
Happy habit farming,