Happy New Year!
‘Tis the season for new year’s resolutions… yoga classes are packed, the gym is bumpin’, and people are swearing off sugar and refined flour across the nation. While all this inspiration for self-care and growth is great, if you’ve ever made a plan to change a habit, you know how hard it can be to stick with it.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear about my opinion of new year’s resolutions–I approach them with caution. Here’s why: when I was a teenager and young adult, I would make grand resolutions way more often than once a year (sometimes every day). At the center of every resolution was the desperate desire to be a more worthy me, which always meant losing weight. And what ended up hurting more than the severe restriction of calories was the belief that I had to be something else than what I am to be worthy of love and affection. This kind of resolution does more harm than good. Therefore, the guidance I am about to offer on how to implement healthy changes, is rooted in a deep reverence for our innate, already present wholeness.
While I don’t make new year’s resolutions anymore, I am working on changing something in my life right now. I’ve experienced insomnia for the last two years. After unsuccessfully trying lots of different dietary shifts, nutritional supplements and herbs, yoga postures, breathing, and mindfulness tools to calm my nervous system, I’ve just embarked on Cognitive Behavioral Sleep Restriction Therapy. I’m only a week in, but it’s working! To sleep like a baby for four hours in a row is like magic in my world. And even though I’m feeling and seeing the benefits, the process of sleep restriction is pretty tough. Just last night I had to put forth a LOT of effort to stay up until my scheduled bedtime. Truthfully, my husband, Mike, had to put forth some effort on my behalf as well. Have you ever kept a tired puppy awake during the early evening so they would sleep through the night? It was kind of like that. Just because a change is tough doesn’t mean it’s not helpful, but to ensure that I’m implementing changes in a nurturing and productive manner, I like to look at what is motivating the change.
WHAT FUELS YOUR MOTIVATION?
One really important consideration in the practice of healthy growth and change is how we motivate ourselves to take action. Unfortunately, what many of us learn growing up–especially if we participated in sports or dance–is the technique of motivating ourselves through shame. This isn’t true for all coaches or dance teachers (my dance teacher was a refuge of love and genuine support), but it is true that the practice of criticizing the athlete is a common approach to get them to work harder. Whether we had these experiences growing up, in school, or the workplace, or we’ve just been around it and seen it, this act of fueling motivation from shame becomes ingrained in our psyche. It can be so habituated that we might not even know we’re doing it.
Thankfully, there’s another place we can draw strength from to take action: love. Love for ourselves, and love for others. While the action taken might look the same on the outside regardless of motivation, the effect is absolutely not the same. When we’re motivating from shame, we get exhausted. This is because when there’s shame, the body is experiencing stress, causing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to flood your system. I won’t detail all the ways in which stress creates hardship within the body because there’s plenty of research and writing on that topic. But suffice it to say, the effects of stress are not good. And while we can’t control the external stressors in our lives, like traffic jams and work deadlines, we can be intentional with how we relate to ourselves, and our experiences, so that we don’t add to the stress we’re experiencing. We can do this through nourishing self-discipline.
NOURISHING SELF-DISCIPLINE / TAPAS
Tapas is one of the personal ethics (niyamas) of yoga and it’s considered the most important practice of the yogi/yogini, because without dedication to that which we’re cultivating, we won’t succeed. Whatever we’re growing–whether it be compassion, generosity, the ability to concentrate, a garden, a family, or a business–it all requires commitment. If I weren’t committed to watering my raspberries and tomatoes, they wouldn’t grow. It’s the same for our personal evolution.
When we use the word “discipline,” there’s often the implication of some external force that is imposing structure, harshness, and rigidity on our lives. There’s also a correctional association with discipline. However, this isn’t the way that yoga views self-discipline. Yoga looks at self-discipline as a nurturing action to promote wellness. Tapas comes from the place inside of us that wants to learn and grow; it’s an expression of self-love and a commitment to the path of yoga.
As we practice tapas, the body and the mind become more regulated and balanced, which is necessary when we begin looking inward for self-study (svadhyaya). If our body systems are dis-regulated in any way, investigating our inner terrain (our habitual thinking, behaviors, and emotions) isn’t going to work so well. Have you ever been really anxious or upset and tried to engage in self-reflection? Good luck! When the body or the mind is out of whack in some way, we’re not able to see ourselves clearly. Everything is muddy and confusing. However, when our biology begins to come into balance, we’re able to see where to focus our practice and what’s holding us back. Being kind with ourselves and putting forth the energy needed to thrive in our lives, is the root of positive change.
That all sounds great… and how do we practice tapas, specifically? Tapas is an attitude, more so than a specific practice. The attitude of tapas is one that rises above unskillful habits and the inner critic. I employ the practice of tapas through making sure my blood sugar is balanced, I’m hydrated and I get some outside time. I practice tapas when I wake up in the morning and motivate myself to get out of bed and onto my meditation cushion even when I’m tired. I’m practicing tapas right now as I write this by committing to a certain number of hours of work before I go play in the snow. Nourishing self-discipline requires some restraint at times. I’m delaying my snow play gratification, because I am dedicated to my work as a yoga therapist.
So rather than making a plan to lose weight or never eat sugar again, how might it feel to resolve to be kinder to yourself? To be an ally to your own self rather than an enemy? How might it feel to motivate from a place of love rather than criticism and shame?
With a full heart,