“If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.” – Peace Pilgrim
We’ve all done it. Walked into a party thinking “I should have stayed home, this is gonna stink,” only to find the party does indeed stink. Or headed into a tennis match, 5K race or soccer game thinking “There’s no way I can win,” only to lose by a hair. Or been introduced (at last) to a new colleague who you’ve already decided is snotty, only to discover that they’re just as aloof as you expected them to be.
Are we prescient? Or have our negative thoughts created a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Personally speaking, I have ruined an awful lot of parties that my friends have really enjoyed for my (shy, sometimes reluctant to go out) self. I’ve also lost a shocking number of tennis matches that I really ought to have won because of unforced errors and a seeming inability to just close the deal. And I have been on the receiving end of the “she just looks snotty” judgment, so I know firsthand that someone who has already decided not to like me does not seem as friendly or as engaged as someone who is excited to meet me.
My guess is that, while we might sometimes be able to see “the writing on the wall,” more often than not, our negative thoughts create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Our thoughts are remarkably powerful in shaping our experience of our lives. They are so powerful that the ten principles that yoga offers us to live richer, more satisfying, more productive lives (the yamas and the niyamas) each, in part, direct our awareness to our thoughts. No study of these ten tenets (non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, non-grasping, purity, zeal, contentment, self-study and devotion to a higher power) is complete without taking a close look at the way our thoughts affect our words, actions and beliefs. Every single time I teach these concepts I am re-amazed at the power they have to change a person.
As transformative as its philosophy is, yoga goes a step farther by giving its students a safe “laboratory” within which to practice putting its life principles into action – the yoga mat. Each time we practice yoga we must come with a clear mind. We must learn how to set aside preconceived notions of how strong or flexible we are. We must put the kibosh on assumptions about what we can and can’t do. We must accept that we are always changing – sometimes growing and learning, and sometimes regressing. We must stay open to each moment and all that it holds for us.
I have had days when a posture I’ve been able to do for years has (seemingly out of the blue) disappeared. And I have had days when a posture I’ve never even dreamed I’d be able to do has shown up (just as seemingly out of the blue). It never ceases to astound me how the stiffest day in my memory can follow on the heels of the loosest. I have had days when I feel so exhausted that I have literally dragged myself to my mat dreading a sluggish, heavy practice only to be stunned to feel light and “all in” as soon as I start to move.
Even more pertinent to my point, practicing yoga offers us an hour- (or more) long opportunity to pay attention to our inner dialogue. If we mess up a posture, the critic within us will often spit out a stream of invective. If we’re asked to do something that scares us, our inner child will often start spewing a litany of excuses and reasons why “today is not the day.” If we are feeling fatigued, our inner lazy-bones can be quite sweet about offering a hundred creative reasons that make it a good idea to cut the practice short.
Each of these is an opportunity to recalibrate our thoughts. We can take a breath and focus on what went right in the messed up posture. We can take a deep breath (or two or five or ten) to settle ourselves down so we can give the scary posture our best effort. We can take a breath and mindfully center our thoughts on the benefits and gifts that we receive from our practice – even one that is a little gentler than usual because we are tired. When we are not able to refocus, we experience viscerally the power negative thoughts have to hold us back and keep us small. When we are able to refocus, we experience tangibly the power positive thoughts have to keep us open to our experiences, no matter what they are.
These experience on our yoga mats are powerful teachers. The lessons we learn (over and over again as we practice day after day) gradually become hardwired into our beings. With practice, we begin to notice when we set ourselves up to not enjoy a party, or not perform up to par in a match, or inadvertently, “preemptively” snub a new colleague, or close ourselves off to a million other things. This noticing leads to change that makes our changing bodies (and – boy! – do they change through this practice) on our mat seem trivial by comparison.
As we change, we also notice that we are appreciating and savoring much more of our lives than ever before. This is why we practice yoga.
“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” – Frank Outlaw