[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle [/mk_blockquote]
Fifteen years ago, I was grumpy. I woke up one morning to the realization that I didn’t want to be a person who lost her temper as often as I did. For some miraculous reason, my epiphany centered on my own behavior rather than on the cause of it. I knew without a doubt that I didn’t want to feel bothered by my children because I cherished them. I certainly didn’t want to feel irritated by my husband whom I loved. It was clear to me that I wasn’t dealing with rotten kids or a bad marriage. What I was dealing with was a habit. Each time I raised my voice, used a sarcastic tone or stormed out of a room, I was further deepening a habit I wanted to break.
Luckily for me, I had just discovered yoga and was learning a great deal about habits. I was learning as much about making new habits as I was about breaking old ones. It wasn’t long before, I stumbled across the notion that creating a new habit was a very effective way to break an old one.
Let me explain. I remember my teacher pointing out that I was swinging my leg out to the side when I stepped forward into a lunge (something I had to do ten times in every class during the sun salutations). Initially, I would get very frustrated ten times during the sun salutations because I could feel myself swinging my leg but couldn’t figure out how to change it. I watched my classmates. I asked my teacher. I pulled my yoga books off the shelf. I realized that the movement I was trying to create required two things. First, I needed to gain more range of motion in my hip. Second, core strength played a larger role in stepping into a lunge than I’d ever imagined.
I set to work on building core strength and developing more flexibility in my hip. I added some postures and exercises that I did every day at home. More importantly, I began to tweak the way I was stepping forward into my lunge, shifting my focus from my hip to scooping my belly and moving from my core. Because I was learning something new, I was better able to ease up on myself when I messed up. I simply returned to Down Dog and tried again. Over time, I needed “do-overs” less frequently. Eventually, with lots and lots of repetition, the new habit became established and the old one faded away.
In a yoga practice (at least one like mine), this happens over and over again. You realize you’re doing something wrong and for a little while it really bothers you. You beat yourself up because you can’t stop doing it incorrectly – you can’t break your habit. But, you learn pretty quickly on your yoga mat that beating yourself up isn’t all that helpful. It just steals the peace and joy from your practice. What does help is asking questions, reading and experimenting. This study helps you understand the new skill that you want to create. So you practice – you practice an awful lot. You work so intensely on creating this new habit that you almost forget you’re also working on breaking an old one. And, one day, you realize you’re not working anymore. You’ve figured it out. In this small area of life, at least, excellence is now a habit.
Thankfully, I knew I could trust this kind of approach when I realized I wanted to change my behavior off my mat. Repeatedly catching myself losing my temper or acting grumpy was only making me grumpier. So I looked for a new habit to create that would eventually replace my old one. I settled on two. The first was easier. It had already become a habit on my yoga mat. In situations where I noticed myself feeling irritated I decided to breathe (one long, deep, slow breath) before I spoke. This often (not always) defused any sharp or snarky words that were on the tip of my tongue.
The second took some more practice. First thing in the morning, I spent some time reflecting on how profoundly lucky I was to have my family. I wrote in my journal about my childhood dreams of being a wife and a mother. I prayed prayers of thanks for my husband and my children. In the beginning, this felt stilted and artificial. But the more I wrote and the more I prayed, the more I realized the truth of my gratitude. The more I practiced, the more my feelings of thankfulness filled me and there just seemed to be less room for irritability.
Note, I said “less room,” not “no room.” Because I did still get irritated. I did still have grumpy days. (I still do.) But these slip ups no longer felt like the death knell of the woman I wanted to be. They just felt like slip ups. Sometimes, I would apologize to whoever I’d snapped at. Sometimes, I would apologize to myself. Sometimes, I’d even catch myself mid-stream, take a deep breath, and change what was coming out of my mouth. Whatever the case, I found I was happy to give myself another “do-over” along the way toward creating a new habit and breaking an old.
As there came a time when I could easily and without thought step forward into a lunge, in time (a really long time, actually), I woke up one morning and realized I was no longer grumpy. In fact, I couldn’t really remember why I’d been so grumpy in the first place. I was no longer writing in my journal about my family and couldn’t recall deciding to stop. I was praying for my husband and kids, but not with the same fevered desperation. They were simply part of my prayers each morning.
Once again, with some practice, a new habit had replaced an old. Unlike a silly trick or movement on a yoga mat, this one comes a lot closer to the “excellence” to which (I suspect) Aristotle was referring.