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Replacing Reactions with Responses Requires Practice

Reactions can be overwhelming

I love almost everything about teaching at the college level. I love the energy and enthusiasm of young adults. I love their questions, doubts and certainties. I love knowing that each class I teach sends twenty more people out into the “real world” to live their best lives and to maybe even change the world because yoga changed them.

I do not love the day I check my mailbox to find the student feedback forms from the previous semester. Every single time (Every. Single. Time.) I see that white envelope I immediately get nauseous. My mind skitters off imagining the terrible things it could contain. I take my job at the university seriously and feel that the material I am sharing with my classes is important and possibly powerful. I also care kind of a lot about each of my students. Therefore the fear of reading that I did not reach some of them feels enormous to me.

Dissecting a reaction

Let’s take a second to pull apart my reaction to try to see what’s actually happening beneath that nausea and anxiety.

  1. Facing the unknown is unsettling.
  2. Feeling unsettled (at least in this case) leads directly to catastrophizing. (i.e. They hate me! They all hate me!)
  3. Catastrophic thoughts spawn more catastrophic thoughts. (i.e. I’m probably not cut out for this job!)

A quick look at reality proves that reactions can be WAY off base

Mind you, the feedback I have received from my students over the years has been overwhelmingly positive. In other words, my reaction to these white envelopes is not based on any real-life experience at all. Yet, annually, I freak out and obsessively recall almost word-for-word (which is impressive because I’ve never been known for my ability to memorize anything) the few negative comments that have come my way. Truly, all of my catastrophizing is made up.

In other words, I’m choosing (CHOOSING!) to give a few negative comments more meaning than dozens of positive ones.

Mindfulness practices like yoga make it possible to change this human tendency

Do you do this, too? Do you, like me, fixate on the negative within a sea of positive?

I wouldn’t be surprised if you said yes. My years of teaching yoga have taught me that this is a very human habit. Nine times out of ten, when I ask students about their practices, they will tell me about a posture they messed up or could not do. Ten times out of ten, this “bad” posture was the only posture of all the ones we did that they did not get right. Yet, despite the fact that they could celebrate a mostly great practice, they are choosing to focus on the one posture that didn’t go well.

Here’s a little good news. While we humans seem to be hard-wired to focus on the negative, it is a tendency that we can change. It’s not easy to do so (see, for example, my ongoing knee-jerk reaction to my student feedback forms and my yoga students’ tendency to remember the negative but forget the positive). But it is possible.

The first chapter of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (one of yoga’s seminal texts) opens with the statement that “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Patanjali describes the workings of the mind in a way that remains mind-bogglingly accurate 2500 years after he wrote his book. His premise is that we need to learn to use our minds the way we use our limbs. Just as we choose when to use our arms rather than allowing them to flail about hitting people randomly on the sidewalk, we must learn to choose the activities of our mind.

That’s right. How I respond to my student feedback forms and the way my students remember their yoga practices are activities of the mind that we can learn to manage.

Replacing reactions with mindful responses

In my case, Patanjali is telling me I have a choice in how I respond to those white envelopes in my mailbox. Rather than freaking out and catastrophizing, I could choose to read the feedback forms as a source of affirmation. I could choose to read them as a source of ideas for ways to improve my course and my teaching. I could even choose to ignore negative comments that strike me as way off base or just unhelpful. The same goes for my yoga students. Like me, they have the choice to redirect their mind from the negative to the positive.

Patanjali is also teaching me that I cannot choose the activity of my mind unless I’ve developed awareness of my mind’s habitual activities. In other words, my awareness of my knee-jerk reaction to those white envelopes is a step in the right direction. If I hadn’t noticed my nausea and ridiculous levels of worry, I would have no motivation to change. Awareness is the first step toward change.

Change like this takes awareness, practice and patience

There is no quick fix to changing our mental patterns. I have found that it takes patience and practice, just like the work of loosening tight muscles and developing strength on a yoga mat. But each time we try to do so – whether in a new yoga posture or a new mental approach to a familiar situation – is progress. Each attempt could result in an infinitesimal baby step or a giant leap toward our goal. Never fear. Little steps and big steps both get us “there” eventually.

Pay attention today (or tomorrow or all week) to the “fluctuations” of your mind. Do you have habits or patterns that don’t support the way you’d like to live? Rather than avoiding the situations that cause these reactions, seek them out. Practice using your mind like a limb rather than like you’re at its mercy. Whether it’s a situation at work, or a challenging relationship, or a stressful doctor’s appointment, or whatever triggers you, practice choosing your response.

While it will be quite some time before I have to face another of those white envelopes (a new semester just began), I’m going to join you. Repeat after me: I can be the boss of my mind!

Have you noticed yourself changing because of your yoga practice? Are you a little more mindful in your responses to stress? Do you want more of these types of changes from your practice? If so, our Yoga Philosophy Master Class is a great place to start.