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For most of my life, I would have argued vehemently against the saying “Rules are made to be broken.”  As a child, this meant that it was somehow OK for my next door neighbor to break the rules and beat me at checkers. In high school it felt like validation of the girl who cheated her way through all the “smart kid” classes and “stole” an acceptance at an Ivy League college from my incredibly brilliant and driven friend. My best friend in college tried to teach me that following the rules (in mini-golf at least) made me less fun than I could be, but I firmly ignored her and swiped control of the score card back from her.

To this day, I believe that it was by following the rules that I achieved academic success. When my teachers gave assignments, I did them – and, because I was serious about following instructions (and somewhat bright), I did them well. Following the rules also helped me as a young professional as I struggled to navigate an unfamiliar and somewhat byzantine corporate world. At the time, it seemed to me that following the rules ensured that my first pregnancy was a healthy one. Even as I headed into the first months of motherhood, following the rules was still working for me. I lived and breathed by instructions in a book that guaranteed your baby would sleep through the night within weeks – and my baby did just that.

But my second pregnancy taught me that, even if you eat all the good foods and drink none of the bad drinks and do all the right things, sometimes there are problems. And my third baby taught me that even if you follow all the rules in the baby book, sometimes babies don’t sleep through the night for almost two years. (Which led to the soul-shaking realization that perhaps my rule-following had nothing to do with my first two super-star-sleeper babies.)

Interestingly, it was falling in love with ashtanga yoga (arguably yoga’s most rule-laden branch) that has given me the most comfort and sense of freedom to break the rules. In ashtanga yoga, you are traditionally not invited to begin a more “advanced” posture until you’ve mastered the previous ones. Yet two of my teachers and I agree that had I not broken the rules and started to work in the opening postures of the “intermediate” series, my body would never have opened up to find success in many of the “primary” series postures.

In classic ashtanga yoga classrooms, there is no music playing so that students can better hear the sound of the breath. Yet I have found, on days when I am deeply disturbed or upset, that playing music while I practice gives me another anchor for my wandering mind. So I sometimes (not often, but sometimes) break the rules and play music. (And not just “yoga music.” I particularly love practicing to play lists of all kinds of music that my students and kids have made for me.)

Ashtanga prescribes a six-day-per-week practice. Mostly, I follow this rule. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the best thing in the world for me is to *not* unroll my mat. The decision to skip my practice is almost always filled with a surprising degree of angst. Perhaps it is because I don’t take this choice lightly that I can honestly say that I have never regretted honoring my need or desire for an extra rest day. In fact, breaking the rules and taking an extra day off often leaves me reinvigorated and yearning to return to my mat the following day.

I guess you could say that I was a bit of a late bloomer in understanding that “rules are made to be broken.” But years of respecting rules – of working to understand each of the systems in which I found myself, of seeing the benefits of following rules, of taking the time to witness the safety and security that can follow when a community is based on a mutually agreed upon code – also made me slow to break them. Therefore when I do break them, it is typically a well-considered, mindful choice rather than a heedless attempt to get ahead or a simple act of rebellion.

And, I think this is actually what the saying is trying to convey – that you need to understand the rules (and well at that) in order to know when and how to break them. If that is the case, for me at least, the saying could be improved by adding the word “sometimes.”

“Rules are made to be broken sometimes.” Or “Sometimes rules are made to be broken.”

Have you given yourself the freedom to break the rules sometimes?