Why we fail to be consistent in our personal pursuits and 3 essential elements for a turnaround.
How many times have you decided to start prioritising your health only to slip back into old patterns? If you are anything like me, then inconsistency weighs on your mind. It is a really yucky, debilitating feeling to wake up one day with a firm resolve to change a habit and then fail to follow through after a few weeks or days. Why is being consistent so hard? And what does it do to our sense of self when we fail to follow through your deepest resolve?
The good news is that your struggle with consistency does not mean that you lack discipline, motivation or willpower. It has nothing to do it laziness. Nor are you less devoted than a regular practitioner. Our understanding of neurobiology from the past decade shows that there are many outside factors which influence our ability to demonstrate discipline.
The path to turnaround? To learn how consistency actually works and use this understanding to manipulate the behavioural pattern for our own benefit. Staying consistent boils down to habits and by learning how habits function you make transformation possible and real.
As Charles Duhigg on his book Habits eloquently puts:
“We know that change can happen. Alcoholics can stop drinking. Smokers can quit puffing. Perennial losers can become champions…
.. Every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable”
I highly recommend reading Habits (if you haven’t already) as its rich with stories of personal and organizational triumphs in addition to laying out the brain science behind habits. But those who’d like a Skimm, read on!
From hereon, I talk about consistency in relation to your yoga practice but it can be applied to any other pursuit.
1. Don't make your yoga practice a daily decision.
The most common mistake I see people making is to decide when and where to fit their yoga practice every single day. What we want to do instead is to eliminate decision-making from the equation and ritualize the workout. This approach is based on brain science: When we are deciding, we are using the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Prefrontal cortex is the most resource heavy part of the brain as it facilitates all our executive functions. Besides helping us decide, our prefrontal cortex enables us to exercise self-control, problem solve, plan, act with long term goals in mind ,etc. So if you treat your yoga practice as a decision that needs to be made daily, then you are essentially relying on your willpower every single day.
The uncontested scientific research about Willpower is that it is a finite energy resource; an energy that is used towards our self control. People who engage in a task that requires a lot of will power deplete their energy for the next task.
Every day, we use energy to resist desires - should I eat this chocolate or not? Should I work an extra hour or not? Should I go do my boring yet important errands or not? As the day goes, our willpower fades and temptations become stronger, setting us up to simply give in. We watch mindless Netflix instead of working out, we scroll through social media instead of reading the book we just bought and in the process we let ourself down.
So what we want to do is make less use of our willpower, be less dependant on our resource-heavy prefrontal cortex and instead use Basal Ganglia - a very old part of the brain - to gain consistency with our long-term goals. Basal ganglia is that part of the brain that coordinates movement and activity without conscious thought. And our brain is motivated to use this region of the brain as it saves tons of energy. When we ritualize our yoga practice - doing it on same days, same time, same location, starting and ending the practice with the same set of activity, we start to use the Basal Ganglia part of the brain, which creates less resistance and more consistency. Overtime the neural pathways of our Basal Ganglia region gets deepened and it gets easier to get back to the practice (say after a holiday break or a gap due to moving countries). Stepping on our mat ceases to become a labored, conscious thought.
2. How to Create A Highly Consistent Yoga Practice?
There is no rulebook that guarantees transformation - what works for me may not work for you. But there are essential components of habit formation that needs to be understood and practiced for any real change to occur.
The three components of habits formation are:
Every small to big action that we take on a habitual basis has all three components but we usually tend to focus on the Action. In reality, what creates and makes a habit stick is the reward component. If the reward is not immediate and satisfactory, then sticking to a new habit becomes hard.
In a typical asana class, we end the practice with Savasana which is the dead corpse pose. This state of deep relaxation can be a reward in itself. If Savasana is not rewarding enough to help you stay consistent, then I recommend experimenting with a reward that actually works. While it's important to investigate why you want to be a yoga practitioner (I've written about 'Know Your Why' in my previous blog) , it's equally important to recognize that your brain cannot associate long term benefits with a specific behaviour. Eventually, we want to use less of our resource-heavy prefrontal cortex that is involved in logical thinking and let the deeper, older and quick part of our brain i.e. Basal Ganglia do the work.
Once you have figured out a suitable reward, the next step is to look at triggers or the cue that guide you to your desired action such as your yoga practice. According to Charles Duhigg, there are three types of triggers - time, location, an emotion, a preceding action or certain people. You can use any one of these triggers or all.
As for me, I often fall asleep while listening to a soothing, yoga-centric podcast or hear a business podcast while walking in the day. I love podcasts for the wealth of knowledge they provide and the act of going to bed or taking a mid-day walk sets me up to switch it on. When it comes to yoga, I have a cup of coffee and light an incense stick before I start my morning practice and these days my reward is a 10-15 minutes meditation practice. Previously, I would eat a small piece of dark chocolate as a reward.
While this framework of cue-action-reward can guide us to make effective and long-lasting habits, it is certainly not comprehensive or prescriptive. Each person's habits are driven by different cravings and some habits are for more complex and deep-rooted than others. Some harmful habits carry huge emotional triggers and irresistable rewards, making it nearly impossible to change while others don't want the change bad enough. In short, it takes a genuine desire, time and effort, mind-set work, experimenting with one's' cues and rewards to replace an unserving behaviour pattern with a brand new one (which brings me to another point - habits cannot be eliminated by replaced)
But the neurological evidence is clear: every counterproductive behavioural pattern and unserving habitual self-talk can be reshaped and replaced with an uplifting one. Habits are malleable no matter how deep-rooted or complex they are.
What yoga philosophy says about discipline or 'tapas'
The practice of self-discipline is called tapas and it is one of the 5 Niyamas or Personal Observances that form the foundation of yoga. The word Tapas is derived from the Sanskrit word 'tap' which mean to 'burn' - an inner flame that keeps up on our tracks no matter the difficulty until we reach our goal. As per the yoga philosophy, (Chapter 2, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra) the flame of tapas keeps us focused on the goals, burning away physically, emotional and spiritual impurities that we often encounter on our path.
Tapas is the inner fire which gets us on our mat even when we don't feel like it. Eating healthy. having enough water in the day, calling it a night so you can sleep early and wake up early, drinking appropriately, exercising regularly, speaking right are all simple, basic things really but require daily tapas.
When we practice Tāpas over a long period of time, we learn to open us to possibilities both on and off the mat. An arm balance or a headstand that previously seemed impossible becomes well within our reach. For some, tapas is ignited through learning how to still the mind in meditation while for others it is pushing through hard and challenging asanas. The starting point of tapas is when we feel stuck or resistant and are prone to fall into habitual patterns. The result of activity fueled by tapa is inner peace, courage and contentment.
But tapas/ inner fire/ or self-discipline is not an internal state. It is not something that you either have or you don't. Tapas is a quality that can be cultivated by learning how habits are replaced so we can manipulate our behavioral patterns to our advantage.
Staying consistent in yoga and all my other endeavours is a lifelong practice for it reminds me to not hold myself to an unattainable standard or see the world through a critical lens. Living my value of Consistency allows me to be more fully human, celebrate my imperfections and get rid of shame each time I derail...
3. Self-Belief is essential to change
Our mind is fascinating in the way it rationalises our bad habit. Ask a struggling yoga student who genuinely wants to prioritise her health as to why she cannot commit to her practice and you'll hear the words - busy, tired, lazy, demotivated, overwhelmed. It could be that she is relying solely on her willpower to get to the task or sometimes it is a lack of self-belief that causes inconsistency.
Often it's hard to realize that our lack of self-belief is coming in the way. I've written about this my as The Biggest Mindset Shift to Prioritising Fitness in my previous blog. If you can identify that deep down you don't believe that change is actually possible, you are going to self sabotage. We all have mindset blocks, unchecked blind spots that limit us from clearly seeing what is possible in our lives.
Also, belief is strengthened in the community of people who show you what's possible and provide accountability to help stick to the change.
Belief is essential and it grows out of a communal experience even if the community is as large as two people. Practicing yoga in a studio, with a private teacher or a friend is not just about creating accountability but it dramatically increases our chances of staying committed to the cause. To prioritise our health and gain the level of fitness we want, first we need to believe that change is possible, second, we need to do the work with the help of an individual or a group to sustain the change and third, we need to make a habit out of it.
I deeply believe that each of us have the power to change patterns that are unserving and create new possibilities. For many people like me - yoga is the catalyst. The courage, determination and self-compassion that one gets to display on the mat comes to the fore when faced with challenges outside the mat. The work is not easy but it's worth the time.
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