Make Your Practice a Habit
Feb 01, 2021
I’ve seen a lot of yoga students come and go over the years. This can be for a variety of reasons—schedules change, people have babies, jobs relocate. But the truth is, most often, people just don’t want to stick with the practice or the practice doesn’t stick to them. A lot of people want to have a yoga practice, but don’t really want to do what it takes when it comes down to it. This isn’t a judgment—part of what’s so beneficial about a yoga practice is also what can make it so difficult to begin with: it’s a habit you have to build. Over the years, one of the biggest commonalities I’ve noticed in the people who stick with it is that they make the practice a habit.
I think most people who are successful in any long-term discipline, by whatever metric you view success, will tell you that good habits are key to making it work. Once a practice is a habit, it stops being something you need to think about. You wake up, you brush your teeth, you practice yoga. Boom. Done.
That said, the challenge is in getting there. Turning a practice into a habit is a difficult thing. A practice is something you make time for; a habit is something that you view as an integral part of your day. Habits are things you don’t need to make time for because they’ve become ingrained in how you view your time. But it’s a process to get there, and showing up can really be the hardest part. Our thoughts can play tricks on us when we’re trying to wire new habits into our lives—our minds have all sorts of sneaky ways of preventing us from practicing, because the mind knows that building a new habit can gradually create radical change in our thought patterns.
If you want to turn your practice into a habit, you have to build it into your routine. You have to bring good tendencies into the foreground and force bad ones into the background. But once you create new patterns, practice will become as automatic as any other habit.
I was thinking of my own practice recently, and I began to wonder: How can I help students develop positive routines to make practice a habit? How can I help people show up? Here are a few of my ideas:
- Clearly define the benefits you associate with the practice. Any reason that gets you on the mat is a good one. Strong shoulders? Calm mind? Better sleep? Less back pain? The pursuit of enlightenment? Write yours down.
- Choose a cue and a reward. Do you get on your mat right after you brush your teeth? Right after your morning coffee? After your practice do you snuggle with your pet or enjoy a latte or get some TV time? Whatever it is, making your cues and rewards consistent can help both to get you on your mat and motivate your practice!
- Believe in yourself. To keep a new habit going, it’s essential to believe that change is possible. If you’ve got a community, take all the support you can get. And look back at other things you’ve made happen, remember a time when you were just starting, and look at where you are now. Everything is possible, but only if you get started and keep going.
- Find the support of a group. Whether this is a studio-based shala, a makeshift group of community buddies, FaceTime practices with fellow yogis, Zoom group classes, or finding a mentor or mentorship program (like the one I’m currently offering!), the support of a community can be so beneficial. While everyone succeeds in their own way, working with a group tends to dramatically increase the odds of sticking with something new. Surrounding yourself with people who are doing what you want to be doing makes it a lot easier to understand that you’re already doing great, even at the very start.
- Set small, achievable goals. Yoga, and especially Ashtanga, is a cumulative and incremental practice. Setting micro-goals can make it easier to find your motivation, and this can make it easier to feel like each day is a success. If you keep your daily goals light, everything else is a bonus. This might just mean ten minutes on your mat, or it might mean standing in samasthitih. The smaller the building block, the easier it is to build. What matters is that you’re doing it.
- Schedule your practice. When you’re doing something on your own, scheduling is crucial for building a habit. Without the benefit of classes on the calendar, it can be all too easy to say I’ll do it when I’ve got time, and then suddenly the entire day is behind you and you forgot (or maybe forgot again)—this makes it much too easy to let your practice fall away. Find a time, block it out on your calendar, eliminate distractions, and make it happen. Make time for your yoga until you can’t imagine not doing it.
- Get specific. Write down your goals for the week and say exactly what you’re going to do. Note what time you’ll wake up, what time you’ll start your practice, what time you’ll finish, what your reward is for when you’re done; write down exactly what you’re going to be working on when you’re on your mat. It’s essential to understand that what matters for building a habit is doing it, and turning the elements of your practice and your day into boxes to check off makes it easier to make that incremental, cumulative progress.
- Anticipate and troubleshoot your setbacks. We all have things that come up and get in the way of what we want to accomplish, despite our best intentions. Being prepared for this to happen makes it much easier to lessen the effect of these setbacks or prevent them altogether. Do you tend to sleep through your alarm? Try a different alarm, or put it somewhere that requires you to get out of bed to turn it off. Wake up stiff? Take a hot shower and go for a walk before your practice! Stressed from work? Remember how much better you feel after you practice! There are so many things that can feel like setbacks, but really they’re just invitations into other better habits. This is what’s so great about yoga as a habit—it helps you build other good habits and break old negative patterns to supplement it.
- Watch your words. The ways we talk about things are reflections of how we think about them, but this works on a loop—the ways we think about things go on to reflect the ways we talk about them. Talk about your practice in a positive light, even if you’re only talking to yourself; express your gratitude, say how happy with your progress you are. Get rid of phrases like “I’m trying to”—you’re doing it, and you’re doing great.
- When you slip, get back on track quickly. Most of these tips are designed to help with this one, but just remember that the most important thing is consistency. There is no such thing as perfect—that’s why it’s called practice! Just keep doing it. Even if you fall out of the routine, you can always get right back into it. Be patient with yourself, and be forgiving with yourself, and let each little step carry you on your path.
- Track your progress. When you’re in the process of doing something, it’s easy not to see all your progress as it’s happening. It’s much easier to stick with a habit when you’re consciously aware of the progress you’re making. I’ve got a super-helpful practice calendar that you can download here so you can plan ahead, keep track of your practice as it progresses, and see how far you’ve come!
- MAKE IT FUN!! Enough said. Have fun, find a teacher or community who helps make it fun, and enjoy every moment. This practice is a gift!
Want to learn more about building good habits? Check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Atomic Habits by James Clear.
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