At the studio I run in Vancouver, we used to participate in 30-day challenges where you can sign up to complete 30 yoga classes in 30 days. The studio would be jammed with people, many of whom had never been to the studio before, and by the end, if they didn’t complete the challenge, they would walk away dejected, never to return again. If they did complete the challenge, they walked away satisfied and exhausted (and sometimes injured), never to return again. We stopped doing 30-day challenges.
The intention of these challenges was to install a new habit of doing yoga regularly. So why did it backfire?
Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, describes how philosophers from many ages and cultures have identified a split in the self: there’s the self that reasons and makes decisions, and there’s the other self that responds unconsciously to desire, pleasure, and habit. Haidt describes this split like this:
"The image I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him."
The more scientists study the workings of the brain and its conscious and automatic processes, the more it becomes clear that habit is one of the most powerful forces in your life. Going on a diet, quitting smoking, and even your negative thoughts are all in large part related to what patterns have been created in your brain over time. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” postulated Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb.
In yoga, this idea has long been understood, and given the name “samskaras.” Samskaras are the habits and patterns that are deeply embedded in our experience. If we take the same path to the river every day, the path gets worn down and easier to walk along each time, until it appears to be the only way to go. As Haidt explains, having an initial insight—seeing a different path down the river—doesn’t mean that you can simply choose to walk that way now and forever. It takes time to wear down the grass in the new path and let the old path grow over. We don’t try to eradicate our samskaras, rather, we work to develop new ones that we chose mindfully.
We live in a culture of quick fixes. We want to lose weight, so we do a juice cleanse for two weeks. We want to exercise more, so we do a 30-day yoga challenge. We take on the things we want to change with gusto, beating our elephant into submission with our willpower just long enough to completely exhaust our rider, at which point the elephant gleefully returns to whatever habit it was in before the quick fix took over.
The truth about changing your life is that it’s absolutely possible, but it’s slow, it’s unglamorous, and it’s all about habit. So get your elephant on your side. Coax her by making it really easy for her to follow you down the new path. Make small reasonable changes to your routine over time rather than dramatic and short-lived ones. Be nice to your elephant—she is the key to changing your habits, and thus, your life.