Have you ever wondered why it’s difficult to change habits? How when we try to move out of our comfort zones it becomes our life’s mission to stick to the things that are familiar?
The Yogis of thousands of years ago understood the principle that “nerves that fire together, wire together.” The more we repeat a habit or behaviour, the more likely we are to go back to it. But there’s more to it than that. Our most stubborn habits are usually triggered to manage the way we feel. The more we learn to manage our stresses one way, the more we tend to do it. The feeling and the action become more and more intertwined and connected to one another until we don’t even consciously recognize what we are doing or why we are doing it. If we try to stop a habit without recognizing and shifting the underlying mechanism, we are very likely to fail. Recognize this in yourself? Then read on.
We feel comfort in familiarity. Human beings are creatures of habit and whatever we do in our day-to-day lives and whoever we do it with, leaves a substantial impact on us. The mere-exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle, is a psychological process by which we develop a preference for something simply because we have seen or experienced it before. Simply put, it makes for a strong association with familiar things, people, situations, events, and life choices.
There is no secret formula to quickly changing habits. Researchers who have studied the science of habit have concluded that habits are developed over time. Individuals and our behaviour are unique. The specifics of diagnosing and changing behaviours range from person to person and habit to habit. Giving up cigarettes is very different than curtailing overeating, which isn’t like changing the way you speak with your spouse, or how you prioritize responsibilities at work. What’s more, all individual’s habits are driven by unique cravings.
The Mechanism of Action
According to Yoga, our habits begin far before we take any external action.
- Thought: Before action there is often a thought or an idea. The thought is considered a thought because it has no physical sensation that accompanies it.
- Craving: As that thought gains momentum it moves from the head to the body. We experience a feeling-based sensation of “I want”. This craving can be triggered by an internal emotion or externally by our environment– like a party.
- Impulse/Action: The thought combined with the physical sensation of craving together create the impulse to act. At some point the intensity of the impulse moves us into action.
- Tendency: The more the action is repeated, the more it becomes a tendency. Of all the things we could do amid that internal feeling or external cue, the more we go to that one thing.
- Habit: Science has validated this movement up the ladder as we repeat a tendency. With time that tendency becomes a habitual behaviour that we engage in with increasing reflexiveness. We no longer think about what we are doing or even consider if we want to do it. We just do it. The depth of a habit is determined by how much it shapes and redirects our life out of its usual trajectory. How far out of your way are you willing to go to indulge your habit? How much does it affect your choices? Do you want to do it? Or do you need to do it? These answers will help determine how much the habit appears to have taken hold.
The Charles Duhigg Method
MIT researchers have found the simple neurological loop that sits at the center of any habit. This loop includes 3 parts:
- A cue
- A routine
- A reward
In his book, The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg identifies various steps one should follow to change a personal pattern. With conscious effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.
Step 1: Identify the Routine
For an individual to understand their own habits, it’s necessary to identify the components of the loop. The first step is to identify the routine. Once you have identified the habit loop of a particular behaviour, then you can work towards replacing that old pattern with a new pattern that meets your chosen direction.
To understand this better, let’s take an example. Suppose you have a habit of having a smoke every time you go to the washroom. This habit has not only affected your health but also your routines of going to the washroom, which now depends on certain factors like accessibility of a place where you can smoke. Your spouse hates this habit and has asked you many times to reduce the number of cigarettes per day, if it’s impossible to quit.
You tell yourself every day that you will just smoke one cigarette a day, in open air – not cooped up in your washroom. But every day you get up, light that cigarette in your washroom and hope to discontinue this habit the next day.
How do you begin diagnosing this habit after which you can begin to change it? Step one is to become aware of the habit. In this scenario – as with maximum habits – the routine is the most apparent aspect and it’s the behaviour you need to change.
But what’s the cause of this routine? Is it an addiction to smoking? Or the already increased nicotine levels? Boredom? Force of habit?
And what’s the reward? That temporary rush that you get from smoking a cigarette. Or just a moment of peace as you spend some alone time in your washroom?
To know this, you will need to be willing to experiment with step two.
Step 2: Experimenting with Rewards
The purpose of this step is to figure out what reward you are craving. Rewards curb and satisfy cravings. We don’t act for its own sake, but for the reward it gives us. More often than not, we are not aware of the reward that is driving us to act. This is something we need to bring to our awareness.
You can work with figuring out the reward you are seeking through experimentation. You can experiment with substituting different rewards and how each one works (or doesn’t work) to fulfil the craving. For example, if you’re craving a cigarette in the washroom, take a newspaper instead. Try taking a walk or stepping outside instead. By experimenting with different rewards, you can figure out what you are actually craving. If after 15 minutes of your experiment you can go back to work without needing the cigarette, you have found the reward you are really craving. Maybe it was as simple as needing a distraction, getting some fresh air, or giving yourself a treat for your hard work.
Alcohol addicts in recovery often realize they are not drinking for the intoxication. It enables them to get hold of certain rewards like relieving deep seated stresses, escaping life’s burdens, gaining freedom from social anxiety, or numbing out from unresolved trauma.
In the same way, our habits often serve the same function. They are often rewarding us by giving us relief from a particular stressor such as pressure or giving us comfort – gifting ourselves the feeling of feeling good. It is less about what we are doing and more about how it is making us feel. We all want to feel better. Our habit is a way that we have learned, through familiarity and repetition to feel better. The only problem is that we keep needing the habit to manage the way we feel. This can set the stage for dependency – be it physical or psychological.
Once we have figured out what the reward is, now we can give that reward to ourselves in a way that serves us. If we need a distraction for a few minutes, it might be enough to call a friend, or step outside for a few minutes, or read a magazine.
Step 3: Isolate the Cue
The cue is what triggers you to engage in the routine behaviour that gets you the reward you are seeking.
Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time of day, emotional state, other people, or the immediately preceding action.
It can be helpful to consider the following to identify your cue:
- Time of day
- Emotional State
- What other people are doing? Who else was around?
- What action immediately preceded the urge?
For example, the cue that triggers smoking in the washroom could be feeling tired and frustrated from office work. The cue that triggers you to eat even though you are not hungry could be the time of day and other people eating around you.
Step 4: Have a plan
After identifying your habit, the reward that is driving it, and the cue triggering it – you can begin to change the behaviour. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behaviour ahead of time that will deliver the reward you are craving. In other words, the next time you find yourself being triggered how do you plan to alternatively reward yourself? Fresh air, a walk around the block, or having a cup of tea? By planning ahead for how you will redirect your action amid the trigger, you are more likely to be able to interrupt the old habit and redirect to a new more helpful one.
Yoga Nidra Magnifies Your Inner Power
However, relying on will alone to implement your plan, even with the understanding above, can be challenging. Planting the seed of new habits in the seat of our consciousness is tremendously helpful. Our actions don’t begin outside, they begin deep inside of us. This is where we must first begin to shape our plan. Yoga Nidra or Yogic Sleep is a powerful and simple way to do this.
The practice of Yoga Nidra has the strength to reach into the innermost core of our consciousness wherein the base of our habits lies. Yoga Nidra progressively guides you into a conscious sleep where you rest in the twilight zone between waking and sleeping. At the deepest level of yoga nidra, there are no conflicting voices that tell us we have failed many times before and will only fail again. An intention can be so fully received that we can bypass the doubting mind and truly believe that we can do this. This deeply seated belief resonating at the core of our being is the key to any success we may ever hope to achieve. Doing the right things, while secretly believing we will fail again will not work. To truly make a shift we must believe we can. Not just at the level of the conscious mind, but at all levels of our being.
When in Yoga Nidra you will be prompted to feel or sense your new behaviour and action plan taking root. Notice how it feels, what you would do or say. Imprint it into your nervous system. We know that nerves that fire together, wire together. As you repeat the intention in your consciousness you are wiring yourself towards making new and conscious choices that really serve you.
You will have increased the chances that you will make a new and different choice from the one you have always made. This can be an important part of your plan – to begin the process of implementation from the inside before you even try to implement it on the outside.
You can write your intention in words that deeply resonate for you. For example, “I give my lungs fresh life-giving air.” Or “I reward myself in ways that really serve me.” Repeat your intention silently in the Yoga Nidra itself at the beginning, middle and end of your session. You can also use it in life. When you see the trigger coming, call on your intention – the image, phrase, or word- as a handle to help you engage your new plan. Repeat it to yourself and use it at the moment when you want to fall back into the old habit. Use it to interrupt and redirect. The more you engage the new plan, the more you will gain confidence and inner power. Don’t worry about the times you fail. Just keep going to the new plan when you can. Every time you succeed you are deepening the groove of that new behaviour and increasing your chances of choosing it over the old one.
How Else Does Yoga Nidra Help?
- Increases self-awareness.
How else can Yoga Nidra help? In several ways. First, once we have engaged in a behaviour multiple times, it becomes reflexive. We don’t consciously think about it or even choose it deliberately. Yoga Nidra naturally allows us to slow down this process and become more conscious of what we are doing and why we are doing it. In this space it becomes easier to first recognize what we are doing and maybe even why we are doing it. Once we can see it, we can change it.
- Strengthens Impulse Control. The cravings and impulses we experience are found to come from deep within the emotional brain. Our job is to find a way not to deny or punish the emotional brain, but to ride it as we might a wild horse and over time, learn to redirect it in the way we want it to go. A strong pre-frontal cortex is like having a capable rider who can manage a wild horse, instead of the horse taking its rider where it wants to go.
Yoga Nidra is shown to increase the thickness of the pre-frontal cortex — the area behind the forehead that is responsible for impulse control. Weaker impulse control makes it harder for us to resist our unhelpful habits. Stronger impulse control means you’ll be able to feel an urge without acting on it. Building a brain that is capable of good impulse control is key to long term success. Even if we have always had poor impulse control, we can exercise and strengthen it.
- Lasting versus Temporary Reward. If we put our attention on it, Yoga Nidra helps us sense the reward we are really seeking. A Yogi would say the ultimate reward we are all seeking is the reward of feeling whole. This is in fact the meaning of the word Yoga. All our habits may provide us a sense of temporary wholeness, but to keep feeling whole, we always need more and more. This leads us down the road towards dependency. Yoga Nidra on the other hand, is designed to give us the true and lasting wholeness we all crave. It is not a temporary solution. Rather than going to resources to temporarily feel whole, we go to the source where the lasting sense of peace, fulfilment and wholeness always resides.
Replace the old habit with a productive one that truly rewards you, like Yoga Nidra. How amazing would it be to crave for deep peace and satisfaction that no outside substance can give us?
- Change From the Core vs The Periphery.
Yoga Nidra helps rewrite your cravings at subtle levels and then reinforces them positively in the waking state through acting on your intentions. Working outwardly with our visible behaviours is certainly helpful, but Yoga Nidra supports you to do this from the core of your consciousness. When we rely on working at the periphery alone, it is like working with the visible effects of an invisible cause. If we also work at the core, we can address the underlying feelings, cravings and needs that are calling for our attention. By resolving them at the root, we have less need for our unhelpful habit.
In a nutshell,
Changing habits isn’t always easy, but this framework is a great place to start. Use a practice like Yoga Nidra or any other meditation to create a body, mind and brain that is primed for changing your patterns and you will find it is easier than you think! For more information on Yoga Nidra, you can look for guided I AM Yoga Nidra experiences on YouTube or on a handy app including this one: I AM Yoga Nidra for Apple and Android. If you’d like to understand more about the mechanism of habits and create your own intention in Yoga Nidra, take an online course.
Kamini Desai PhD is the Author of Yoga Nidra: The Art of Transformational Sleep. Over the past 30 years, Kamini, expert and author of Yoga Nidra: the Art of Transformational Sleep has created an exciting and unique body of teachings incorporating Western psychology and Eastern philosophy. Considered a leader in the fields of Yoga Nidra, Yoga Therapy, and artful living, her practical and accessible teaching style has been welcomed worldwide. Her corporate clients have included Bahamas Princess Resorts, Kellogg’s, KEDS, Sony, KPN Telecom and Mars Confectionary, as well as the Department of Defense and the Internal Revenue Service of the Netherlands. In 2012, she was awarded the title Yogeshwari (woman of yogic mastery) for her keen ability to bring ancient illumination to the genuine challenges of the human experience. Kamini has been featured on the cover of Natural Awakenings, in Dutch Cosmopolitan, Fit and Healthy magazine, and has published numerous articles in the United States and Europe.